A funny thing happened on the way to Barneys. Not just once, but lately, on several occasions, an Upper East Sider or few have been walking along 60th Street when suddenly they’ve spotted a familiar face standing at the door of an unmarked bistro. “I thought you disappeared!” they’ve shouted. (Or, something to that effect.)
In fact, that convivial face at the door hasn’t gone away—it’s just strayed, by a mere few blocks. They’d be talking about one of the lively, accented servers from Le Bilboquet, the beloved Upper East Side French dining spot. Bilbo, as it’s affectionately known, was nestled for years on the north side of 63rd Street, between Madison and Park avenues. The block was your typical movie-set version of residential Upper East Side life: tony townhouses, preppy Park Avenue types walking their dogs at night, a crowd of casual but finely dressed patrons gathering outside the door on smoking shifts. The block felt quiet and homey, and Le Bilboquet could be counted on for an equally at-home ease, albeit tuned up a French notch or two. There, the 30 tables were packed so tightly you sometimes literally crawled over other guests to get to the bathroom, and the clatter of animated European accents and waspy lockjaw drawls made you feel like you couldn’t get any more Upper East Side than this. The food—unwavering French bistro fare—made moules frites the equivalent of mac ’n cheese comfort food for the zip code. It’s understandable, then, that many were saddened two years ago when Bilbo’s doors seemed to close for business.
Alas, Le Bilboquet had only moved, three blocks south to East 60th Street. News spread by word of mouth, but still, some are only now discovering—to their delight—that the institution never went away. In fact, the new Bilboquet is a bigger, grander, even more boisterous version (if such a thing is possible) of its former incarnation. Here, the street is slightly more commercial (in fact, the restaurant fittingly shares the same building as FIAF, the French Institute Alliance Français), yet the interior, by Carolina Von Humboldt of CV Interiors, is like a blown-out version of the former space, nearly quadrupling the size. The décor, in a decidedly understated French manner, takes second seat to the social scene: simple tables covered in white paper allow for the post-modern art on the walls to stand out, and also serves as a nice blank background for the uptown fashions on display. You’re still sandwiched in elbow-to-elbow, but that’s why you’ve come here. There’s a comforting intimacy, if on adrenaline.
Philippe Delgrange, the owner (investors include Ronald Perelman, Eric Clapton, and Steve Witkoff), is still the heartbeat of the house, gliding from table to table to chat with guests. The menu looks almost exactly the same, with relied-upon staples like crab-avocado salad, steak tartare, profiteroles for dessert, and, perhaps most famous of all, Le Poulet Cajun, a surprisingly moist Cajun chicken that’s also knife-and-fork friendly. It’s not suprising, then, that they serve 700 plates of it per week.
Still, the menu has changed, with the introduction of five daily specials as well as more seasonal updates, including, for fall, coq au vin, by executive chef Julien Jouhannaud, who’s also introduced a much-asked-for burger (crafted here with prime-grade beef and foie gras, bien sûr). There’s also a new tartare worth risking a deviation from the tuna and salmon standards for: dorade, done up with jalapeños. Wines are now complemented by a new cocktail list, featuring eight versions of classic, elegant drinks worthy of the Upper East Side but with slight enhancements to remind us we’re in foodie times. A stiff martini is served to perfection, lemon twist and all, but if spice is calling your name in more places than just the dorade tartare, try the A La Grandé, their version of a spicy margarita. A margarita at Le Bilboquet, you may ask? Is this really the same place? Then the lights go down as the crowd bursts out singing over a sparkler-splashed birthday cake being paraded across the room, and suddenly you know you’re home again.
Le Bilboquet: 20 East 60th Street (between Madison and Park avenues). Open daily from 12–4 p.m. for lunch, 5:30–11 p.m. for dinner. Reservations: 212.751.3036; website: lebilboquetny.com.