In the closing decades of the last century, diners flocked to Greenwich Village to get a taste of French bistro fare. All told, there were around two dozen of these places, where visitors regaled themselves with outsize platters of steak frites, sloshing bowls of moules marinieres, cool slabs of pate served with cornichons, and croque monsieurs so gooey they had to be eaten with a knife and fork. Then one-by-one, the bistros disappeared, as Tuscan osterias, Irish gastropubs, fancified Mexican taquerias, and pricey sushi parlors replaced them.
But a few remain. Bar Six has been a fixture of Sixth Avenue and 13th Street since 1994, when it was founded by Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni, who met in Morocco and married. The restaurant assumed the space that had previously been La Gauloise, another French bistro. Named after a cigarette endemic to Gallic cinema of the time, it had been founded in 1978 with Tzolis already a co-owner. During a 16-year life span, it eventually ascended to two stars in the New York Times, and I remember one critic or other describing the yellow walls as looking like they’d been stained by decades of cigarette smoke.
Bar Six retained much of the old decor, and the walls in the dining room in the rear have only become yellower. The fixtures throughout feature well-worn wood; plush red banquettes line the walls; and wine and food suggestions are stenciled on the mirrors. A barroom in front opens to the street, and that’s the best place to sit on warm summer evenings, admiring the Village’s passing parade, and nibbling some of the menu’s more traditional cooling dishes.
A steamed artichoke ($15) the size of a prizefighter’s fist comes with a fluffy aioli, along with a handful of cornichons, cocktail onions, and olives. You know the drill: pull out a leaf and remove the bottom morsel of soft flesh by scraping with your teeth, then eventually dissect the choke. This is a skill every Greenwich Village bistro-goer used to cultivate. The oyster service is exactly what you’d expect, a half-dozen briny East Coast beauties ($18) shucked and laid on a bed of ice, with a choice of three sauces. Be a New Yorker and use the cocktail sauce; be a Parisian and pour on the mignonette; or be a real oyster lover and use a squeeze of lemon, or nothing at all.
It’s really too hot for the French onion soup, so go instead for the trio of Provencale-North African dips, the most shareable of the appetizers. Pitas fanned out like playing cards lie alongside a creamy hummus, an earthy white bean puree, and moutabelle, which is like a spicier baba ganoush. Yes, all taste only slightly different, but this is a dish that revels in its subtlety. Skip the Moroccan meatballs, which are disappointing in that they come awash in tomato sauce like their Italian counterparts, and the expected jolt of cumin is missing.
Between apps and mains are a whole range of dishes that could serve as one-dish meals. The best of these is a marvelous merguez sandwich ($18). A pair of grilled lamb sausages, bigger than usual, come cradled in a pita with fried onions and peppers, treating the Moroccan link like an Italian street-fair sausage, and all the better for it. The bistro format has always permitted borrowings from other Mediterranean countries, showing its Parisian sophistication.
The one-plate meals also include a better-than-average BLT and a tuna sandwich plain enough that it might remind you of the late, lamented Eisenberg’s, if it weren’t for the tarragon, an herb rarely found anywhere but in French restaurants. But if the one-plate salads and sandwiches at Bar Six represent full meals, then entrees are often full meals for two, and you could do well ordering a few starters and only one entree per pair of diners.
Intentionally plain is the way I’d describe a half roast chicken that comes mired in mashed potatoes, with a salty savor that even penetrates the breast, which a friend found dry on one occasion. But this same chicken takes flight in a tajine ($28), which represents the purest of the North African influences on a menu that seems to wish it were a Moroccan restaurant. The dish comes in a ceramic tajine, in a spicy red sauce loaded with chickpeas, raisins, sweet potatoes, and almonds — a bumpy culinary terrain with a slightly sweet and nutty taste. It comes accompanied by couscous, but the pro move is to ask that French fries be substituted. Dipped in the surfeit of sauce, they are sublime.
This being a bistro, the French fries, whether enjoyed with ketchup, mustard, or aioli (and I won’t judge you whichever you pick), are central to the culinary program at Bar Six, or indeed any bistro. In a giant heap, they accompany a burger that is still good, though it has declined somewhat over the years. But the very best way to enjoy them may be to come mid-afternoon when Bar Six is empty, and order just the fries ($8). Sit in the sunlit rear corner of the dining room, where a prominent skylight casts a golden glow, and enjoy them, grabbing several at a time. Have a glass of wine from the short, well-chosen, often inexpensive list — this is a French bistro, after all, and not a wine bar, and not being challenged by the wines is a relief sometimes.