By Julie Earle-Levine
Food and Drink, Apr, 2004
The closing of the Lutèce restaurant in mid-town Manhattan in February, after 41 years, leaves only a handful of great, classic French restaurants in New York. Three of the best and most luxurious - Le Perigord, La Grenouille and La Caravelle - are worried there may also be a time when they, too, will sauté their last foie gras.
For Georges Briguet, who celebrated Le Perigord's 40th anniversary on April 1, Lutèce's departure and the closing of the renowned French eatery La Côte Basque last month signify a march towards the end of fine dining.
Those restaurants reigned supreme among old-money and upper class clientele, and along with other fine French restaurants had been credited with teaching Americans how to appreciate fine food and wine.
Why is it that once cherished restaurants fade into oblivion, while other decidedly old-school places like Le Perigord - the oldest French restaurant in New York continuously owned and operated by a single family - persevere?
Le Perigord, which is close to the United Nations' offices and is a favourite haunt of ambassadors, has survived for almost the same time as the ill-fated Lutèce, and the 45-year-old La Côte Basque. Briguet, one of the very last of a dying breed of proprietor-hosts, has greeted guests every night for the past 40 years, seducing diners from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (they canoodled in the corner) to Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell (their first date). He said Taylor and Burton dined at his restaurant a month after it opened, and he has been busy ever since.
Briguet believes the trend is not about the economy. Nor is it an anti-French backlash after Iraq. Briguet lays the blame on the casualisation of fine dining in New York. "The whole city is turning into a bistro," he explained over a dinner of sautéed foie gras, followed by stuffed zucchini blossom with truffle emulsion, venison in a red wine sauce with berries and purée of parsnip, and a chocolate soufflé.
"It is French Asian and Cuban. French, French whatever! This fusion, tutti frutti! In France, restaurants like Le Perigord have been there for 200 years. The chef in the kitchen serves French food like they should."
Jean-Jacques Rachou, the owner of La Côte Basque, suggested when closing his restaurant that his old-money clientele either had died off, or had moved out of the city. In their place were younger patrons with thinner wallets, who did not appreciate having to wear a jacket and tie to dinner.
Briguet, whose restaurant is in one of the richest neighbourhoods in the city, throws his hands in the air. "Young Americans are raised on hamburgers, and have no idea of real French food." Though he then recalls that Britney Spears is one youthful American who has. So has Henry Kissinger - who always takes table 35 - and a list of other high-profile patrons, many of whom live close by at the gilded River House residence at 435 East 52nd Street.
But will they continue to come? There is also the issue of intense competition in New York, where new high-end restaurants with celebrity chefs and $150 a person tasting menus open each week.
"We are the last of the Mohicans. Why? Because people like value. Even the very wealthy." Le Perigord has a $42 lunch, and $60 prix fixe dinner.
Briguet, who is Swiss, is hopeful the worst period for French restaurants in New York has passed. Last year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, business slumped and he fired employees for the first time. "Customers were ringing me to ask how I prepare weasel," said Briguet, referring to the now-infamous New York Post headline that grouped France and other war-opponents into an "Axis of Weasel".
He hopes that children raised by parents who appreciate real French food, and who want to be elegant and chic when they dine, will be patrons.
Charles Masson, the owner of La Grenouille, heralded as one of New York's finest restaurants for haute French cuisine, is taking action to ensure his restaurant stays alive.
"We are dangerously on the verge of becoming a one night restaurant, for special occasions only." Masson, whose father, Charles Masson Snr started the restaurant in a two-storey townhouse on East 52nd St in 1962, believes classic French restaurants will survive only if they adapt and change.
Later this month, La Grenouille will close for renovations, and re-open on April 6, with French windows to show off the restaurant's famous blooms.
There will also be a menu for those who don't really have time "to do" lunch, offering artichaut farci, little neck corsini, a salade aux endives for $14.50 - less than the restaurants' $45 lunch and $85 prix fixe dinner menu. Masson believes La Grenouille's insistence on using only organic, fresh foods sets the restaurant apart. The menu changes seasonally, even daily, as do the flowers and indeed the whole restaurant.
"I tell the whole staff that what we did 20 years ago, or today, is irrelevant to whether we will be here. It is almost like we are opening the restaurant every day for the first time, starting at 6.30am, scrubbing the tiles in the kitchen, starting soup with fresh stocks, pastries for afternoon and evening, the cleaning of the dining room and polishing of the silver."
La Grenouille also has a private room, which was the studio of the French artist Bernard Lamotte and Antoine de St Exupéry, author of the children's book The Little Prince.
Unlike Briguet, Masson argues that Americans have a far greater awareness now of fine dining. "When my father first opened the restaurant, he had a great challenge convincing them to have a turbot not with a cup of coffee on the side." Masson, who arranges the flowers each day as his father did, will not be introducing fusion. "Fusion leads to confusion. That is why I would stay away from it."
Rita Jammet, co-owner of the 43-year-old La Caravelle, in mid-town, also dislikes fusion. She says the restaurant has been less busy recently. "There are ups and downs. We should be busier." La Caravelle had a charmed beginning. Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Tony Curtis showed up. Jackie Kennedy and Truman Capote dined there too. In more recent times, Martha Stewart was afrequent diner.
Over a glass of La Caravelle champagne and port-cured foie gras lobe with pink lentils and quince, Jammet said many of her patrons were young, but like Masson declines to say who visits. "What distinguishes us from the others is the fact that we have been able to offer both contemporary and classic without becoming confusing to our identity."
The restaurant business is a tough one to stay alive in. Some say the fate of Lutèce and La Côte Basque suggests the end of a great tradition of fine dining in New York. The answer to whether the survivors will endure may rest in their willingness to cater to modern palates.
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd