Welcome to this week’s installment of Ask the Critics. Rob wrote in to ask:
Where can I get an old-fashioned French meal without it costing me an arm and a leg? Preferably in Manhattan, but I’m willing to travel.
There are a handful of places in midtown — mainly in Hell’s Kitchen, once a French neighborhood — that serve unreconstructed French classics like coq au vin, calf brains in black butter, cassoulet, kidneys in mustard sauce, and oeufs à la neige. They’re ancient, atmospheric, and definitely worth visiting.
The history of French restaurants in New York began in earnest 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 Pavillon on East 55th, hiring fellow French immigrants. Soon, midtown was hopping with traditional French spots, many of them opened by Le Pavillon 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 Pavillon. 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.
La Grenouille costs too much to be a good answer to your question, and while I love Le Veau d’Or, I don’t think the food is great. (Still, it’s worth a visit just to chat with owner Robert Tréboux.)
At the first, which opened in 1960, 80-year-old “grand-mére” Marguerite Bruno is still in the kitchen on weekends, and her influence shows in the resolutely old-fashioned, hearty French fare. Entrées are served out of silver chafing dishes by career waitstaff and the decor tends toward ornate woodwork and eccentric murals of Napoleon. The braised wild boar stew in red wine sauce is fantastic, as is the cherries jubilee, flambéed tableside. Mains hover around $20.
Originally a French-sailor hangout, Tout Va Bien opened in 1949 only blocks away from the Hudson docks, where transatlantic luxury liners came in. It’s more casual than Chez Napoleon, a bistro rather than a fine-dining establishment, although it does use white tablecloths. Calf’s liver is smothered in silken caramelized onions, drinkable house wine comes in generous carafes, and paté is coarse and hearty. If you go by yourself and sit at the bar, you are guaranteed to make friends. Mains average $17.
I enjoy Tout Va Bien more, for its eccentric cast of French-speaking regulars, and the fact that it is both lively and antique, a relic from another world that is still very much alive. But the cooking at Chez Napoleon — at least the last time I was there — is stellar, and the family’s lease is up this year. (The family that owns Tout Va Bien owns the building.) Better go while you still can.