La Grenouille, the stalwart of East 52nd Street, whose power lunches and towering floral arrangements drew stars and swans for decades, has been a place out of time since the start of this millennium, at the least. The fustiness, the haute Frenchiness, John Fairchild’s Women’s Wear Daily — ”C’est fini!” wrote Sam Sifton, reviewing it for the Times. That was in 2009, nearly 15 years ago. La Grenouille has been stubbornly outliving its moment for as long as I’ve been alive.
To its acolytes and fans (I am one), that is its charm. The “Le” and “La,” and even the one “Lu-,” restaurants of yore (La Côte Basque, Le Pavillon, Lutèce, etc.) are gone. (Le Veau d’Or will supposedly reopen at some point soon under Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, which is welcome but also indicative of the era: These places have gone from French to Frenchette.) La Grenouille has been as it always was, or mostly so: a place where you can still get quenelles and order your dessert soufflé at the start of the meal. It is a family affair: The Massons, who founded the place in 1962 (as the legend goes, matriarch Gisele found the space and wired her husband, Charles, to come back from head-waitering on an ocean liner to open it), run it today: Charles and Gisele’s son, Philippe, the spitting image of his father, whose painted portrait hangs near the back of the dining room, is in charge.
Of course, the story is not so simple, and the above description glosses over the Shakespearean drama lurking behind the scenes. The embattled patrimony; the elderly mother choosing between her sons; the feud between Charles Jr., the younger Masson son, who left college for the restaurant at the age of 19, upon his father’s untimely death, and ran it until the final ascension of Philippe in 2014 — “I hope you had the chance to go when Charles was running it,” one social fixture wailed to me this week, a not uncommon opinion among a certain set. Philippe must have his partisans, too, the ones who appreciate the jazz-vocal performances he has been giving nightly from the dining room.
The drama has not slackened in recent years. There is a lawsuit, tabloid coverage, closings and reopenings and more closings and now the building has been put up for sale. When the restaurant shut down for three months last year under murky circumstances — Department of Buildings issue, ConEd dillydallying: The exact story depends on whom you ask — the end seemed near. But last week, on schedule, La Grenouille opened its doors again. The building seems to still be for sale (the listing broker, William Conrad at Cushman & Wakefield, declined to comment to my colleagues at Curbed), but until such time as it sells, dinner is served.
At 8:15 on Wednesday night, the dining room was about half-full. “I’ve already heard a lot of Russian spoken,” whispered one of my guests, who arrived before me. “We’ve been closed,” our server told us as we sat down. “That’s why it’s quiet tonight. But we’re glad to have you here.”
The flowers tower like they used to, although the arrangements are not the stuff of Charles’s The Flowers of La Grenouille (published in 1994 with an assist from New York’s own Wendy Goodman). There were some old-guard types in the house (was that Joan Sbarro, ex-wife of one of the pizza Sbarros? I believe it was) as well as some more youthful gawkers — at two tables near ours, a young woman eating alone had soon become embroiled in conversation with a pair to her right, two bleach-blonde 30-somethings, one in a black lace mantilla.
The menu remains expensive. At $167 for two courses and $177 for three, adding dessert is the correct choice, assuming you can stomach paying what amounts to $59 for an appetizer of steamed asparagus hollandaise. The plates are looking a little barer than they used to, and supplements abound — I hadn’t realized the little dollop of caviar on my blini with smoked salmon (fine) would be an extra $25 until the bill appeared. (I passed on the $185 Royal Osetra.) The classic pea soup, served in a little two-handled bowl, with an accompanying waiter to spoon over brown-bread croutons, was much better (when someone asks you “Les croutons?” the answer is “oui”), especially once seasoned with the recollection of the La Grenouille-loving friend I brought, S., who mistily remembered sipping it years ago with a literary lion of the 1970s who had arrived for lunch without the benefit of her teeth.
To love this La Grenouille, you probably have to love the now-and-forever La Grenouille, as S. does: to be able to look back fondly, as she does, on her wedding lunch in the upstairs private room (the former studio of the painter Bernard Lamotte, who gave lessons to Charles Sr. and Charles Jr. and whose work decorated La Côte Basque and the Kennedy White House) or dining in the main room on Election Night 2020, spotting Steve Schwarzman at a nearby table. I had better quenelles at similarly out-of-time Eulalie and better sole at Golden Swan. But where else do you get the soufflé (chocolate, vanilla, Grand Marnier, lemon — take your pick) that Jackie O. must have once enjoyed?
Some time mid-meal, the house band, the Buster Frogs, drifted onto a stage blocked off in the back of the rear dining room (what used to be its Siberia) and began to play. Then — you could hear him before you could see him, thanks to a mic-and-speaker setup — Philippe’s voice filled the room. He appeared onstage in his pin-striped suit, the collar rakishly up, a pocket square fluffed out.
“As you can see, we’re closed,” he joked about the unfilled room. In fairness, it was a rainy Wednesday. He did “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” the Louis Armstrong standard; he did “La Vie en Rose” with a slinky duettist. (“Karaoke,” a Charlesist later sniffed to me.) “Frank Sinatra used to come here all the time,” Philippe said. “1995 was the last time. But we like to keep him in the house.” And he launched into “Fly Me to the Moon.” The house endures, for now. As is apparently the custom when Philippe sings, a waiter brought over Champagne with his compliments.
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