My grandfather, a lifelong New Yorker, had a favorite restaurant in town, along with a favorite haberdasher, a favorite barber, a favorite gentleman’s club. The restaurant was called Giovanni’s, on 55th Street between Madison and Park. It was run by Pramaggiore Giovanni himself, an avuncular gentleman from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, who, like André Soltner, over on 50th Street at Lutèce, lived with his family in one of the apartments above the restaurant. Like Lutèce in its heyday, Giovanni’s was a place of settled order and habit, where the same sort of people dined again and again. The headwaiter called my grandfather “Il Commandatore” (“The Commander”) and always brought him a martini made with Marie Brizard gin. An antipasti cart always followed the martini, and, always, my grandfather ordered the clams en gelée, followed by a plate of gnocchi à la Romana. Then, after the meal, Giovanni came to the table, and the two gentlemen took a couple of drinks of grappa from an old bottle the proprietor kept upstairs.
Giovanni’s is an Italian restaurant, of course, and it’s long gone, but I thought of it this year, as the old French restaurants of that era began closing around town, one after the other, like so many faded Broadway shows. In February, Lutèce closed, after a brief, unsuccessful makeover at the hands of a restaurant conglomerate called the Ark Restaurants (the Las Vegas branch of Lutèce survives). Jean-Jacques Rachou at La Côte Basque plastered the walls of his grand old restaurant with mirrors and shining brass railings and reopened as a crowd-pleasing brasserie. Then, in May, André and Rita Jammet shuttered La Caravelle, the most nostalgic, least diminished of the old Francophile institutions. On the last night, the regulars gathered to take a final look at the luminous green murals painted by Jean Pages. Walter Cronkite, the kindly grandfather for a certain segment of Old New York, told a reporter from the Times that he’d been coming to La Caravelle for 43 years. For his last supper he ordered what he always ordered at La Caravelle: a plate of pike quenelles in lobster cream sauce.
Restaurants are a generational business, and, like my grandfather, Mr. Cronkite belongs to a dwindling generation of diners who took comfort in custom and ritual. Of course, these days, custom and ritual are in short supply in restaurant-obsessed Manhattan. Both La Caravelle and La Côte Basque sprung from New York’s original haute cuisine restaurant, Le Pavillon, named by its proprietor, Henri Soule, for the famous French pavilion in the 1939 World’s Fair. So many of Truman Capote’s millionaire friends frequented La Côte Basque that he titled a story after the restaurant, and Jackie Onassis was the great jet-set patron of La Caravelle. But both restaurants had been fading for years, and it’s no accident their demise has coincided with a profusion of new and outlandish places to eat. A series of behemoth Japanese restaurants have recently landed in town, peddling everything from freshly made artisanal tofu (EN Japanese Brasserie) to hundred-dollar cuts of Kobe-beef “chateaubriand” (Megu). These days, classically trained chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten are busy exploring the wonders of Southeast Asian street food (Spice Market), and in the new Time Warner Center, it’s possible to dine at a different new restaurant for an entire week without ever leaving the building.
This is not such a bad thing, of course. Like haberdashers and barber shops, and everything else in the big city, restaurants come and restaurants go. The old Giovanni’s townhouse has been replaced by an office building, but the Jammets are threatening to open a new, more casual restaurant next year. There is still plenty of good food being cooked in town, French and otherwise, and decades from now, when Le Bernardin, say, or the Union Square Café closes down, doleful regulars will file in for one last taste of their favorite dish. You can still get a plate of pike quenelles at the last of the great old French dowager establishments, La Grenouille, although they’re not quite the same as the ones Mr. Cronkite enjoyed at La Caravelle. Quenelles are poached dumplings, and the trick is to make them soft, but not so soft that they lose their shape. To get the full effect of the lobster sauce, I always ate them at La Caravelle with a spoon. For the record, they tasted soothing and a little decadent, like some grand, gentleman’s form of baby food.