For much of the time since Swiss brothers John and Peter Delmonico opened their confectionary on William Street in 1828, expanding it two years later into an ambitious restaurant, French has been the cuisine of fine dining in New York City.
Yes, there have been exceptions to the rule that French equals high-end: in the 1890s an immigrant Gallic neighborhood flourished around Broadway and 25th Street, spawning a handful of working-class eateries such as J.B.G.’s (Jean Baptiste Guttin’s), where a six-course set meal known as a table d'hôte was available every night for the bargain price of 60 cents.
But It wasn’t until the early 20th century that French cuisine became generally available to broad segments of the population. That development was triggered by the popularization of the French bistro — a small, ma-and-pa establishment common in Paris but newly imported to New York, with a homely and predictable menu of peasant fare, often supplemented with a dish or two from North Africa, the Basque region, or the French province from which the owner’s family originated.
Our earliest bistros appeared in the 1920s and included Divan Parisien on West 45th Street (later moved to East 48th Street), where the casserole called chicken divan was invented, and Mademoiselle Giraud’s on Fulton Street, decorated with a stuffed bear and famous for its frogs' legs. While restaurants representing German, Italian, Hungarian, and Spanish fare were also becoming increasingly common, as Michael and Ariane Batterberry noted in On the Town in New York (1973), "…there was no question that the small French restaurant had captured New York’s doting attention more than any other."
By the late 40s these restaurants were concentrated in three Manhattan neighborhoods. When speedy French ocean liners like the S.S. Normandie began to dock on the Hudson River after their Transatlantic crossings, adjacent neighborhoods filled up with bistros where arriving and departing passengers could get a bite. And increasingly, patrons headed for an 8 p.m. curtain in the Theatre District found it stylish to stop by these French cafes for an early supper. At one time there were at least two dozen bistros in the West 40s and 50s, of which only a few remain.
Other neighborhoods that fostered French bistros included the East 60s near Bloomingdale’s, where the city’s oldest — Le Veau d’Or — persists. In Greenwich Village, the ancient and low-rise character of the buildings, the houses outfitted with mansard roofs and other European architectural details, and a raffish feel conferred by generations of bohemians contributed to the popularity of bistros. Hey, during the Beat Era if you gamboled around in a beret and leotard, a bistro was the place for you!
But since 1985 or so, when Italian food began to redefine much high-end and mid-range dining, bistros as well as full-blown French restaurants have been on the decline, so the city has lost at least 90% of the places it once had. That may be changing, as French food becomes newly popular at restaurants like Cherche Le Midi and Dirty French. But a handful of old-fashioned bistros remain, now a bit shabby, but still estimable for their rickety and somewhat Americanized version of Parisian cuisine. Here are a few of our favorites.
THE FIVE BEST
The oldest bistro remaining in the Theatre District and representative of the institution’s heyday is Tout Va Bien (Everything’s Going Great). Founded in 1948, it remains in the hands of the French Touchard family, and father Jean-Pierre stills greets guests at the front door, while other family members wait tables and supervise the kitchen. The place occupies the ground floor of a townhouse, with a dozen tables jumbled in a small, brick-clad, kitsch-encrusted space, featuring prints of the Eiffel tower, provincial French pennants, advertising placards, movie posters, etc. The tablecloths are red-checked, the wine list is reasonable (a decent bottle of red Bordeaux can be had for $32), and regulars fill the tables around 8 p.m., chatting amiably with the proprietors.
The standard bistro menu has been influenced over the years by American food, so that the sauce in the coq au vin might be mistaken for brown gravy, and tripes a la mode de Caen has only a whisper of Calvados. The apps, however, can be divine, including a fat garlic sausage swaddled in pastry and a French onion soup that is everything that tired standard once was: the onion broth dark, rich, and translucent, the melted gruyere thickly mantled on top and adhering fully to your spoon. Desserts retain much of the old bistro glory, especially a crème brûlée so obdurate, it takes a real blow to crack the sugar-crusted top, and so cream-intensive two are required to finish it. 311 West 51st Street, (212) 265-0190.
Located near the bustling corner of First Avenue and Houston Street, Lucien is an adolescent in bistro years but seems far older, not only for the avid, snowy-headed clientele that flood the place in the early evening, but for a rather serious dedication to French cooking and an ambiance that makes you feel like you’re in the 18th Arrondissement. It first opened in 1998 during an East Village bistro revival that saw around 10 places opening during a five-year span, of which Jules and Casimir remain, while Flea Market and Resto Leon are long defunct. The space is deep and yellowish, lined with strings of tiny white lights, and hung with innumerable paintings of France, as well as original photos in a sort of amiable clutter (one great snapshot in the bathroom shows Andy Warhol sleeping).
The duck liver mousse served in wedges and decorated with pink peppercorns is delectable and so is a doctrinaire soupe de poisson furnished with gruyere and rouille, the latter to be smeared on croutons and launched into the potage. Alas, even topped with a quail egg, the steak tartare is a bummer, tasting mainly like ketchup. The menu redeemed itself with a sprightly rendition of lapin a la moutarde — a half-bunny thickly smeared with mustard sauce — and a pudgy wedge of tarte tatin heavy with caramelized apples for dessert. As the evening progresses, the crowd gets younger and younger, with tattoos making their appearance around 9 p.m. 14 1st Avenue, (212) 260-6481.
The oldest French bistro in the city — dating to 1937 — is Le Veau D’or (The Golden Calf), just down the block from a French Huguenot church of colonial vintage. Though the townhouse premises is rather grandly faced with gleaming red granite decorated with a gilt veal head, the L-shaped interior feels every year of its age, with a red leather banquette running along its margins. Very nice watercolor landscapes of France line the walls. At lunch the place is occupied by septuagenarian theater and literary types, judging by the tenor of their hushed conversations. Being a regular counts for something here, which is why the place has infuriated newbies on the food bulletin boards. Persevere and you’ll have a wonderful meal for $30 or so, which includes three courses. Be prepared to speak French.
The onion soup here is thinner than usual, and at some point in your meal the idea is likely to strike you that the cuisine minceur of the 1970s must have had a lingering impact. If you like hearty, go for the coarse-textured pate sided with cornichons or the leeks vinaigrette. The lamb stew accompanied by potatoes au gratin was particularly enjoyable, and the tripes served in the traditional lidded metal casserole so abundant, two could share. Neither does the dessert course lag — the oeufs a la neige (aka "floating island"), pooled in rich cream, topped with slivered almonds, and zigzagged with caramel, was the high point of a recent meal. 129 E 60th Street, (212) 838-8133.
Beginning in the 60s and 70s, Greenwich Village was the site of many bistro hideaways frequented by guests from other neighborhoods or from out of town. One of the earliest was Café Loup, launched in 1977 on 13th Street just west of University Place, where Paul Simon was a regular. Early in the next decade it moved to its current location on the same street just west of 6th Avenue. Memorably, the logo is a wolf’s head represented as a shadow puppet, and the cavernous interior is lined with a spectacular collection of original photographs, many depicting jazz stars like John Coltrane and Miles Davis; another group shows Parisian bistro interiors by famous Franco-Transylvanian photographer Brassai.
Lloyd Feit has been the chef here for three decades, and regulars love his snails smothered in garlic and gruyere, and his massive cassoulet, dotted with cured and smoked pig parts in a gooey matrix of creamy white beans, with a crisp crumb crust up top. The steak frites made with an ample hanger is nothing to sneeze at, either, with a nest of nice fries and puddle of agreeable onion gravy. Desserts are particularly large and delicious, and include the usual bread pudding, lemon crepes, chocolate mousse in a soda fountain glass with powdered cocoa and a chocolate tuile, and caramelized pear in phyllo pastry. 105 West 13th Street, (212) 255-4746.
Tiny bistros hidden in the West Village used to be a thing, and you could spot one every two or three blocks at late as the 1980s. But now only one old timer is left — La Ripaille (which means, rather grandly, The Feast). Picturesquely located across the street from Abingdon Square, the restaurant might as well be in Paris, if the light is shining from a certain angle on the park. Proprietor Alain Laurent runs the restaurant with an iron hand, checking on the well-being of his customers at every juncture in their meal. Candles flicker on every table, and a fireplace crackles in winter months. Antique farm implements dot the walls.
Cocktails, aperitifs, and wines are dispensed from a small bar in front. This being the West Village, a formerly Italian neighborhood, pastas have infiltrated the menu, providing bargain entrees, but head for the French stuff instead: a rich duck confit on a gravel of cubed vegetables, or — the piece de resistance — a strip steak cooked rare inundated with a three-peppercorn sauce. Actually, the house’s best dish is rather unusual: a broccoli mousse pooled in cream sauce that might remind you of a Florentine sformato. You’ll be sopping up every last bit with the crusty bread provided. 605 Hudson Street, (212) 255-4406.
HERE ARE FIVE MORE
Bar Six — When Bar Six opened in 1993, it replaced an older bistro in the same spot, La Gauloise, notable for its handsome Belle Epoque décor, which was retained almost in its entirety. You can’t go wrong ordering the excellent burger and fries, but then you’d be missing the admirable croquet-madame, steamed artichoke, and chicken tajine – on a bistro menu that has a pleasing North African bent. 502 6th Avenue, 212-691-1363.
Bar Tabac — Owned by the same guy (Georges Forgeois) as Bistro Jules and Le Singe Vert, Bar Tabac is of about the same vintage, but yellowed as if with tobacco smoke so that it looks much older. No matter, the bistro fare is solid and the place is open late. 128 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-923-0918.
Quatorze Bis — Founded in the early 80s, this bistro started out on the edge of MePa long before the neighborhood was popular, then moved up to the Upper East Side, where it has happily existed for nearly two decades. With its beef bourguignon, frisee salad topped with an egg in a hot bacon vinaigrette, and braised duck, it remains one of the best bistros in town. 323 E 79th Street, 212-535-1414.
Le Bonne Soupe — Founded in 1973 and still under the same ownership, this quirky institution does a decent bouillabaisse (exceedingly rare for New York City), though the French onion soup is perhaps more famous at this place that makes a fetish of soups, with a décor that features Haitian art. 48 West 55th Street, 212-586-7650.
Chez Napoleon — This is one of the few remaining classic Theatre District bistros, founded in 1960, owned by the Bruno family since 1982. This is the go-to bistro for the organ-meat standards, including kidneys in mustard sauce, calf’s brains in black butter with capers, and sweetbreads meuniere. 365 West 50th Street, 212-265-6980.
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