New York loves its French restaurants. Classic fine dining haunts and easygoing bistros have long been a mainstay in the city, but the genre is seeing new life as another wave of French restaurants slide into Manhattan.
In the spring, French Japanese spot L’Abeille landed in Tribeca. Then came Le Gratin in the Beekman Hotel from French legend Daniel Boulud. Cookware icon Francis Staub revitalized landmark brasserie Les Halles, formerly run by Anthony Bourdain. Restaurateur Jon Neidich has opened two French bars in the space of three months: Le Dive and Deux Chats. Weeks ago, a breezy French spot with tableside service named Maison Close arrived in Soho. The newcomers join historic veterans in the city that run the gamut from casual hangout Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side to fancy splurge spots like Benoit and La Grenouille.
French food has a history of selling well in NYC, restaurateurs say. While it’s safe, it can also be snoozy, and some see an opportunity in reinterpreting French fine dining for people who want to dress up and go out, but would rather skip the white tablecloths and very expensive tabs. The experience is also more likely to be rigorously examined; expectations of French restaurants may be higher. Just recently, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells skewered Boulud for not going (regional) French enough at his newest restaurant focused on Lyonnaise cuisine, Le Gratin.
The current pandemic-era portrait of French restaurants is a departure from places like Stephen Starr’s Le Coucou and is decidedly more downscale – more about the drinks and conviviality, in more casual spaces with a few elements of fine dining, like tableside service or the option of a tasting menu. When L’Abeille owner Rahul Saito and his team were first ironing out the plans for the restaurant in early 2021 — when dining was limited to 25 percent capacity and vaccinations were just starting to become available — they knew their starting point was a pretty sure bet: There was always going to be a draw for French food in New York. Then, it boiled down to specifics. Do they pull out the white tablecloths and aim for fine dining? Draw back the curtains and go for a bistro?
The team guessed that customers would fall somewhere in the middle: “‘I don’t want to go sort of hardcore French, but I still want to have some well-executed dishes and have a great time,’” says L’Abeille’s Saito. “And I think that’s the balance that we’re trying to strike.”
The Tribeca restaurant is still a destination dinner — there’s an eight-course tasting menu for $185, or an a la carte lineup with $38 foie gras torchon and $45 truffle-topped risotto — but the tables are bare, jackets and ties are not required, and neighborhood walk-ins are encouraged.
“You don’t need to go through all of the fuss to have nice fine dining food,” Saito says. “You can also have it in a much more casual atmosphere. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Others have a similar idea. Maison Close, the French spot in Soho that opened at the end of July, cherry-picks a few elements of fine dining, including an emphasis on service and a few dishes prepared tableside in an upbeat dining room. Maison Close business partner Cole Bernard says they are trying to transplant some of the dining-out energy that they witnessed in Miami when New Yorkers decamped for Florida during the pandemic. “We saw that it was something that New Yorkers were looking for,” Bernard says.
Boulud, the French chef and restaurateur whose stable of NYC restaurants includes cafes, bakeries, and the two-Michelin-starred fine dining spot Daniel, shows how differentiation of French food has always existed — and has always held an appeal in New York.
“People need the high and low in life all the time,” Boulud says. “They want to indulge, they want to also relax, and they want to also get to places that are much more simple in a way.”
While this may be the case on the customer’s end, it’s also about restaurant costs. Owners across the city are less inclined to take risks in a time when the supply chain is compromised and food prices are skyrocketing, and that may also be reinforcing a push towards more accessible French restaurants without bells and whistles.
“We’re trying to be more approachable, but everyone has got a slightly different take on it,” Saito says. “I think that that’s what makes it interesting, and I think that’s what makes it survivable for everyone as well.”