La Côte Basque 2003: Capote’s Backdrop To Fold Its Tent

In what could be seen as a gesture of poignant irony, Jean-Jacques Rachou, the longtime chef and owner of the historic La Côte Basque in midtown Manhattan, plans to shutter the romantic but teetering 45-year-old restaurant-once a society sandbox for Manhattan’s stylish and insouciant set-and convert the space into a belle époque brasserie. Last call for quenelles: next Valentine’s Day.

“I don’t want to die with this restaurant, with the old customers who are disappearing,” Mr. Rachou told me last week as I lunched on grilled Dover sole with an emulsion of mustard and hollandaise in the sumptuous dining room, which is wrapped in giant murals of maritime southwestern France. “Maybe this style of dining is over. We don’t get the younger people, and you need young people.”

No question about that; I dined at La Côte Basque twice in the past week, and even at my age, 50, I felt as if I had just been dropped off by a yellow schoolbus. Adjacent to me at lunch were two couples whom I’m certain can recall listening to F.D.R.’s first inaugural address on a radio the size of a jukebox-or surely the second.

My informal survey of the half-empty dining room revealed that about 60 percent of the patrons that day were at least 60 years old.

“Seventy years old” said Mr. Rachou, standing in front of my table, arms crossed and wearing starched kitchen whites and a mien of weary resignation.

“The older customers, they move to Florida or just disappear,” he added, gesturing toward an empty nearby table for four. “That one over there, good customer-he died last week!”

Mr. Rachou is soft-spoken, self-effacing and courtly-at the conclusion of the photo shoot for this article, he kissed the hand of our flustered female shooter-with thinning gray hair and a slow but genuine smile. There is little question that he is the most beloved and respected chef, and culinary mentor, in New York. Legions of successful and famous culinarians have graduated from Boot Côte Basque, among them Gray Kunz, Rick Moonen, Charlie Palmer and Waldy Malouf.

“A lot of people think he is so old-fashioned,” observed Mr. Moonen. “But he was the first big French chef in town to hire Americans. I was in the first crew, in 1980-coming out of the C.I.A. [Culinary Institute of America], I was out of my mind with the thrill of being there-and I remember how he was chastised by a lot of French chefs for doing that. He gave us young Americans a chance.”

Several days and another Dover sole later, I spoke again with Mr. Rachou. As we talked about the economics of running a large restaurant, I was floored by several statistics.

“The flowers,” he muttered, pointing to a towering arrangement of lilacs, pink daisies, lilies, sunflowers and all kinds of exotica. “They cost $2,500 a week.” And the linen, he added, rolling his eyes skyward, “$3,000 a week!”

Mr. Rachou, who said he lost more than 40 regular customers in the World Trade Center attack and is hamstrung by the sluggish economy just like everybody else, dispiritedly revealed that, in order to keep his restaurant alive, he recently had to sell a house in France and two others in Queens. (“I have others, though,” he said.) But, Mr. Rachou said, he’s seen it all before, the ups and downs, and there’s no reason to panic.

Suddenly, his face lit up.

“You want to see something?” He grasped a file folder and arranged on the table three preliminary architectural sketches of the brasserie.

“It will be absolutely authentic, in the 1900′s style, like Le Bofinger in Paris,” he said. Next month he plans a trip to Paris “to see what kind of foods the brasseries are serving today.” An inveterate entrepreneur, he allows that he may one day reprise La Côte Basque-perhaps a more contemporary version-on the East Side.

“I just don’t know if I can let that grande dame go down for good.”

The end of classic dining?

The winds that blew La Côte Basque onto the reef are far more volatile than mere actuarial statistics. Some of Mr. Rachou’s contemporaries, including several of his protégés, venture that his sclerotic devotion to the old verities of Escoffier-style cooking are about as voguish today as a dickey. And while La Côte Basque serves a number of dishes that could be called contemporary (halibut with an orange-ginger broth, for one), it remains known for such culinary barbells as quenelle of pike with bay scallops in two sauces, sweetbreads barrigoule à la Grecque with an emulsion of mustard and capers, and venison grand veneur (a rich venison and pheasant stock with red wine and cream).

For the moment, the pressing question is: Does the demise of La Côte Basque carry significance larger than its own misfortune? And will the dwindling fraternité of similar establishments soon find themselves on the embalming table? I went out and asked more than a dozen chefs and restaurateurs what they thought about this.

“Extinction? I’m not sure,” said Drew Nieporent, who before opening his first restaurant, Montrachet, in Tribeca put in hitches at most of the city’s “La’s,” as he calls them, including La Reserve, La Grenouille and Le Regence (but not La Côte Basque).

Several of Mr. Rachou’s successful students asserted that classic French cuisine, even when prepared with a flourish, has little relevance to the current generation, which grew up on what I call “fast food served slowly.” And when they reach the fine-dining age, they now frequent places that serve lighter, cross-cultural cuisine in a casual, often raucous and visually stimulating setting that bears about as much resemblance to La Côte Basque as an Armani suit to a dickey.

“Jean-Jacques is a great chef and a great businessman,” one of his alumni told me. “But I’ve been telling him for years to go to France and look around for some young French guy with new ideas.”

Charlie Palmer, another Rachou graduate who later opened the famed Aureole on East 61st Street, said he was of two minds.

“People today have become more knowledgeable about food. They follow trends; they want to see what’s new and different. Classic restaurants may not have that. And the thing is, when classic cuisine is done well, it’s timeless.”

Mr. Palmer continued: “Just because something has butter and cream in it and is done in the traditional way doesn’t mean it’s out of style. If American comfort food is mashed potatoes dripping with butter, how is that any different than a sauce made with cream?”

While food has become more accessible and casual, so, too, has the service. Most of today’s generation have had no exposure to black-tie captains, unchatty waiters and abstruse sommeliers, some of whose exacting apprenticeships back in the old country lasted longer than it takes to get a master’s degree here.

“Today, people want to dine on their own terms, their own style,” Waldy Malouf, chef-owner of Beacon on West 56th Street, emphasized to me. “They are used to a more interactive restaurant experience, where they have read about the food, they can see it coming out of an open kitchen, they can talk with their waiter. In old French service, you feel detached. You sit there and everything seems like a secret, and then out of nowhere comes this dish with a big silver cloche- what is that? “

Drew Nieporent is credited with breaking down the doors of formality without sacrificing an haute level of cooking. Seven weeks after Montrachet opened in 1985, I awarded it three stars in The New York Times and caught a good deal of flak for it, especially from some of the obdurate French community.

“Back when I was working in those kinds of restaurants, New York dining was French, French, French,” Mr. Nieporent went on. “Service was exclusive and sometimes supercilious. You had a lot of customers paying a lot of money for the privilege of being abused. Today, you have to give up the pretension or you will be dead as a doornail.”

So what does Mr. Nieporent, the ringleader of a multinational empire of relatively casual dining, make of Mr. Rachou’s new plans? His answer is both upbeat and just a bit skeptical.

“Jean-Jacques is a terrific chef and a terrific restaurateur-it’s as good an idea as any.”

Of all the classic French restaurants remaining in the city, the most dynamic and forward-looking is La Caravelle, where owners Rita and André Jammet have managed to surf the waves of change over the years without losing their identity.

“You can be innovative, as long as you don’t lose your soul as a classic establishment,” Mrs. Jammet proffered.

They were among the first such restaurateurs in the country to hire an American chef, back in the 80′s. And if that wasn’t enough to distress the Gallic old guard, they must have wept openly when the Jammets took on a (yikes!) Japanese chef. Today, the kitchen is overseen by a brilliant young chef from Louisiana, Troy DuPuy, who earned his stripes working with Gray Kunz at four-star Lespinasse.

(Just this April, extravagant Lespinasse, under Kunz’s successor, Christian Delouvrier, became the first four-star restaurant in memory to abruptly shut its doors one day, citing poor business).

I recently thumbed through various New York restaurant guides and newspaper articles from over the past 25 years and found that in 1975, there existed about 25 restaurants that could be considered more or less “traditional classic French” (that is, elegant trappings, black-tie captains, time-honored dishes). In the 1994 edition of my own New York Times Guide to Restaurants in New York City , there were 14. Today, I count eight-and that’s stretching it-including the lavish but largely contemporary Daniel, Alain Ducasse, Chanterelle, Lutèce and Café des Artistes. If a precise definition is applied, the only troopers holding the Maginot Line include La Grenouille, La Caravelle and Le Perigord.

A Subversive, Glamorous History

Mr. Rachou, who tied on his first professional apron at the age of 11 and has been at it for 57 years, purchased La Côte Basque, then at 5 East 55th Street, in 1979-and with it a subversive, glamorous and, at times, bizarre history.

That restaurant occupied the original home of the legendary Pavillon, the restaurant that’s hailed as having introduced classic French dining to New York. The owner, one Henri Soulé, was the Sirio Maccioni of the postwar years-a dour martinet to some, a genius to others. He was also an unreconstructed anti-Semite. Soulé came to this country in 1939 to run the French Pavillon at the World’s Fair, then held in Queens. During the second year of the fair, the Nazis occupied France, and Soulé-too old for the army-decided to stay in New York, where he created Le Pavillon. It was an immediate triumph.

After the war, Le Pavillon’s reputation soared further, and its A-list clientele included the Rockefellers, Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí, Frank Sinatra, the Duchess of Windsor and countless others. At that time, the restaurant was also patronized by two wealthy Jewish socialites manqués known as the Cohn brothers, who owned Columbia Pictures as well as the building that housed Le Pavillon. As the late Pierre Franey told me-he was the restaurant’s chef in its golden years-whenever one of the Cohns arrived at the restaurant, Soulé dispatched them to the rear of the room, near the swinging kitchen doors. The pair repeatedly entreated Soulé to seat them in the “Royale,” which in lavish French restaurants is the highly visible banquette near the front of the room, perfect if you want to see and be seen. This went on for more than a year. The Cohns fumed. Eventually, they decided to one-up Soulé by tripling the restaurant’s rent. Rather than give in, Soulé closed Le Pavillon and moved it to the Ritz Towers at 57th and Park. This traumatized his socialite votaries and made a big splash in the press.

Less than a year later, Soulé beckoned Franey to the dining room and informed him that they were opening another restaurant, back at the original site of the Pavillon. It was to be called La Côte Basque. As it turned out, Soulé had been paying the elevated rent all along.

La Côte Basque opened in September of 1958. Soulé died in 1966-in the john of Le Pavillon, after lunch-and to everyone’s astonishment, bequeathed both restaurants to his former coat-check girl and longtime paramour, Henriette Spalter, and her son, Albert. (Soulé’s wife abhorred America and only visited once in more than 30 years.)

Mr. Rachou, who’d been working in a number of French restaurants around town, scratched together enough money to buy La Côte Basque from Madame Henriette.

Today, decades later, the question remains: Can a splashy new French brasserie survive in midtown Manhattan, where at least three (of varying quality) exist within a five-block radius?

While some of the successful restaurateurs I spoke with had qualms, most felt that Mr. Rachou’s plan might very well succeed. The prix dinner, said Mr. Rachou, will cost $35-as opposed to $70 at La Côte Basque-and lunch, $27.

As for his staff, Mr. Rachou has invited all to remain-even the top-earning captains, some of whom have been there for more than 30 years. While tips will be much lower at a moderately priced brasserie, those I spoke with expressed confidence in their boss and seemed certain that everything would shake down all right.

“La Grenouille called me the other day, asking me to help them out over there,” said Emile Le Tennier, a longtime captain and sommelier. “I told them that I could not do that to Jean-Jacques. I’m going to stay here and see what happens.”