French brasserie Les Halles — the restaurant best known for being Anthony Bourdain's former home — claimed that it closed its Park Avenue South location due to a rent hike issue, with owner Philippe Lajaunie saying they didn't renew the lease because of a 60 percent increase. "It's Manhattan's natural evolution," he initially wrote in an email to Eater. "I am amazed that we lasted so long." But according to court documents and interviews with former employees, the situation is not as simple.
The restaurant has been in eviction proceedings with the building's landlord since December, a case that ultimately resulted in the landlord's favor. Cashflow has also long been a problem — vendor and employee paychecks have been bouncing for weeks, prompting service staff to walk out during Friday night service earlier this month. "At 4 p.m. every Friday, you can stand outside Les Halles downtown and watch the staff race to TD Bank to get what little money is in the account," one former employee says. "It's a running joke." Another employee says only a handful of people would be able to get their money before the account ran out, and after she left, she never got her last paycheck.
But Lajaunie insists that none of this is unusual. Eviction court cases are "a very normal" part of the tenant-landlord negotiations, he says, and he still think it's a possibility for the restaurant to reopen at 411 Park Avenue South, where it had been for nearly 25 years. Lajaunie also confirms that paychecks have been bouncing, but he says that's happened on and off for years. "It could be two or three snowstorms in a row,' Lajaunie says. "It can be any kind of reason. It has happened, and it's unfortunate."
According to court records, Les Halles had been paying more than $43,000 in rent every month as part of a lease that ended in November. When the restaurant didn't leave the space after the lease ended, and the landlord, 2727 Realty LLC and 411-413 Park Ave. S. Management LLC, filed a petition to get it out. The restaurant had been negotiating to renew its lease for about two years, according to a filing from Lajaunie's attorney, talks that ended early in November. The landlord says it was asking for a new, $65,000-per-month rent, but Lajaunie says the ask sometimes went up to $80,000. The landlord and their attorneys did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
By the end of March, the landlord's attorneys asked to speed up the eviction process.
By February, the restaurant and the landlord reached a settlement that allowed Les Halles to stay open until the end of April for $52,000-per-month rent, plus more than $10,000 in monthly real estate taxes and water. But by the end of March, the landlord's attorneys asked to speed up the eviction process. The restaurant had failed to pay its March rent on time, and they wanted Les Halles out sooner. Lajaunie says the landlord was supposed to simply take the rent out of their more than $120,000 security deposit, but ultimately, the court ruled in the landlord's favor.
And although the negotiation and court battle went on for months, employees did not know the restaurant would be closing until the day it shut its doors. It's also not the first time the restaurant has been accused of not treating its employees properly. In 2012, more than 100 employees filed a class action lawsuit against Les Halles, saying that it had an illegal tip pool and was paying people less than minimum wage. And despite court orders for the restaurant to leave, Lajaunie says there was no reason to tell employees about the potential closure because he was never sure it was final. "Until the 31st, I could have gotten a note from the landlord to say, 'Hey, let's get together and work together,'" he says.
The FiDi location of Les Halles remains open, and Lajaunie is chipper about the restaurant's future. He even says he's planning to open another Les Halles location elsewhere. Meanwhile, some former employees are still trying to get their last paychecks and figure out what happened to owed tip money. "It got to a breaking point," one employee says. "After he withheld my last paycheck, I was like, this is too much. ...He'll do it to anybody."