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The Pleasures of Dining at Le Périgord

On a Wednesday night in January, one of those frigid nights that marked the start of 2004, temperatures were nearing record-breaking levels, theater attendance was down, and DVD rentals were up. Still, within warm and welcoming Le Périgord on the edge of Sutton Park, hardly an empty table could be found.

To enter is to come out of the cold in more ways than one. Proprietor Georges Briguet is virtually on the doorstep  greeting  customers like they are old friends. Many are. Le Périgord has been around for forty years and among its devoted clientele are people who have been frequenting his restaurant for a long, long time.

In an industry hardly known for staying power, Le Périgord’s longevity under the same ownership seems remarkable. Not longer after our visit, we learned Lutèce was closing. La Côte Basque would soon be no more. But Le Périgord, another among the great French restaurants that debuted in Manhattan  during the post-war decades introducing la haute cuisine to the American palate, continues to thrive.

Some le Périgord customers are old friends - click to enlarge
Some le Périgord customers are old friends
The Swiss-born Briguet is not mystified by his success. “My secret is very simple,” he told us as the waiter uncorked a bottle of Moet and Chandon.  It was exactly two weeks after New Year’s Eve, and the atmosphere seemed conducive to celebration.

“You have to love what you do and you have to spend time on the premises. You can’t go traveling all the time. And then, you must give quality but at the same time offer good value. With a prix-fixe dinner of $62 for appetizer, entrée, and dessert, Le Périgord is the best value in town.  You can go to a bistro and spend that much.

Georges Briguet, jovial restaurateur - click to enlarge
Georges Briguet, jovial restauranteur 
“I had a prix-fixe menu from the day I opened up,” the jovial restaurateur continued. “Only then it was $6.50 for the same dinner you will have tonight. But back then, I was paying $600 a month rent.”

We considered the array of offerings that combined the contemporary and the classic on the prix-fixe menu. “Here I insist the food be like in France, modern but home-made,” said Georges. “People in the kitchen, they know how to cook.”

At the table beside ours, they were flambéing, then filleting a Dover Sole. Tempting.  The roasted veal chop with anise and yogurt lemon sauce was appealing. We decided on some signature dishes. Peppery pan-fried sweetbreads topped with a little pile of greens, crisp on the outside, delicate on the inside. Le Périgord’s famed crusted turbot in a sauce that melds a mild cheese from the Jura region of Switzerland, Dijon mustard, and champagne into a puree. (“We don’t use cream any more,” said Georges, “but if someone wants a dish with cream sauce, we’ll make it for them.”) Moist and delectable duck breast flavored with orange and served with wild rice and spaetzle. Langoustine with miniature zucchini that evoked something of Asia. Then, as there was no need to hurry out into the cold night, we patiently waited twenty minutes for the luscious luxury of a Grand Marnier-flavored soufflé.

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Our waiter’s gracious, fluid service was a natural accompaniment to the excellence of the food. He is a native of Santiago, Spain, we learned, and has been at Le Périgord for many a year. His story seemed intriguing; we will have to get it next time. This time, over coffee, we heard the story of Georges Briguet and Le Périgord.

“In Switzerland if you are very intelligent, you become a banker,” he began. “If you’re less intelligent, like me, you work in a hotel. I started working very, very young in one of the best hotels in Zurich where the Fords and the Chryslers used to stay. It was there that I met Henry J. Taylor, the American ambassador to Switzerland. I told him I would like to spend some time in America. He said, ‘No problem.’ He gave me his card and told me to go to the American Embassy.

“I came back and told him, ‘They received me like a king.’

“‘You are a king,’ he said. ‘Go to America and you will have a job right away at the Waldorf Astoria.’

“I was 22 years old when I opened up the Marco Polo club at the Waldorf as maitre d’,” Georges continued. “Three years later I moved on to become captain at a new restaurant, La Grenouille. That was where I met Willie Krauss. In those days, he was the best chef in America.

“I wanted my own place. My parents owned a vineyard in Switzerland; they had always worked for themselves. I had the same mentality. And so, in 1964, with Willie as my partner and chef, I took over this restaurant. It was already named Le Périgord after the region in southwest France famous for truffles and foie gras. We didn’t have to put up a dime. The couple who owned it wanted to retire and go back home to France. They gave us notes for six years.”

He leaned back and smiled. “It had been successful already but once we took over it was quite another story. We changed the menu completely and came up with our own style of cooking.  A month after we opened, Craig Claiborne came in.  I recognized him from La Grenouille.  He gave us four stars, and we were on our way.

“One night about six months later, Richard Burton came in with Elizabeth Taylor. They were staying at the Regency and after that first visit, they continued to come here nearly every night, always sitting at the same table in the corner so no one would see them. Then one day a picture of the two of them leaving the restaurant appeared on the front page of the New York Post. The awning with the restaurant’s name was visible above them. From that day on, we had to turn people away.”

From such auspicious beginnings, Le Périgord remains a magnetic destination, drawing a distinguished and often well known clientele. “For lunch we are full of diplomats from the United Nations,” Georges told us. “Kofi Annan is here all the time. I remember when he was a simple worker from Ghana. Today he is just as simple. Henry Kissinger, who lives nearby, comes here often. He always sits at table 35, with his back against the wall. Kissinger brought President Nixon here who returned many times. After every meal, he’d have the chef sit down with him and explain each detail of his dinner. President Reagan was here with Charlton Heston, Presidents Carter and Clinton were here. Moshe Dayan dined at Le Périgord often, always sitting at table number one. A prince of a man. He knew his food better than the chef.

“Laurence  Rockefeller is still a regular. He always sits near the door, to the left of the entrance. Once I asked ‘What is so special about this table? After all the food is the same wherever you sit.’ He looked at me with a straight face and said, ‘In case of fire, I’ll be the first one out on the street.’

“The whole French community comes here,” Georges continued. “The French ambassador to the United Nations tells me ‘You have the best food in town. Why should I waste my time going somewhere else?’”

Although the non-renowned and non-regular guests are made to feel welcome at Le Périgord, Georges Briguet does attend to his long-time clientele. “I never book the entire restaurant,” he told us. “I always keep five or six tables empty even if I have to turn people away in case some regular guest should come in without a reservation. That was my philosophy from the first day. When you run an exclusive restaurant like Le Périgord, you have to take care of your friends, the people who come to you all the time, first.”

The philosophy like the food has its timeless, classical quality. “In 40 years, I’ve had three chefs,” Georges said. “After my partner retired, I had one for 14 years, then another one for five years, and now Joel Benjamin. All French.”

But things do change “because in New York, you have to be au courant,” Georges conceded. The interior, for example, has been renovated four times.  The most recent renovation was done two years ago by his son Jean Luc, an architect and designer who has designed and built homes from many prominent people.  

The space of Le Périgord brings to mind something of the big Technicolor movies of the 1950’s. Walls are a restful amber, plush banquettes are dusty rose and chairs pale green silk. Pin-point lighting is directed onto tables where gleaming silver bowls are filled with peach-colored roses in perfect bloom. The mood of tranquil elegance is enhanced by reflections in copper-hued mirrors that sheath floor-to-ceiling pillars throughout the room.

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“Our décor is simple and subdued, classical,” Georges declares. “That is my vision. I did not want a carnival here.

“I feel good here. I can spend 15 hours a day in the restaurant.” He pauses and smiles. “People ask when I will retire. This is my life. I love what I do. I will never give up doing what I love.”

Le Périgord
405 East 52nd Street
New York, NY 10022

Phone: 212 755 6244

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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