La Renaissance de La Caravelle

André Jammet, the co-owner of La Caravelle, stood at Table 8, near the northeast corner of his restaurant, and gazed approvingly at the ethereal forms that crowded his walls. Mr. Jammet, a petite, balding man with eager eyes and a precise but warm manner, had just identified the locations, such as the Marché aux Timbres on the Champs Elysées, the Jardins du Luxembourg and Bois de Boulogne, that figure in the green, Dufy-esque Jean Pagès murals that decorate La Caravelle. Then Mr. Jammet pointed at the crowds in Pagès’ rendering of the Place de la Nation on July 14, and noted that, as the artist painted them, they could fit into any era.

“Look at them,” he said. “They are timeless.”

In a city that has sandblasted and repointed itself to the spires in the last five years, timelessness has become more difficult to grasp. Certainly, we have our sacred touchstones here–the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, etc.–but otherwise we have embraced modernity with roadrunner speed. We are wired, buff and arrogantly casual, and we expect those who take our money to cater to those whims. Even as we recycle the fashions and sounds and culture of the past, we tend to forget the context.

Here, in New York, the past is not another country, but rather another city. The other New York is where Joseph P. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Salvador Dalí, John Lindsay, Leland Hayward and Dorothy Kilgallen lived and ruled. It is the New York where formality represented power.

In its 41st year, La Caravelle is one of the few bridges left to that other New York, and it is a bridge with a remarkable history. When it opened in September 1960, La Caravelle became the first restaurant started by two maîtres d’ and a sous-chef who had worked for the swaggering, rapier-mouthed Henri Soulé, the man who, the late New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne once wrote, “has been called the Michelangelo, the Mozart and the Leonardo of the French restaurant in America.” Mr. Soulé had come to America to manage the restaurant at the French Pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair and when it was over, he remained in New York to open Le Pavillon and later, La Côte Basque. When Mr. Soulé arrived on the S.S. Normandie in 1939, there were only a handful of worthwhile restaurants in New York, including the Colony, which would produce Le Cirque 2000′s owner, Sirio Maccioni, and 21. And La Caravelle’s immediate success was in no small part due to the patronage of a disgruntled Pavillon regular, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, whose son John was about to be elected President.

In the 1960′s, 70′s and 80′s of that other New York, this twice-daily cocktail of power, society, fashion and fine cuisine became a form of entertainment that surpassed anything that Broadway had to offer. In effect, dinner itself became the show, and though the denizens of the new New York may be hard-pressed to find that anywhere today, it is what they may be searching for in the cold New York night.

The night of Jan. 8 had a Twilight Zone time-warp feeling, even down to the precipitation, which fell to West 55th Street in wet glops, as snowy rain more frequently did in the past. You could see the two New Yorks meeting in the dining room that bore the Pagès murals. The all-male staff of waiters and captains silently stalked the room, clad not in shapeless modern tunics, but black- or white-jacketed tuxedos held closed by two brass buttons joined by a chain. The dining room was half filled with a mixture of young and old customers. The older male patrons wore jackets and ties; their dates had dolled up for the evening. Two suited men from Hearst lingered over an early meal, as though it were 1962.

But at a large table nearby sat a group who appeared to be in their early to mid-30′s. The men wore jackets–required–but sweaters or button-down shirts instead of ties, and the women wore simple, safe preppy outfits.

Roaming the room was Mr. Jammet, dressed in a navy blue double-breasted suit with a maroon pocket square, a light blue shirt and a yellow checked tie dotted with what appeared to be little carrots and turnips.

“Soup of the day,” he replied with a smile, when asked to identify the vegetables on his neckwear.

Tonight, Mr. Jammet was patrolling La Caravelle alone. His wife and co-owner Rita, who is quick to smile and, like her husband, has expressive eyes, was out of town visiting friends. But it was she who had earlier explained when and how much to update a restaurant like La Caravalle, which is so well anchored in the past.

“This is the biggest challenge,” Mrs. Jammet had said. “Certain elements are your core identity. If you change them, you are not yourself anymore. But having said that, you have to adjust, without being a chameleon.” Mr. Jammet became a partner in 1984. In 1988, he and his wife took sole ownership of the restaurant, which, at the time, was dressed in the typical French-restaurant décor of red banquettes and carpet. It was also the kind of place that required gentlemen to wear jackets and ties. In 1990, the Jammets changed the carpet to green and the banquettes to a salmon color that emphasized the Pagès artwork. They relaxed the tie requirement and encouraged their chefs–currently Eric Di Domenico–to add contemporary dishes: from pan-seared wild striped bass served with an herb mousseline, baby artichokes and bresaola, to such classic dishes as truffled pike quenelles (a kind of dumpling made from the fish) in pungent lobster sauce.

“We never for once wanted to drop the old longtime friends for the new, younger people,” Mrs. Jammet had added. “Then you’re neither-nor. You fall between the two and you’re gone.”

“Robert and Fred formerly with La Côte Basque and Le Pavillon Restaurants announce the opening of their restaurant La Caravelle, 33 W. 55th Street, on Wednesday, September 21, 1960,” read the card that Fred Decré and Robert Meyzen distributed to let potential patrons know of their new venture.

“We couldn’t afford P.R., so at 12 o’clock we used to get dressed up and walk up and down Fifth Avenue, run in to people,” said Mr. Decré, 81, who retired in 1980 and now lives in the Palm Beach area. (Mr. Meyzen died in 1995.)

Both Messrs. Decré and Meyzen–as well as chef Roger Fessaguet, who was in his 20′s then–had been longtime employees of Soulé when they decided to go on their own. Mr. Decré, for instance, had worked for the restaurateur for 18 years. Yet Soulé did not let his employees go graciously.

La Caravelle is a three-masted ship and, Mr. Decré remembered, “Soulé said, ‘We’re going to sink the Caravelle in three months.’ He never came in to see us,” even though his restaurant, La Côte Basque, was across the street. “He didn’t sink the Caravelle,” Mr. Decré added. “It is still floating.”

La Caravelle’s buoyancy was assured by Ambassador Kennedy, who had been a regular at Soulé’s restaurants but boycotted them in favor of La Caravelle after a falling-out with Soulé. The specifics of the snub have been the subject of much debate. According to Mr. Decré, word got back to Kennedy that Soulé had told someone he “doubted very much” that the ambassador’s son Jack would win his bid for the Presidency.

But Mr. Fessaguet, who also lives in the Palm Beach area, spoke of another incident–which Mr. Decré denied–in which the elder Kennedy’s complaints about a persistent photographer prompted Soulé to loudly exclaim, “His son isn’t even elected and already he thinks he’s dictator!”

When La Caravelle opened on Sept. 21, 1960, Kennedy was there with a party of six, according to the reservation book that Mr. Decré kept. Also there to dine on Le Suprême de Sole Caravelle and La Poularde Champeaux were columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, wife of MCA founder Jules Stein, and, Mr. Decré remembered, Bernard Baruch. Prix fixe dinner was $7.50. “My God, it was a nerve-wracking thing,” he said. “One of the things we feared most was we were on the West Side and those days, society wouldn’t cross Fifth Avenue, except to go to 21.”

In the Sept. 23, 1960 edition of The New York Journal-American , the Cholly Knickerbocker column read: “LA CARAVELLE’S FRED AND ROBERT proved themselves worthy pupils of their former master, Henri Soulé, when they opened the doors of their glittering new restaurant the other eve. The cynosure of all eyes was former Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, father of the Democratic candidate, who entertained a large table.”

Ambassador Kennedy’s patronage of La Caravelle was so loyal that word spread that he had backed the owners. “It was never true,” Mr. Decré said. “We never denied it. It was better to have him [as a purported owner] than the Mafia.”

By Nov. 26, 1960, The Times’ Claiborne declared of La Caravelle: “In one recently opened restaurant, New York has inherited an embarrassment of riches. It is an establishment of such caliber, there is an inclination to use such expressions as ‘first rank’ and ‘ne plus ultra.’”

La Caravelle could not have had a more charmed beginning. Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward, playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh showed up. J. Edgar Hoover visited and wrote a nice letter. So did Harry Truman.

Then in 1961, Ambassador Kennedy asked La Caravelle to help find a chef for the Kennedy White House, now that J.F.K. had become a big fan of Mr. Fessaguet’s chicken with champagne sauce. The gig went to René Verdon, who studied in Mr. Fessaguet’s kitchen. Mr. Verdon went to Washington, and La Caravelle renamed its chicken dish, Poularde Maison Blanche . A version of the dish remains on the menu as Poularde au Champagne .

In April 1961, Henri Soulé ran an ad in the Journal-American that read: “Despite what may be said to the contrary by others, the only restaurants in this city in which Henri Soulé is interested are Le Pavillon [and] La Côte Basque.” By August 1962, Le Pavillon was declared “out” by Time magazine. La Côte Basque, Colony and La Caravelle were “in.”

Mr. Soulé died in January 1966, having never set foot in his former employees’ restaurant.

In the November 1963 issue of Esquire , Liz Smith included La Caravelle as one of “Les Hangouts” where “Best dressed socialites [and] young elegants” such as “Mrs. Loel Guinness, the First Family, Diana Vreeland, Oleg Cassini, Eleanor Lambert, Mrs. Frederic Cushing” dined. The December 1964 Town & Country noted: “They are saying there’s a new way to tell whether you matter in Manhattan: How well you are known at La Caravelle?”

As the 60′s approached their midpoint, La Caravelle’s canopied entrance became one of the regular stops–along with La Grenouille, Côte Basque and Lafayette–for Women’s Wear Daily photographers chronicling the march of hemlines and the war between pants and skirts. WWD began arbitrarily calling the eateries restaurants W, X, Y and Z (and, occasionally “The Frog Pond” for La Grenouille). An October 1968 photograph of Happy Rockefeller and Cristina Ford underneath La Caravelle’s canopy had this caption: “JUST LIKE EVERYONE else … Happy Rockefeller and Cristina Ford were talking about That Wedding during lunch at Restaurant Z on Monday. Happy and Cristina are just as dismayed as the little ladies at Schrafft’s. But they hope Mr. and Mrs. Onassis live happily ever after.”

“I loved their lamb chops and french-fried potatoes,” remembered John Fairchild, who ran WWD then. “And … that’s where we used to go to watch Jackie Kennedy, Babe Paley and C.Z. Guest and all those beautiful ladies who were fashionable at that moment.” There was also Truman Capote, Pat Buckley, Diana Vreeland and Pamela Harriman. In 1971, WWD also got around to interviewing chef Fessaguet. “I am an astronaut!” he said, then added, “Other cooks are, how you say?, garage mechanics!” It was at La Caravelle that “I coined the phrase ‘fashion victim’ after half a bottle of wine and time spent looking at the ladies at lunch and how badly dressed they were. They were overdressed to be seen.”

La Caravelle’s weight with Manhattan’s elite can be gleaned from a 1969 letter from Alfred Knopf Jr. in Mr. Decré’s scrapbook, which includes a partly negative review of the restaurant by Nika Standen Hazelton in The National Review –”and hence,” wrote Knopf, “did not receive much circulation. But I promise not to bring her to any of your restaurants, ever again. Next time I must have lunch with her we will eat at Chock Full of Nuts.”

La Caravelle rode out the stock-market slump of the 70′s that saw the Colony close. But the times had changed, and the owners’ dominance was muted. In April 1978, in The New York Times , Mimi Sheraton took away two of La Caravelle’s four stars. The headline read: “Very good, but (alas) no longer great.”

Mr. Decré retired in 1980. That year, Mr. Meyzen defended La Caravelle’s classical French cooking and Russian-style service against the onset of nouvelle cuisine by telling The New York Times , “Nouvelle cuisine is like women’s liberation–tomorrow everyone will have forgotten about it.”

In 1980, Mr. and Mrs. Jammet came to America from Paris. Mr. Jammet had been born in Paris’ Bristol Hotel, and someday he had hoped to run it. But when family members decided to sell the hotel, he and his wife jumped the Atlantic. In 1984, he decided he wanted to open his own restaurant. Mr. Meyzen, whom he had befriended, accompanied him on the scouting party and managed to talk him out of every option until finally offering him a stake in his restaurant.

Mr. Jammet said that his godfather, André Michel, was a French officer in the government under the Secretary of State, and when the French had to find someone to manage the pavilion’s restaurant at the ’39 World’s Fair, Mr. Jammet said his godfather hired the restaurateurs who brought Soulé to New York. “So, without my godfather, somebody else would have been Le Pavillon,” Mr. Jammet said with a smile. “Because no Henri Soulé, no Pavillon, no Caravelle!”

The Jammets took over La Caravelle in 1988. They did not have an easy time. In 1986, The Times had demoted them to one star and, Mr. Jammet said, interest rates were high. The Jammets made their changes, but they stuck with the staff, many of whom had been at the restaurant for decades and knew its choreography by heart. They stuck with André Ihuellou, the maître d’, who has worked the restaurant for 25 years and whose wife Lea is the cashier, and with Adalberto Alonso, who has tended Caravelle’s bar for 39 years. Mr. Alonso remembers the time Robert Kennedy settled a bet by doing push-ups next to the bar, and the time the chocolate mousse ended up on the ceiling above Frank Sinatra’s head. And he invented the Alberto No. 1, a variation on the mojito that combines vodka, crushed mint, sugar, lime and champagne. “It’s like a big family when you spend so many years together,” Mrs. Jammet said. “And we spend more time together sometimes than with our own family.”

In 1998, 10 years after they took it over, La Caravelle got three stars from The Times . It’s not the scene it was– but after 40 years, what is? Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Paley have been replaced by Dolly Parton and Dan Quayle.

But on Sept. 21, 2000, 40 years after La Caravelle first threw open its doors, a bunch of regulars, such as Brooke Astor, Chanel chief executive Ari Kopelman and designer Oscar de la Renta, got together and hosted the restaurant’s anniversary party. Martha Stewart came and showed everyone the booth where she made her Time Warner deal.

Former chef Ferraguet came. Mr. Decré showed, too, although nobody acknowledged him and he stayed in the background. “I couldn’t make myself stand up,” he said. But, he added, “it was an exceptional night. I was proud to be the founder of that institution.” They drank and they ate La Caravelle’s house-smoked salmon with mango, cherry tomatoes stuffed with Crabmeat Caravelle and miniature roasted lamb chops. And after a few Alberto No. 1′s, as the painted crowd gabbed and the years evaporated into the air, the ghosts mingled with the partygoers and it became impossible to find the boundary between them and Pagès’ crowds within the timeless green murals of La Caravelle.