A Bitter Aperitif for Le Madeleine: Beloved Bistro Faces Possible Ouster

A bartender put it bluntly— “We’ve gotten signatures, but it doesn’t matter; they don’t care,” she said—as a trio of glum patrons turned away from the zinc-topped bar and altogether exited the embattled Hell’s Kitchen eatery Le Madeleine on Sunday night.

The cozy, candle-lit French bistro’s usually appetizing smells of grilled quail and duck confit seemed barely noticeable that evening, compared to the palpable sense of defeat in the air.

Service was so slow that one irate patron, annoyed by long-lingering dessert plates, collected his own clanging dishes and dumped them onto the nearest vacant table.

It’s hard to blame staffers of an imperiled restaurant facing possible unemployment for acting apathetic. But these people need all the tips they can get.

Strapped with mounting legal fees, the moderately priced restaurant is now “aggressively raising money,” according to its Web site, in order to move the whole operation approximately 800 feet east from its original location at 403 West 43rd Street to a vastly less charming retail site along the same street: the former Timeless Treasures Christian bookstore space at 315 West 43rd Street.

From collecting more than 12,000 supporters’ signatures to drumming up cash donations, charismatic Texas-born restaurateur Toney Edwards has put everything he’s got into halting Le Madeleine’s eviction—a battle he has described in terms of good vs. evil; a stalwart of charming Old Manhattan standing up to the profit-minded forces of unmitigated modern development.

But after more than two years of costly court wrangling, will he even have enough resources left to relocate? “We’re 75 percent of the way there,” Mr. Edwards said of the fund-raising effort. “We’re close enough that we could take a leap of faith—though I’m not anxious to take a leap of faith.”

Last fall, Mr. Edwards traveled to India in search of “spiritual enlightenment” to help him confront Le Madeleine’s worsening real estate crisis.

A Manhattan judge had just rejected the eatery owner’s argument against what Mr. Edwards called the “improper and incomplete” eviction of his cherished neighborhood restaurant by landlord Mark Scharfman.

(Mr. Scharfman has long maintained his right to terminate Mr. Edwards’ tenancy and tear the single-story brick building down, citing a specific demolition clause in the restaurant’s lease. Mr. Edwards has countered that the lease also granted him use of the vast basement area beneath the protected old tenement building next door, which, his lawyer argued, makes the planned demolition an all-or-nothing proposition: “You can’t demolish only a piece of it.” The judge disagreed.)

Mr. Edwards returned from his trip with legal guns blazing, fiercely determined to win on appeal. He also came back to the brutal realization that his wallet might not withstand a terribly prolonged conflict.

“As enthusiastic as I am in engaging this battle with this terrible villain, at some point, the good is going to be diminished,” Mr. Edwards told The Observer. “I’ve got to look at the reality that, sooner or later, I have to replace the stoves in the kitchen. The same money that I’m paying the lawyers is supposed to pay for the stoves. If I spend it on the lawyers, I can’t spend it on the stoves.”

Legal bills have been piling up ever since his return, as Mr. Edwards took his case all the way to the state’s highest court. And lost.

So much for new stoves.

A Bitter Aperitif for Le Madeleine: Beloved Bistro Faces Possible Ouster