It’s Difficile Out There for a French Restaurant

031008 tales It’s Difficile Out There for a French Restaurant C’est fini for Jean-Paul Mouttet’s ancient tiny French bistro L’Entrecote.

The Sutton Place institution, staffed sparingly by Mr. Mouttet, 70, and two blond waitresses—one of whom is commonly mistaken for his wife—and frequented over the years by such luminaries as the late historian and restaurant buff Arthur Schlesinger, dished out its last plates of steak au poivre on Feb. 29.

“After 35 wonderful years of serving this very special neighborhood, I have decided it is finally the right time to retire,” Mr. Mouttet announced with a hearty “Au revoir” tacked to the eatery’s front door last week.

The timing was right from the landlord’s perspective, as well.

How do you say “I lost my lease” en français?

“I don’t close because I want to close,” Mr. Mouttet said.

Landlord Jeanette Giaimo, whose family has owned the five-story building at 1057 First Avenue since the 1940’s, has apparently seen enough of escargots, petites scallopés and crisp baby duck over the past three decades-plus.

“They want to have something else than a restaurant,” said Mr. Mouttet, whose liquor license also expired, timely enough, on Feb. 29. “They say the restaurant is too much trouble.”

“Not another restaurant!” stressed Ms. Giaimo, citing “some problems with the building, roaches, whatever.”

In fact, L’Entrecote failed back-to-back health inspections in 2006, but passed its most recent examination, despite lingering plumbing and vermin problems, city records show.

“I hear he has very good food, a very good clientele,” Ms. Giaimo said. “We just decided we didn’t want a restaurant in there anymore. It’s really too small of a space to accommodate a restaurant.”

The 20-seat space, less than 600 square feet, never offered much in the way of elbow room. But it did have authenticity, both in terms of the traditional French cooking and distinctively French vibe—especially in the years preceding Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban.

“Europeans like to smoke after their dinner,” said Mr. Mouttet, who scaled back the eatery’s hours once the fuming post-dinner crowd disappeared.

As for Mr. Mouttet, the supposedly retiring restaurateur isn’t ruling out a comeback. “I plan to stay in New York,” he said, mentioning at least the possibility of opening a new location in the future. “If you hear of anything, let me know,” he added.

L’Entrecote’s abrupt closure continues a recent streak of carnage to hit New York’s steak frites industry. It’s probably not due to the au jus, or any lingering anti-Franco sentiment stateside—although New York magazine did call out Alain Ducasse’s eponymously named eatery at Essex House, which closed in 2006, for being “so damn … French. So demanding: of time, of patience, of savior-faire. So fussy. So superior.”

Jean-Jacques Rachou’s Brasserie LCB on West 55th Street also shuttered last spring, after the fiesty chef’s testy, reportedly expletive-laced encounter with nitpicky health inspectors.

Le Madeleine, Texas-born restaurateur Toney Edwards’ take on a French provincial auberge, on West 43rd Street, continues to face the threat of eviction and demolition, after nearly 29 years of continuous service in Hell’s Kitchen.

Iconic meatpacking district diner Florent, located at 69 Gansevoort Street, is expected to close later this month because of a formidable rent hike, not to mention a nasty court dispute with the landlord over tax increases.

Just two weeks ago, Brooklyn’s cozy Cocotte bistro closed after less than six years of crepe service in Park Slope.

“We were the first French restaurant to open on Fifth Avenue,” said chef and co-owner Bill Snell, who opened the small brick bistro along with his wife, Brittany native Christine Snell, in 2002. The couple also operates the popular Gallic eatery Loulou in Fort Greene.

“The first three years were fantastic,” Mr. Snell said of the early days, when Cocotte was the only bouillabaisse purveyor in the area.

The past three years, not so much. “Like, 50 restaurants opened up,” he said, including two other French-style venues, along Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue, which has emerged as the neighborhood’s premier restaurant row.

The competition is stifling, Mr. Snell said: “The neighborhood can’t support that many restaurants, no matter how good you are.”

“We had a good rent when we first started out there,” he added. “Now people are coming into the neighborhood paying $7,000 to $10,000 [per month]. I know all those restaurants are suffering.”

Mr. Snell said he sold off the remaining four years on his lease to a new operator, who will likely open a different restaurant; the Cocotte couple will now focus solely on their Fort Greene bistro.

As for the former L’Entrecote site in Manhattan, the landlord, Ms. Giaimo, isn’t exactly sure what sort of business will replace Mr. Mouttet’s old-timey French eatery.

“A book store or regular office—not a restaurant, nothing pertaining to food,” she insisted.

Especially French fare. “I don’t like French food that much,” she said. “It doesn’t agree with me.”