15 January 2010

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Le Rivage"?

For this week's "Who Goes There?," I ventured onto Restaurant Row. With the number of old holdouts on that strip, I suspect I'll be back again soon. I'm looking at you, La Rivista!

Who Goes There? Le Rivage

Few blocks have a more stubborn dining profile than Times Square's Restaurant Row, the strip of showfolk and tourist redoubts along West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. Broadway Joe Steakhouse, Barbetta, La Rivista, The Hourglass Tavern, Joe Allen, Lattanzi, Meson Sevilla—these places might as well have actual roots reaching miles below the pavement, they're so absolutely there.

One of the oldest is Le Rivage, the unpretentious French bistro which has been run by the Denamiel family since 1984. A third-generation Denamiel is actually in the kitchen: Chef Paul Denamiel. Prior to their life in Hell's Kitchen, the Denamiels ran a similar place on East 86th Street called Cafe du Soir for a couple decades. Even in 1968, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne called the menu "predictable." No food trend goes un-ignored at Le Rivage. You want Trout Amandine? Frog Legs, Chicken Cordon Blue, Tournedoes? Of course you do. Your grandparents wanted them, so did you parents. Why not you? And Le Rivage remembers your parents. They used to come here before the theater; still do, actually. And now you come. Le Rivage gets multiple generations of regulars, old folks with bow ties and canes, and longtime friends who gab on into the night about other old friends, over sorbet and coffee and dessert wine.

Most patrons have abandoned the scene by 7:30 PM and a ghostly silence falls over the warm, faded, brick-and-wood-lined room, giving your plenty of time to contemplate the countless copper pans that hang on the walls, and the many bad oil paintings, all by one "D. Ruperti." (There's a snug, elevated eating nook in back, if you really want to be alone with Ruperti's brightly hued landscapes.) But a steady trickle of diners takes advantage of the off-hours, all greeted solicitously first by the tall, thin, attractive and proper young hostess from Eastern Europe, who doubles as coat-check girl; and then by The Madame of the house. Madame is the only French speaker on the floor. Dressing chicly in black, she brings a bottle to the hostess. "I brought the Medoc. I thought we needed the Medoc." She clears out soon after curtain time as well. The lady didn't have far to go; the Denamiel family owns the building and, I believe, lives upstairs.

The big Slavic waitresses, who look like they belong at Polonia on First Avenue, tred heavily and smile easily, saying "bon appetit" as they bring large, hot plates to your table. The edges of the platters are inscribed, in a gesture of old-fashioned dignity, with the words "Le Rivage"—just like those forgotten, paperweight-heavy, hotel and shipping-line dishes you find at Fishs Eddy. The food is not overly spiced, or overly flavored for that matter. But, have no doubt, it is predicable. Claiborne would recognize it.
—Brooks of Sheffield


Shannon said...

Ooh... I have been to this place and it was terrible. Rude service and greasy overcooked food. Glad they have regulars, for their sake.

mingusal said...

Ahhh, my 84 year old father's favorite pre-theater restaurant. I think he's gone there on every one of his frequent visits to Manhattan that I can recall over the past 30 years. He sure remembers the frog legs - it's one of his favorites.

Despite the generally tired atmosphere, there are a few things they still do pretty well here. But Chez Napolean a few blocks north is overall better for this sort of thing I think.

Ed said...

While I like old restaurants, this place really sounds like a bad restaurant. It reminds me why I never eat on "Restaurant Row" (and I used to work near there). It will close after its last customers die, and in this one case I'm not sure if this is not a loss.