Even for a Friday night, the place is a scene. The bottleneck at the front door is so tight that even a party of six who’ve arrived together can’t get through at one time. The front of house, with its popular bar along the left-hand wall and rows of tables opposite it, is so jam-packed that even the hostess can’t navigate her way through the gridlock inside. In New York, scenes like this, with their accompanying lines out the door, sometimes signal pretentiousness ahead, but any worry of that is dispelled once you make your way inside, where a friendly downtown face smiles and asks if she can take your coat. She’s not a fashion victim, and she’s certainly not a hipster, but she has a haircut you can probably only get in the neighborhood, and she’s just the right amount of self-styled meets blogger-approved. She’s cool, for lack of a better word, and so is the coat check—a mere bar hanging to the left of the door, open to the crowd.
At this point, your phone buzzes with a text from your friend who’s in from L.A. and specifically requested a reservation here at Raoul’s. “You’re LATE!” pops up, so you slide right and start to justify yourself: “HERE! Just can’t get past the door… Where r u?” In a sea of sexy dim lighting and dark-clad downtowners, it’s hard to pick out anyone in particular, even a friend. Then he texts back: “At the fishtank.” Of course there’s a fishtank here. It sits, center of the room, as the dividing point between the front of house and the back dining area—like a gauzy airline curtain dividing the cabins. You swim your way upstream until you spot the glowing lights of the tank and the bright goldfish. The metaphor makes sense. This isn’t the fishtank of your local Chinese restaurant. Here, it’s more like a work of art in a gallery space. Then again, you’re in the original artists’ mecca, SoHo, and this bistro has fed its fair share of artistes over the past 40 years of its dependable existence.
In a city where trendiness is currency, you wonder, Can it really be 40 years? It’s hard to believe, given the still steady crowds and how downright smart it feels even today. Everything about the place is right. It’s a French bistro done New York–style, meaning neon signs on the front windows, black-and-white banquettes arranged in a somewhat bygone-diner style, original tiles and moldings on the walls—along with art. A lot of art. And good stuff—not just something thrown up here or there, or within the last six months for the opening; this has the feel of a curator’s hand.
The story of Raoul’s began when two brothers, Serge and Guy Raoul, journeyed from Alsace, France, to SoHo, New York. They found a little restaurant for sale but were so poor that they didn’t throw anything out, not even the salt. They kept the chairs until they fell apart or were destroyed in the brawls that marked the early years. Guy turned his Alsatian cooking skills to fine steaks and fish while Serge stood outside and talked up passersby. People began to trickle in, and the word spread. More people came, including Lorne Michaels and the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” People, including more celebrities, came back—and never went away. In short, it’s become a fixture in New York bistro history.
By the time you sit down and settle into your cozy banquette, food seems a mere afterthought. You feel like you’re on the set of a show or movie, and the decade could be any. You can easily imagine the cast of “SNL” showing up, from either the Jim Belushi or Jimmy Fallon days. Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss…they all ate here. You expect Mr. Big to amble in out of his town car parked outside, in high-’90s “Sex and the City” fashion. Speaking of fashion, tonight there are some fashion-house types keeping the high going from recent Fashion Week shows. It’s all abuzz, and that’s before the artichoke vinaigrette, the oysters with mignonette and cocktail sauce, the indisputable king of steak au poivre, and the sinful profiteroles. Few places can marry such an ambiance with food to back it up—and solid French food at that—but this is Raoul’s, and Raoul’s is here to stay.