On Saturday night, June 24, after 41 years in business, the Right Bank, the homey French restaurant on Madison Avenue near 68th Street, served its final meal. Owner Anton Vatavuk, a private man who had the restaurant’s listing removed from the Zagat Survey after a negative review, decided not to renew his lease.
Surrounded by the fashion boutiques of Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Tse, the Right Bank was one of those shabby semi-French places you don’t see much of any more. The food was passable (if a little dull), the decor was French enough, there was a garden in back and the bill, when it came, was manageable. It wasn’t a dive, but it wasn’t La Goulue, either.
Tucked four feet below street level, the Right Bank was different things to different people. Elderly neighborhood people ate dinner there at 5:30 p.m. Then, after 7, the local lawyers and doctors stopped in, on their way home to their side-street brownstone apartments. One regular called it “better than Cheers.” As the night wore on, it became a sort of threadbare pickup joint. Low-key celebrities came in for burgers and French onion soup and generally weren’t bothered.
“It’s going to be very difficult to replace it,” said Kenneth Williams, a 30-year patron. “They have very good quality dishes. There’s a lot of choice in the proteins and in the vegetables. Great roast chicken and pork chops. They have wonderful soups and perhaps the best gazpacho I’ve ever tasted, and I eat out a lot. Every night. And not just at the Right Bank.
“When Al Pacino was living on my block, on 68th between Fifth and Madison, he used to sneak in there late at night for a meal,” Mr. Williams continued. “The owner would keep the place open after closing and people would stay listening to music and talking and drinking. Pacino and I were somewhat friends because an ex-girlfriend of mine was in Serpico .”
Bob Leighton was another longtime patron at the Right Bank. “The other night my girlfriend I were walking along Madison Avenue,” Mr. Leighton said, “and we passed this other couple who used to live on 68th Street. ‘Where are you going? There’s no Right Bank.’ We didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know either, so we all ended up at this place on 64th Street. They have these designer pizzas and pasta, but it’s not the same.”
Back in the 1970′s and early 80′s, Maureen Chatfield, who now runs a dating service in New Jersey, was a regular at the Right Bank. “That was my home,” she said. “That was the greatest hangout in the city. I lived on 70th Street. I met Pacino there, and we became very good friends. He asked me out. I never ‘ liked him’ liked him, but we went out a lot on dates. He had a crush on me, and he called me all the time. Of course, in some ways I wished I had gone out with him. I was studying to be an actor, and he was this great actor. But just physically, he didn’t appeal to me. He’s short, and there was no chemistry.
“I met Michael Nouri there, who was in Flashdance , and I dated him for a while,” Ms. Chatfield said. (Reached for comment about the closing, Mr. Nouri exclaimed, “Naw! Shit, no! Burgers. They had great burgers. They had great chicken Kiev.”)
Ms. Chatfield also met Mr. Leighton there. This is how it happened: She was in a telephone booth outside the restaurant, and he pounded on it. She asked him, “What do you want?” He said, “I want to take you to dinner.” Then they went to the Right Bank together.
At Oilily, a boutique next to the Right Bank, saleswoman Cynthia Izoldi described the food as “good” and “O.K.” She said the chocolate mud pie was “very dark and very rich” and “very fulfilling.” She said she was sad to see it go.
“I’m not sad at all,” chimed in Priscilla Lyons, another Oilily saleswoman standing nearby. “Aside from the cake, the rest of the food was mediocre.”
Ms. Lyons recalled that she and some fellow neighborhood smokers used to take their cigarette breaks on the stoop of 822 Madison. Inevitably, she said, the manager of the Right Bank emerged from down below to yell at them: “He would go nuts. ‘You effing creeps!’ He was yelling and cursing. I was like, ‘I’m ashing in a cup, big guy.’”
One man who lives in the neighborhood, but who would not give his name, recalled the service at Right Bank being “slow” and “not very good.” He said the food was “fine.”
One recent afternoon, Hillary Schaps was sitting on the stoop of 822 Madison eating a sandwich. She was about to make a call on her cell phone. Ms. Schaps ate dinner at Right Bank recently–French onion soup and a chef salad. “The food wasn’t very good and the service wasn’t very good,” she recalled. “But it was kind of charming inside, I guess. Kind of French.”
Now it is safe to say so. But why wasn’t it safe before?
The Roger Clemens-David Wells trade really stank, and not just because Mr. Wells has turned out to be the better pitcher. In the wake of the Great Beaning, the trade has started to look like a karmic boomerang from baseball’s most infamous curse, under which the Boston Red Sox, after selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, never won another World Series.
When the Yankees traded the burly Mr. Wells to Toronto for the surly Mr. Clemens in February 1999, it looked like a fine swap. Roger Clemens is a first-ballot Hall of Famer; David Wells is not. Mr. Clemens has five Cy Young Awards; Mr. Wells has none.
At the time, the New York media seriously speculated that the 1999 Yankees might be even better than the team that had won a record 125 games the year before, and the national media complained that baseball’s rich were only getting richer. Everybody in the Yankee organization, from principal owner George Steinbrenner to general manager Brian Cashman to manager Joe Torre, agreed.
But since then, it is the Yankees who have gotten the short end of the deal. In Toronto, Mr. Wells has compiled a 32-12 record, and an earned-run average of 4.32. This year, he has a 15-2 record and was named the American League’s starting pitcher in the July 11 All-Star Game.
Mr. Clemens, meanwhile, has been ordinary. His record in pinstripes is 20-16 with an ERA of 4.51, hardly Cy Young stuff. He was not selected to the All-Star team this year or last year. He has not even been the Yankees’ second-best pitcher since he arrived in New York.
The fans have made their displeasure known, booing Mr. Clemens during his numerous rocky outings. Even Yankee manager Joe Torre has repeatedly characterized his pitcher’s outings as inconsistent.
But the media was slow to echo what the fans had been saying all year. We have heard that Mr. Clemens has been trying too hard, that he’s been overthrowing, that he has not been using his fastball enough and, until July 8′s beaning of Mike Piazza, that he wasn’t throwing inside enough. Only recently, however, have we heard that this seeming no-brainer of a trade has been a fiasco.
“Right now, Roger Clemens’ mom wouldn’t argue that he’s a better pitcher than David Wells,” Yankees radio announcer John Sterling told The Observer . “Right now, you can say that it was a terrible trade. If the Yankees haven’t been knocked terribly, it’s because they won last year. How much more can you do but win the championship?”
If the Yankees’ prosperity obscured Mr. Clemens’ poor performance in 1999, the team’s mediocrity has overshadowed it in 2000. Mr. Clemens hasn’t been the Bronx’s worst overpaid 37-year-old pitcher this year. That distinction belongs to David Cone, who was 1-7 at the break, with an e.r.a. of 6.40 to go with his $12 million contract.
Before the Yankees gave up David Wells–a Babe Ruth man! He wore the hat!–they had a real good thing going. Not only were they winning, but they were winning with class . Yankee haters actually liked them. But now Joe Torre is stuck defending Roger Clemens, and the former perfectly gentlemanly Yankees are bullies again.