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Hello High Line, Farewell La Lunchonette

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Eater critic Robert Sietsema eats a final meal at the MePa stalwart

All Photos by Robert Sietsema

The four-story cream-colored building stands alone on its 10th Avenue corner, the ground floor painted a contrasting shade of brick red. Scrawled across the side in an old-fashioned typeface is "La Lunchonette" and "Restaurant." A chalkboard menu beckons from one window, while a Virgin Mary looks down from another, at a bench just outside the gnarled wooden door, as if placed there for wayfarers. Though it may soon be replaced by a high-rise condo, at the moment the building has all the charm of a townhouse in the southwest of France, a real neighborhood landmark redolent of another place and time.

When the restaurant opened in 1987, the neighborhood was considered dangerous at night. It lay at the northern verge of the Meatpacking District, and the blocks surrounding it still had the flavor of the rough-and-tumble seaport the area had been. In fact, the premises, with its long and somewhat useless bar hugging one wall (no barstools!), might have once housed a seaman’s tavern. Now the bar is strictly used as a waiter’s station and liquor storage space. There’s a more intimate back dining room, too, long favored by dating couples, and between the two rooms there's an open kitchen surrounded by a low brick wall that no one has been able to quite explain.

Nowadays, the neighborhood is heading decidedly upscale, with hordes of tourists navigating the nearby High Line, a major museum (the Whitney), and Chelsea Market, which has gradually morphed into a food court with many upscale dining options. Where once La Lunchonette was a rare opportunity to eat well in a barren area, now it’s one among dozens of places in surrounding blocks.

Seventeen years ago, La Lunchonette hosted the first official meeting of the Organ Meat Society. It had been chosen because of its unreconstructed French bistro menu, heavy on the variety meats. That evening, we dined on poached sweetbreads in a caper vinaigrette, a coarse-textured pâté de Campagne, sautéed liver with onions (a dish the French borrowed from the northern Italians), and, most breathtakingly, veal brains in black butter, a Gallic standard rarely seen in New York City. We washed the meal down with bottles of inexpensive Côtes du Rhône .

A few evenings ago, a friend and I decided to visit La Lunchonette one last time, after reading reports that it was slated to serve its last meal on New Year's Eve. We went with a feeling of sadness and nostalgia, but also with resignation. Nothing lasts forever, especially not quirky French bistros in regions with spiraling real estate values. After all, Pastis had closed last year, a place that possessed many more culinary advantages than La Lunchonette.

[Top: cassoulet. Bottom: the artichoke and profiteroles.]

Our meal began with a pair of apps: a do-it-yourself whole artichoke ($11.50), carefully trimmed and gutted so that only the meaty outer leaves and the choke remained. A thick vinaigrette sprinkled with parsley was provided for dipping. We attacked it strategically, and it was delectable. For nostalgic purposes, we picked the sweetbreads ($12). Rather than the modern, lobulated, browned organ that became faddish a few years back, this version was poached and littered with capers in a way that didn’t disguise the texture of what we were eating — really, something akin to brains, almost repulsive in its richness. Here was a dish not modernized for contemporary tastes. I felt like I was eating something my grandfather might have relished.

For entrees, we picked the place’s celebrated cassoulet ($27), a crock with white beans jumbled around a duck leg confit, chunks of fatty pork, and thick, garlicky sausage slices. Having recently enjoyed the thicker, pastier version at Café Loup, I’d have to say this one was the more enjoyable, with a broth you could spoon up and a little less gluey. The skate ($23) in a caper vinaigrette was also boffo, sided with perfectly cooked green beans. La Lunchonette clearly runs on that vinaigrette, which powers nearly half the dishes.

Scooping up the last delicious bites of our shared dessert — profiteroles ($9) filled with vanilla ice cream and inundated with way more dark chocolate than was strictly necessary — we were paradoxically filled with hope. This was not the city’s greatest antique French bistro, nor the oldest, and its time had come. Still, we drank a final toast to a place that had had a great 28-year run. Hurry, and you might have a chance to eat one last meal there. 130 10th Ave, (212) 675-0342

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