Welcome to the Scene Report, a new column in which Eater captures the vibe of a notable New York restaurant at a specific moment in time.
There are few darker corners of downtown New York than the street Le Gratin lies on just east of City Hall Park at 5 Beekman Street, near Park Row. It opened over a year ago just off the lobby of the hulking Beekman Hotel, built in 1883, and looking every year its age, with its central atrium circled with wrought-iron balconies. The look upward is dizzying, and you’ll think you’ve hopped a time travel train to 19th-century Paris.
It’s one of many projects from Daniel Boulud — one of the city’s most respected and prolific French restaurateurs, with 12 NYC restaurants and counting — with this one an ode to his roots in Lyon, France. It occupies a space where Keith McNally’s rare restaurant failure, a brasserie and secret steakhouse called Augustine, closed not long ago, and retains much of the former tenant’s decor. Along with executive chef Guillaume Ginther, Boulud nods to the Lyonnaise bouchon, a boisterous sort of bistro where offal and gratins prevail.
The vibe: There are few lovelier or more relaxing rooms in the city at 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, and it fills up nearly every evening with a crowd that seems mainly tourists, as French is heard wafting among the other languages in the relatively quiet room. The décor is all flowers, including paintings of flowers, vases of flowers made up of ceramic tiles, and chandeliers with tulip-shaped shades that hang from the ceiling. One can hardly imagine a more subdued definition of glitz.
The food: While there have been complaints that Le Gratin isn’t enough like a bouchon, neglecting organ meats like kidneys and intestines, the connoisseur will find plenty to love of a Lyonnaise sort. The perfect order might include a lovely potato gratin; one salad featuring chicken livers, lardons, frisée, and a jiggly egg (salad Lyonnaise, $23), and another that highlights poached leeks ($18); and a massive pike quenelle lounging in a rich cream sauce. Still, the menu ranges far afield — albeit a mainly French one — to a not-bad bouillabaisse with plenty of big fat shrimp, and even a hamburger with a plank of crisp pork belly ($29) on top that half the tables around me seemed to be ordering. (Through the summer, there’s also a Boulud Sur Mer menu that’s three courses for $60 per person.)
What to drink: French wine, of course, and the all-French wine list has plenty of fizzies, whites, and reds in the $20 range.
The drawbacks: The hike to the bathroom, exiting the restaurant, through a thronged hotel lobby, down a flight of stairs, and around a couple of corners, may make you forget where you were and how to get back. The food is so rich, you might find yourself popping an antacid afterwards. The fries are not the best in town, and they should be.