I've been reading David Kamp's entertaining history of gormet eating in America over the past 75 years or now, "The United States of Arugula," and was fascinated by a footnote that said a little bistro named Le Veau D'Or on E. 60th Street was the last known vestige of the great flourishing of French restaurants that sprung up in Manhattan in the years after World War II. Last vestige? My kind of thing. I determined to make a pilgrimage.
The owner of Le Veau D'Or worked directly under Henri Soule, the stubborn, exacting owner of Le Pavillion, the first of the boites to bring French haute cuisine to dumb old canned-corn America. From that restaurant was born a host of storied children, including Le Cote Basque, La Caravelle and many other "Le"s and "La"s. All gone now, exact this tiny enclave, tucked next to a Chase Bank, around the corner from Bloomingdale's. According to the head waiter—more on him later—the menu hasn't changed since 1937, when the restaurant opened. And according to Camp, the decor hasn't changed either.
I made a reservation for 6 PM. I thought I would have to. This turned out to be a misapprehension. I arrived at the correct address at the appointed hour and realized I had passed by the place a million times and just assumed it was an anonymous, slightly decrepit, French dump of dubious reputation; one of those places you see year after year and never comtemplate entering, for various reasons—you never see it written up; no one ever recommends it; there are curtains in the window, forever drawn, preventing you from seeing what the inside looks like, etc. Well, here I was. It didn't look promising, dim and dusty. But history called, so in I went.
Not a soul. Seated, that is. Two men standing. A grand old man, bald as a billiard ball, jaw of granite, in black suit and grey waitcoat, who greated me. This turned out to be Robert Treboux, the owner, and the fabled last link to Soule in New York. The other, slightly younger, with slicked-back silver hair, glasses and a hangdog air of faded dignity, was the head waiter. There was also a sole busboy. This was the staff.
I was told I could sit anywhere and chose a four-top toward the back, so I could survey the restaurant at my leisure. It could have been 1937. Red leather banquets. Oil paintings, including one of a lamb tucked sweetly in bed. Pictures of old France. French street signs. Pink tableclothes with a white overlay set at a diagonal. A cozy little wooden bar toward the front backed by a huge mirror. An unused coat check near the door. In short, the look and layout of a Franco-American dining den during the glorious, post-war days of New York.
No music played. Time stood still, or, rather, creeped by. I looked at the menu. All the bygone classics: Beer Bourgonoine, Coq au Vin, Cassoulet, Escargot, French Onion Soup. No nods to the changing times and tastes. Other guests trickled in, obviously regulars. No one younger than I. They chatted with Treboux. How was his foot? I noticed a cast. Gout? "Not good," he said. Someone mentioned his birthday was coming up. "I'm going to be 82," he huffed. "Isn't that terrible?"
The wine list was a challenge. No wine names or makers, just varietals. The prices were not bad, so I decided to get a bottle. I asked the waiter to recommend either the Cote du Rhone or the Bordeaux. Of course, he affirmed the Bordeaux to be better. He came back with a bottle and said, sotto voce, that it wasn't on the list and was better than the bottle he was supposed to give me. It was indeed good. Nothing special, but for a $25 Bordeaux, quite a pleasing accompaniment to the dinner.
I chose the Bourgonoine. I felt I should stick to one of the traditional meals. The menu prices, while expensive on the surface, where actually great deals, since they all included an appetizer and a dessert. The old bill of fare arrangement. I began with French onion soup and ended with a crepe stuffed with creamy ice dream and topped with hot caramel, ladled from a coppery pot set upon my table. Grade? Probably a C+. The beef was a bit chewy, the soup a tad greasy and everything bespoke of a lack of care. But definitely servicable, and, given the atmophere, old world charm, decor and whispers of history, I was pretty much in heaven. It was a place to love and cherish. They did what they believed in. They thought they had hit the mark back in 1937 and didn't see any reason to alter the model.
In 1968, the New York Times gave four stars to only seven restaurants. They were: La Caravelle, Lafayette, La Grenouille, Le Veau d' Or, Peter Luger, Quo Vadis and Shun Lee Dynasty.
I pumped the laconic, but friendly waiter for info. He told me the owner was ill and would probably have to retire next year. Then, the place would close. "His daughter is not interested in carrying on." What if a new owner could be found? "I wouldn't want to work here anymore. After he [Treboux] is gone, I will leave."
On the way out, I ventured to talk to Treboux, who was seated at the bar. I held up Camp's book and said, "I've been reading about you."
"Ah! I didn't have very nice things to say about Soule."
"Well, if he wasn't a nice man, he wasn't a nice man."
"I worked for him for five years."
"And now you're the last to carry on the tradition of Soule and Le Pavillion."
"Well, I don't know about that. We try."
"I heard your birthday is coming up soon."
"Yes. I don't know if that is a reason for celebration."
"Well, Happy Birthday."
Henri Soule. Julia Child. Craig Claiborne. James Beard. Pierre Franey. Jacques Pepin. Here was a man who knew them all, alone in his restaurant, stolidly upholding a chapter in New York culinary history. I said goodnight.