05 November 2013

East Side French Mainstay Les Sans Culottes Closes

Les Sans Culottes East, the uncelebrated but steadfast old-school French restaurant on Second Avenue near 57th Street—and an early subject of my column "Who Goes There?"—has closed after 37 years. When exactly it shuttered, I do not know, but it appears to have been sometime in May. But the interior is gutted and the phone has been disconnected. A sign in the window—captured in an Instagram photo—says the owners lost their lease.

The joint opened in 1976. It was owned by the same family throughout its run, with various members of the clan to be seen around the place, performing the duties of host, waiter, cook, etc. Prices were always low, for French food. And the restaurant had an interesting calling card. Once you sat down, an enormous basket of fruit and vegetables and a wire stand garlanded with sausage arrived at your table. You picked off what you liked and ate. It was on the house.

Here's what I wrote about the place back in 2008:

Who Goes There? Les Sans Culottes East 
Les Sans Culottes East, the musty French mainstay on Second Avenue near 57th, must have one of the oddest culinary greetings in town. They don’t just bring you bread soon after sitting down, or bruscetta, or an amuse bouche. They crowd your table with a huge basket of raw fruits and vegetables (everything from cantaloupe to radishes to whole celery stalks) and what I can only describe as a sausage tree: a wire stand draped with links of variously thick and thin tubular meats. There is also bread, a bowl of a house dressing and a dish of some kind of pate.
Le Sans Culottes has been starting meals that way since the restaurant opened in 1976 on this unremarkable stretch of Second Avenue, in the shadow of the Roosevelt Avenue Tram. The menu—divided into differently priced prix fixes and replete with old standards like Coq au Vin and Truite Meuniere—has hardly changed since then. My waiter, the son of the chef and owner, said that hue and cry ensued when they once took that quaint old standby, Chicken Cordon Bleu, off the list. They were forced to reinstate it.
The red-white-and-blue façade (French colors, not American) is pretty distressed. The inside is newer looking, as if there had been a remodeling in recent years. The décor errs on the wrong side of kitsch: A Lillet poster on the wall; wallpaper featuring French peasants hoisting the tri-color; a large oil painting of the storming of the Bastille; clocks that tell the time in New York and Paris. If Les Sans Culottes (which means “those without knee-breeches”—the French peasants who revolted back when) was ever reviewed, there’s no evidence. Nary a clipping adorns the dining room.
The restaurant is the epitome of the neighborhood place. My waiter—who said he began working there as a dishwasher when he was 13—said regulars from the immediate area sustain the place. “The same people who saw me when I was a boy see me now.” If the family that runs the place doesn’t own the building, they certainly act as if they did. Clan members roam in and out of the kitchen, laughing and talking, smoking cigarettes on the pavement outside. Kids tromp about the room and, when told to do their homework, climb up the stairs to the second-floor private party room, as if they were going to their bedrooms (which, in fact, they may be).
Their mother—my waiter’s stepmom, it turned out—is a thin, stylish, utterly French woman with a dark bob, who joked with the customers, opened bottles of wine and moved her feet to the bad Europop that played over the speakers. And the food? The sausage tree may have been the best part of the meal. My Cordon Bleu was fine, but grew less flavorful with each bite, and the frites were on the stale side. The people at the few other occupied tables in the room, however, were loving their meals.
Oh—and “East”? There used to be another restaurant in the Theatre District


Jeff G said...

Before it was Les Sans Culottes East it was another French restaurant, Le Moal. I remember it because it was one of the very first places that my parents took me out to dinner with them.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Well, what do you know?!

maximum bob said...

My favorite restaurant in NYC...
I will always remember it and the Doyers St. Vietnamese restaurant with great fondness.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed that writeup -- thank you! The description of it Les Sans Culottes being a "musty mainstay" (so spot on!), and the untidy charm of " The décor errs on the wrong side of kitsch: A Lillet poster on the wall; wallpaper featuring French peasants hoisting the tri-color; a large oil painting of the storming of the Bastille..."

I enjoyed their bottomless terrines of country-style, coarse ground pork pate. I learned a few years ago that they'd closed, forgot, then learned all over again just now, now that I'm jonesing for their pate.

Any suggestions for alternate similar places?