Appreciations: Lunch at the Veau d’Or

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There are persons who still command the singular respect compounded from great personal affection and professional admiration. They represent what used to be the motto of my tipple of choice: “Quality in an age of change.” With them in mind, I decided to do a series of interviews, “Appreciations,” about how such people—men and women with whom I’ve been friends for a long time and whose professional or vocational accomplishments I hold in the highest respect—have adjusted to seismic changes in the way we live and work now. And to situate these conversations, where better than Le Veau d’Or?

The restaurant and its proprietor, Catherine Treboux, would most certainly have a place of honor in any list of “Appreciations” I might compile. Cathy and her late father, Robert, bought the restaurant in 1985 from Gérard Rocheteau, who had bought it from its founders. I was first taken there by my father when I was around fourteen, 65 years ago. When I worked on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum, my first job out of Yale, I went there often with my boss Theodore Rousseau, the Met’s urbane curator of European Paintings.

To walk into The Veau, as it’s known to its regulars, is to enter a seamless, lively fusion of past and present. Those of us long-term patrons are consoled that little has changed: the glow of the room seems the same; the tables are disposed as they always were; the painting of the sleeping calf (“le veau dort,” get it?) hangs where it always has, above the banquettes on the left just past the bar. The menu looks the same, and the choices it presents haven’t changed in 40 years.

It’s less noisy these days; not only can one hear oneself think, one can hear oneself speak. Back when I first started going regularly, the place would be packed at lunch. It was the era of the house account and the private phone number. The Veau’s patronage back then is recorded in two fat three-ring binders that some historian of the city’s social history will have a field day with. Cathy showed me my entry, with a billing address I left in 1984, before flipping to the notation for Marlene Dietrich, with the great star’s private phone number.

Then, let’s be honest, the restaurant seemed to fall out of fashion. Restaurant cooking around the city got more elaborate; the era of the celebrity owner-chef was born, a revolution led by Daniel Boulud. The Food Channel was born. And The Veau’s traditional patronage wasn’t getting any younger. Money and influence were moving into young New Yorkers who wanted to be where the action is, in hot spots frequented by the bold-face names they hope themselves some day to become. The Veau seemed deficient in that regard, its crowd a bit fuddy-duddy.

Not that the restaurant was in harm’s way in the manner of other beloved establishments since Cathy owns the premises. It’s her call as to the sort of place she wants to be (familial and calm, no parties over five), the sort of food she wants to serve, and the sort of clientele to whom she wishes to appeal. She’s not obliged to chase fads in eating and décor in pursuit of the “with it” crowd. She reserves the prerogative of banishment if some blabbermouth seeking media favor leaks that so-and-so was seen dining at The Veau. The well-known can dine here secure in their privacy. These are matters of character and, in my judgment, they’re what have underpinned the restaurant’s renaissance of the last two decades.

All this is well and good, but there’s precious little nutrition in atmosphere. So what about the restaurant’s cooking? It’s classic bistro fare. It makes no concessions to postmodern gastronomic fashion; it’s not one of those places where you can be certain that the cooking will be skillful. I don’t believe I’ve ever spotted the dreaded word “kale” on the menu, but then the carte du jour is pretty much the same as it was in my palmy days, when kale was a curiosity grown by 4-H clubs in Iowa.

It’s a place where people feel comfortable dining alone, and God knows how rare that is in Manhattan today. It gets its share of celebrities, without the drumroll of publicists’ tips and Page Six “Sightings.” The tone of the restaurant is set by its owner; on one occasion, a walk-in patron began to interrogate Cathy so intensely about the gluten content of the île flottante that she advised, with the firm grace that is a hallmark of French restaurant-keeping, that this probably wasn’t the patron’s sort of place. Those of us who’d been eavesdropping got up and applauded.

There are very few places like Le Veau d’Or left, just as, in my view, there are very few of the sort of people appropriate for “Appreciations.” I keep in mind a list of utterances that the world considers profound, but which, on reflection, seem rather silly. One is the declaration (actually a misquotation) by Tancredi in Lampedusa’s The Leopard that for things to stay the same, everything must change. Frankly, as I’ve come to see it, for things to stay the same, things should stay the same. So it is at Le Veau d’Or, where you’ll experience the realization that quality is constant and immutable—in places as well as persons.