Many French restaurants in New York pride themselves on cooking and looking as Parisian as possible. But only one has a bona-fide garret. “My father was like a squirrel. He would keep things,” Charles Masson says, surveying the tiny, crammed room that was his late father’s painting studio—a retreat from Masson père’s duties as owner of the busy restaurant below, La Grenouille. Now it’s a studio and retreat for the son, who also paints there. The ties and shirts hanging by the narrow stairs—day-job clothes—belong to Masson, who, along with his mother, Gisèle, owns and runs the restaurant on East 52nd Street.
Having an artist on-site is a longtime tradition for this building. Built originally as the stable house for the Platt (now Cartier) mansion across the street, it was home in the late thirties and early forties to the painter Bernard Lamotte, who lived and worked on the second floor in what is now La Grenouille’s private dining room. (His uncle slept in the garret.) Lamotte, who painted the murals at La Côte Basque, was a rather good-looking bohemian who entertained with zeal at le bocal (“the fishbowl”), as he called his quarters. Regular guests included Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Shortly after the Massons opened La Grenouille in 1962, Lamotte, no longer a tenant, came in as a customer. “What are you doing in my house?” he asked. He soon became a friend of the family’s, though, giving the younger Masson painting lessons in the garret. The rest of the restaurant has been gently renovated over the years. But “when you come up to this little room,” says Masson, “it is the only place that hasn’t changed at all.”