When Cathy Treboux told me she was selling Le Veau d’Or, the restaurant on East 6oth Street that she and her late father bought in 1986, it made me sad. For Cathy of course, who after her father died fought a valiant battle against city bureaucracies, unreliable utilities, and the endless importuning of real-estate types, but also for myself. On and off for almost 65 years, since as a teenager I was first taken to Le Veau by my parents, I had been something of a regular there; les Treboux were my third set of owners. In the past two decades, however, since I moved back to Brooklyn from Sag Harbor, the restaurant has been the culinary star I steered by. If I made the perilous crossing of the East River to lunch or dine with friends, business associates, or fellow journalists, and the choice of venue was up to me, it was to Le Veau that I headed. Period. It was my “go to” place, my gastronomic home away from home, my “onlie beloved.”
The restaurant is now being taken over by the owners of Frenchette, the fashionable West Broadway establishment that is very du moment, a magnet for the Manhattan food crowd that clamors to be where it’s at, whatever “it” is. I’ve eaten at Frenchette twice; their wine guy, Jorge Riera, is an old acquaintance from a restaurant in Red Hook that my now wife and I frequented in my early days in Brooklyn. The cooking is estimable, although the first meal I had there, a dinner, was somewhat compromised by the noise, which has become an essential part of the modern restaurant aesthetic, if you will. Seated a few feet apart, across a booth, Tamara and I couldn’t hear what the other was saying.
The next time I ate at Frenchette, guest of a cousin who has become a formidable habitué of the place, it was clear that an effort had been made to mitigate the noise factor, and the wine and food were admirable. But Frenchette’s assumption of the mantle of Le Veau, or vice versa, depending how one sees things, won’t fill the giant hole that’s opened up in my life.
Here’s the thing. When I visit a restaurant, what’s on my plate isn’t as important to me as the atmosphere of the place, of which a central component is the sort of people I find myself dining among. I’m too old to care about placement; give me a table next to the men’s room and I’m perfectly happy—as long as the crowd passes muster. I’m past the point in life where one judges oneself in terms of the deference of headwaiters. I don’t suffer from FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—nor do I calculate my existential (or any other kind of) worth by the boldfacedness or reported wealth of the names I see elsewhere in the room. Chances are, the more fashionable a place is, the less it will appeal to me. I’m one of those old goats who says things like “When ‘21’ was still ‘21’ ” as the eyes of younger companions at table glaze over.
And I don’t care how great the food in a place is said to be, or how many stars Pete Wells allotted it in the Times, I’m not going to stand in line or loiter for an hour on the sidewalk so as to be able to eat a famous hamburger or whatever at the bar. Never have, never will—although if you’re 83, “never” carries a different, more ominous connotation than it once did.
What this all means is that I will need a new “go to” Manhattan restaurant. Uptown in Manhattan, that is. As nice as their downtown version is, and notwithstanding that the Frenchette people are going to preserve Le Veau’s incomparable slice-out-of-time dining-room, I rather doubt that the makeover will suit me—or I it. The cooking will surely be admirable, more Instagrammable than its predecessor’s cuisine, and more talked about. In some quarters, it was fashionable to deprecate Le Veau’s menu, but when I took one of this city’s leading food critics there for lunch, he remarked that the tripe was as good as he’d had anywhere.
It was all very straightforward: the wine list consisted of a handful of reds, a smattering of whites, a bubbly or two and a decent rose. Not for Cathy a carte des vins resembling the Book of Kells in size and priceyness—but that seems to be what people today want. Dining today is like so much else; it’s supposed to be “an experience” to be memorialized in one’s phone and circulated on Instagram and Facebook. And “experiences” draw crowds; just think of that famous recent photograph of the throng packing the final runup to the summit of Mt. Everest.
So: what are the qualities that my “go to” restaurant must exhibit? Not crowded and never a line. Decent food. Room to talk and think; a minimum of noise. The right look: A French bistro like Le Veau should look as if Emile Zola’s about to walk in; an Italian place—like Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, my Brooklyn “go to”—should be spare, straightforward, and modern: no straw-wrapped fiaschi and bad watercolors of Portofino.
Away from Midtown would be a must. My orthopedic circumstances have eliminated the MTA from my travel arsenal; I depend on Uber and its like to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back. At 60th between Lexington and Park, Le Veau is on the upper border of possibility for me. I was in the market for something a bit further uptown.
Of course, wherever I ended up would be a change from Le Veau’s essentially clublike spirit. We regulars knew each other; many of us were of an age, and manifested similar social tastes and inclinations. Table-to-table conversations were frequent. With the restaurant’s closing, the old gang will have scattered; there are reports that the new owners have a VIP list that will include a number of Veau regulars, but overall the crowd is going to be discernably different, exemplars of a socioeconomic order for which I don’t qualify—even if I aspired to.
I knew my search would be serendipitous; I couldn’t exactly trek up and down the East Side trying one place then another. So it was through a dinner invitation from a dear friend that I discovered Caffe dei Fiori, at 973 Lexington. The food was delicious—and original without being idiotic. The atmosphere was cordial; the noise level negligible. I liked the people who worked there, and the other diners seemed the right sort: no smartphone brandishing or other type of “foodie” showing-off. And there’s a nice bench outside where I can do my old-boy-on-a-stoop routine, and just sit and watch the city go on its frazzling way.
Caffe dei Fiori is just up the avenue from Sette Mezzo, a more famous, reported-upon hangout—Sunday dinner especially—of the rich and famous. It’s a nice place, with good food and agreeable staff, but for me it’s just too…well…too…oh, you know what I mean. And a bit further down Lexington is Brasserie Cognac, a welcoming French restaurant with OK cooking, but its tables are awfully close together.
So for the nonce at least, I’ll be giving Caffe dei Fiori a “go to” run-through. So far, the auguries are promising. I’ve given lunch to a number of different friends, including a French chum famous in the realm of the senses, and all have enthused. So far so good, then—and in today’s world, who can ask for more than that?