Once Upon a Time in NYC
by John Delach
A recent profile of Joe Allen in The New York Times gave me pause for thought about the many West Side Manhattan eateries most now gone that once upon a time were part of my business life and essential to client entertainment. Several were Italian, some American, a few mixed Continental and, the most memorable, the French bistros.
Mr. Allen proprietor of the American restaurant featuring his name has been in business since 1965. Now 83, he also owns Orso and Bar Centrale located in attached brownstones. He owns the buildings and, in the old tradition, resides above his joints. Long live Joe Allen one of the few left standing.
Barbetta, also located along New York’s Restaurant Row on Forty-Sixth Street, has carried on since 1906 under the same family ownership. Laura Maioglio, the present grand dame continues the traditions that define Barbetta as one of New York City’s treasures. I have a soft spot for this overly formal establishment because it was there that my wife and I were first invited by my then boss, Charlie Robbins, and his wife, Paula, to join them for dinner and the theatre with visiting Lloyds brokers in the spring of 1974. In so doing, Charlie promoted us from the kid’s table.
Other famous Restaurant Row eateries still in existence include Broadway Joe’s, Becco, Café Athenee, Don’t Tell Mama, FireBird, Lattanzi, Le Rivage, and Ocha. Another old-school standard bearer, Maria’s Mont Blanc, continued to reside on West Forty-Eighth Street despite demolition of her original location and awful disputes with the current landlord. The indefatigable, Ms. Maria fought on, providing excellent yet eclectic Swiss-German-French cuisine before finally succumbing on May 31, 2016.
Regrettably, this closing wasn’t a one-off fate. Many of the traditional French bistros that blanketed the West Side of the Theatre District have succumbed to changing tastes, old age, loss of will by the founder’s off spring, mega-inflation in amount of their leases or the sale of the building for demolition and development.
These lost treasures include Chez Cardinale, Les Pyrenees, Du Midi, Rene Pujol and Pierre au Tunnel. Most opened in the late 40s or early 50s when French chefs and their families chose to leave their native country following the end of World War II. Having suffered through invasion and occupation; the end of the war offered continued post-war shortages, rationing and lack of opportunity. America beckoned.
New York’s Hells Kitchen became enriched as these war-torn immigrants made their way to this urban wasteland. When I wanted to have fun with an unsuspecting Brit or an out-of-town customer, I’d ask them: “Have you noticed how many really good French restaurants we have here in the Forties and just west of Eighth Avenue?”
When they replied, “Yes,” I’d say, “Well, if you walk west on Forty-Seventh Street or Forty-Eighth Street and go as far as you can without getting wet you will look up to behold you are in front of the French Line Pier.”
I’d give them a moment to think about before continuing, “Forsaking the old country and with family help, those frustrated chefs sailed to America on the SS Liberte and the Ile De France. After clearing immigration and customs, they’d walk east. By the time they crossed Ninth Avenue; enough was enough, so they’d say to the family members traveling with them; ‘This is where we open the restaurant.”
My colleague, Steve, introduced me to Chez Cardinale, my first bistro lunch home. The proprietors and staff were swell, the food good and the price reasonable so that I wasn’t abusing my expense account. My lasting memory of this restaurant came the day I turned over my fork for no particular reason only to see the following engraved on its stem, “Horn and Hardart.” I liberated the fork and have it to this day.
Pierre au Tunnel meant “fine dining” to me and several of my colleagues. Opened in 1950, Jacqueline and Jean-Claude Lincy ran a great restaurant. Women I worked with also loved the ambience and service. Michelle recalls with fondness: “Their onion soup introduced me to Gruyere cheeses that remains a favorite.” Louise adored their omelets and Lisa often said, “When I go there I feel like I’m on a date.”
My favorite dish was Chicken Cordon Bleu except in the early spring when Chad spawned in the Hudson and au Tunnel featured Chad and Chad row.
Somewhere in time and emotion the Pujol family split apart and Rene opened what became my all time favorite New York City bistro: Rene Pujol. Great food, great service, a wonderful setting, Rene was also a New York Giants football fan and if that wasn’t enough, he offered without surcharge, a private dining room and lounge above the restaurant where I hosted clients, celebrations and retirement dinners.
What a wonderful era. We all benefitted with these restaurateurs’ success: Only in America.