The cassoulet tastes like canned franks and beans with a slab of undercooked bacon on top. The coq au vin is cornstarchy and garnished with cocktail onions, and the house red is unpleasantly sweet. But Le Veau d’Or is working its strange, campy magic on me anyway.
The low-ceilinged dining room seems to be populated with refugees from a Christopher Guest movie and a French retirement home. At one of the red-leather banquettes, a table of tipsy fiftysomethings loudly discusses the respective merits of border collies, Mary-Kate Olsen, and oeufs à la neige. At another table, a very old woman asks her companion, “What, exactly, is a blog?” and the single waiter in his faded tux shuffles sleepily around the room, refilling wine glasses. Owner Robert Tréboux—at 83, still dapper and harmlessly lascivious—sits alone with a bottle of wine and a plate of plain spaghetti, kissing the hand of any woman who will let him.
Le Veau d’Or has lived through the rise and fall of classic French restaurants in midtown. It opened in 1934, when Hell’s Kitchen had a large French-immigrant population and restaurants to match. It was an insular world in which everyone knew everyone, and staffs were swapped from place to place and occasionally opened their own restaurants.
Now nearly all of those eateries are gone, lost to high rents and the public’s taste for nouvelle cuisine, but an eccentric (and stubborn) few remain, serving dishes like calf brains in black butter to a dedicated cast of regulars. Like Le Veau d’Or, they usually sport décor so old and kitschy it’s almost cool again—oil paintings of calves tucked into bed, murals of Napoleon in Egypt. Depending on the spot, the food can be skillfully cooked or barely edible, bistro fare or fine dining. But they’ve all stuck around long enough to become charming oddities in this city that sheds its skin so often.
Tout Va Bien is the kind of place where a girl can sit alone at the bar, have a big plate of calf’s liver, and feel perfectly at home. One cold night, I do exactly that. The liver is tender and mineral, smothered in silken caramelized onions; butter pools at the bottom of the plate. If the mashed potatoes are lukewarm and leaden, the people-watching makes up for it.
Originally a French-sailor hangout, Tout Va Bien opened in 1949 only blocks away from the Hudson docks, where transatlantic luxury liners came in. Janine West, who is “over 21,” has been a regular since she came to New York from Paris in 1968. A black-and-white photo of her with Maurice Chevalier hangs on one wall. On the subject of sailors, Janine tells me that during Fleet Week this year, she kissed two cadets: “It’s good luck,” she says, with the air of one who knows.
Janine waves to Michael Touchard, a rangy, fair-haired young man wearing a nylon athletic jacket, who is wolfing down veal scaloppine at his post behind the bar. Michael is the third-generation owner. “I knew Michael before he was born,” Janine says. “When he was swimming!”
Michael grew up in the restaurant, and it shows in the way he moves fluidly to pour a generous glass of Dewar’s, answer the phone, and shoot the breeze all at the same time. He’s a natural host: wry, sarcastic, and chatty, switching smoothly between New Jersey–ese and French. Speaking of his great-aunt and great-uncle, who opened the restaurant, he says: “That whole generation, everyone knew each other. It was the French connection, the French mafia. It was mainly four or five families running all the restaurants.”
Michael hasn’t changed the menu or much of the décor. Once, he put candles on the tables and got complaints for years. What would happen if he altered the menu? He raises his eyebrows: “Revolution!”
Luckily, the Touchard family owns the building, so they can do as they please without risking either rising rents or revolution. Whenever they need a new chef, Michael’s father, Jean-Pierre, simply goes on vacation to France and finds one.
This “French connection” was born at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where a cook named Henri Soulé ran a restaurant in the French Pavilion. The next year, he opened Le Pavillion on East 55th, hiring fellow French immigrants. Soon, midtown was hopping with traditional French spots, many of them opened by Le Pavillion alums.
In 1964, Craig Claiborne published a restaurant family tree in the Times, showing that at least a dozen restaurants had staff that came from Le Pavillion. The list included Le Veau d’Or and La Grenouille, both of which are still in business, along with a long list of other places that once populated the neighborhood. In 1966, Claiborne wrote that Soulé was “The Michelangelo, the Mozart and the Leonardo of the French Restaurant in America.”
Jacques Ponsolle was a captain at Le Pavillion until 1963, when he and his wife Marie opened Pergola des Artistes. Walk through Times Square almost any day of the week and you’ll see Marie: She’s the zaftig woman in a sequined baseball cap handing out fliers for the restaurant, a job invented by Jacques to get his formidable wife out of his hair. She did it when Times Square was full of prostitutes, and she does it now that it’s full of chain restaurants. “She’s tough as nails,” her son Jean-Christian says.
As skyscrapers go up on the block, buy-out offers come pouring in, but the Ponsolles haven’t budged. “We’ve been here for 45 years,” Jean-Christian says. “The reason we’ve been able to stay open is because we own the building.”
A few blocks away, at Chez Napoléon, they aren’t so lucky. The Bruno family took over the 48-year-old restaurant in 1982, and their lease is up in two years. The tiny restaurant is like a theme-park invention, all green scalloped woodwork and faded murals of Napoleon. “La Marseillaise” occasionally interrupts Edith Piaf on the sound system.
Marguerite Bruno has spent her whole life cooking in restaurants, first in France and now at Chez Napoléon. At 86, she still works through the weekend dinner rush. The results are solidly delicious: rillettes with big, slow-cooked shreds of duck, a robust pâté du maison enlivened with orange zest, and a wild-boar stew scented with juniper. For dessert there’s cherries jubilee, expertly torched tableside by a waitress who has been nonchalantly flambéing for longer than I’ve been alive. The sugary, straightforward pleasure of half-melted vanilla ice cream spiked with hot brandy and cherries makes you wonder why no one serves this stuff anymore.
One night, I go back to Le Veau d’Or to chat with Robert Tréboux, or “Monsieur Robert,” as he’s called. “Don’t be nervous,” he tells me. “I won’t make a pass at you. In the old days, yes! When I was 50! But I’m 83 years old, so I can’t take you to bed.”
Before buying Le Veau d’Or in 1985, M. Robert got his start as a waiter on the French liner La Liberté and then came to work at Le Pavillion under Henri Soulé. He perches at the bar in his blue suit and crushed-velvet vest, looking exactly like Mayor Koch’s eccentric French cousin, and his mind wanders through the decades he’s spent in the restaurant business.
“What is that place in America that is across the Hudson?” he asks me.
“New Jersey?” I venture.
“Yes, yes, New Jersey,” he says. And he tells me a story about a restaurateur he knew who used to drive to New Jersey to pick up men, to the chagrin of his wife. He remembers how midtown used to be the place to be, where all the best people came to the best restaurants.
But M. Robert isn’t sentimental—just content to be set in his ways. “I’m not going to change the whole damned thing because someone who comes here once a year thinks I should. This place is completely different,” he says. “It has a certain character.”