Ah, Le Veau d'Or, unsung time machine of French haute cuisine! It was a pleasure to visit the tiny place—ever masked from the public in scaffolding and a colorless facade—for my latest "Who Goes There?" column for Eater.
Unlike almost every other restaurant I've written up for this series, I actually had been there before visiting this time. A couple years ago, I was spurred on by the book "The United States of Arugula," a history of the U.S. culinary revolution, to check the restaurant out, as it is the last vestige of the fine-French-food invasion that blanketed New York after World War II. There I found owner Robert Treboux, living landmark and keeper of information about everything that's gone on in the New York food world over the past half century. He plays host every night.
I urge everyone reading this to go and dine at this wonderful little bistro. For it will only remain as long as 85-year-old Treboux is willing and able to get up every morning and unlock the door.
Here is the item:
Who Goes There? Le Veau d’Or
Midtown East: La Pavillon is gone. La Caravelle, Le Cote Basque, Lutece—all the post-WWII palaces of haute French cuisine—gone. But Le Veau d’Or remains. It was never as important as those other restaurants, but, unlike most of the places I visit for this column, it was actually a significant destination at one time, packing in the likes of Oleg Cassini, Truman Capote, Princess Grace and Craig Claiborne. They’re all gone, and Le Veau d’Or endures only because of the stubborn determination of Frenchman Robert Treboux, who once worked at La Pavillon in the 1950s with the legendary Henri Soule and bought the 50-seat restaurant in 1985.
He never changed a thing about the décor (red banquettes, French street signs) or menu (Coq au Vin, Tripe a la mode De Caen) of the eatery, which opened way back in 1937. Bald-headed, somewhat grouchy and ever dressed in a suit and vest, the 85-year-old Treboux usually hangs out near the front booth, where Orson Welles used to sit. He lives upstairs and owns the small building.
No one under 50 goes to Le Veau d’Or. Most know Treboux well and love him and the old traditions he upholds. They hobble down the few steps from E. 60th Street into the most tightly sealed culinary time-capsule in New York. With lace curtains on the windows, French music piped through the speakers, and an old-fashioned Table d'hôte menu, the space betrays no evidence of the events of the last eight Presidential administrations.
A single, aged waiter handled the six or so parties that paid homage to the place on a recent Wednesday night. Most of the couples greeted him by name; one lady was brought her regular drink before she sat down. Two octogenarian married with matching canes occupied a back table. A self-important, starchy UES duo talked of just having come back from the Inaugural and gossiped about facelifts, legal motions and Elaine Stritch. (For whatever reason, Le Veau d’Or has always attracted a theatrical element.) Many spoke French with the owner and waiter. One aged French coquette came in and thrilled at the sight of Treboux, proclaiming that they had know each other 40 years ago. Treboux did not remember, but nonetheless visited the table several times to chat.
The wine list is French, of course. It’s not very long, and not very specific, identifying only the Bordeaux winemakers. (A half century ago, they were the only vintners that mattered, right?) Dinners costs from $28 to $38 and the menu includes every saucy, heavy French classic you can think of. Most dishes are quite satisfactory, if not exactly inspiring. The most expensive entrée is the Carre d’Agneau Roti, the Rack of Lamb, and it is worth the price if only because is affords the buyer one of the last examples of old-world table service available in the city. The lamb is shown to the customer and then carved and prepared in front of them. No one does this anymore. It’s like watching a butter-churning exhibition. Fascinating. The lady seated next to me, a regular for decades, preferred her lamb served in a particular way and the waiter executed her desires without asking.
If you’re bored easily, you don’t want to come here. But if you want a little respite from the madding crowd, want to hear not the restaurant’s soundtrack but what your companion has to say, crave the abiding comfort of constancy and tradition, and expect to leave full, Le Veau d’Or will cradle you into happiness as surely as mother’s arms.
—Brooks of Sheffield