Christmas in July at Café Des Artistes
Think Café des Artistes and it’s Christmas in New York. No other
dining room in the city captures the sparkle of the season like this
jewel-box of a restaurant in the Hotel des Artistes where George
Balanchine used to live and where a few blocks away at Lincoln Center his Nutcracker
Suite enchants an ever new generation each holiday season.
||But our last visit was in midsummer.
The sun had not yet set when we arrived, and the trees along Central
Park West, thickly leafed, were still casting long, deepening shadows.
Yet the Café glittered in a way that bespoke Christmas even on a mild
Monday evening in July.
It had been a while, too long, we thought as we settled into a
banquette. Behind us, leaded windows, their sills overflowing with potted
azaleas and begonias, looked out onto a West 67th Street that
always seemed as much Paris as New York. Before us a profusion of
gardenias and passion flowers spilled extravagantly across a rectangular
table. And all around were the murals, Howard Chandler Christy’s nubile
nudes frolicking in lush gardened settings. One of the many artists who
have lived in the Hotel des Artistes, Christy was the first to buy an
apartment when both the building and restaurant opened in 1917. He was
born in Ohio and painted the murals in the 1930’s and 40’s. Yet they
evoke the Art Nouveau/Bohemian/Central European ambience that has defined
the Café for nearly seventy years.
||This evening, the dining room was filled with a sophisticated, well
dressed, and multi-generational crowd. The staff was multi-generational as
well. The familiar face belonged to Hiran Pagan, a native of Puerto Rico
who has been on the job since 1954. A distinctive presence, warm and at
the same time distinguished, we remembered him from a previous visit.
Small wonder people call for reservations and request Hiran’s tables. He
has no plans to retire, he told us, ever. And
then there was the youthful headwaiter whose first encounter with the Café
was on a hotel school trip. “When I began working here, I felt like a
new baseball player coming into Yankee Stadium,” he said.
The ebullience, enthusiasm, and desire to please, infectious among
the staff, are a reflection of the attitude of George Lang, the Café’s
charismatic proprietor since 1975. When he was originally asked by the
Hotel des Artistes board to take over what had become a deteriorating
property during that bleak period in New York City, the restaurant
developer who lived down the block declined. But soon after, a rainy night
and a lack of taxis on West 67th changed his mind. “If there
was a successful restaurant on this block, we’d never have trouble
getting a taxi,’” he told his wife Jenifer.
And with that, George Lang, the one-time Hungarian refugee and
Holocaust survivor, committed to the renovation and operation of Café des
Artistes. Known as the Gastronomic
Impresario for having opened 200 restaurants in as many as eighteen
countries, George stopped before our table just as one of us was
helplessly succumbing to a second helping of the irresistible
rustic bread served at the Café, the sole product of a tiny bakery in
Long Island City. We asked him to sit down, but he demurred. “I learned
long ago in the restaurant business you never sit down with a guest. Why?
The people at the next tables will say ‘Why isn’t he sitting with
me?’ Also anything can happen in the dining room and you won’t notice
it because you are too busy enjoying yourself.”
and Jenifer Long
|But George did tell us his vision for the legendary property he
decided to take on. “The trick was to build a new house but leave the
old house there. I did a lot of research
to discover what was there, what cannot be changed, what should be
changed, and to what purpose. I learned the restaurant was originally a
home for artists, writers, and politicians who lived in the building and
on the block. They came here and felt like they were still at home. That
is what I have tried to recreate.
“Still I have to make sure tradition does not become a jailer. If
every time you think you cannot do this, you cannot do that, you can only
do what has been done, it will not work. We want to keep the atmosphere of
1917 with the technical advances of today.”
So they have. Café des Artistes remains a popular neighborhood
place, but it is also a destination restaurant with an international and
frequently illustrious clientele. It has, according to George, one of the
highest percentages of regulars among restaurants anywhere in the world.
Our midsummer visit reinforced past pleasures. The Café’s
comfortable atmosphere suggests a familiar and well-loved bistro in Paris,
or maybe Vienna, or maybe even Budapest where George comes from –albeit
in surroundings of greater luxury and with a cuisine of greater complexity
under the direction of Finnish-born chef Ari Nieminen.
Ari changes his menu frequently to take advantage of seasonal
products and tries out new concepts regularly at tasting sessions with
George, Jenifer, and the staff. Still he seems to remain true to what
George calls the Café’s essential cuisine
bourgeoise with signature dishes like pot au feu and schnitzel
of weiner or sturgeon.
But we were inclined to more summery selections: icy blue point
oysters (order half a dozen, and seven arrive shimmering on a jumble of
ice), pure-green asparagus in a light vinaigrette (in the springtime,
it’s possible to dine on an entire menu devoted to asparagus), and
height-of-the-season soft shell crabs with braised, garlicky mustard
greens and arugula and trumpet mushrooms in a warm tomato vinaigrette. And
then there was the Dover sole, classically grilled, moist and tender,
served with fondant potato that melted into the juices.
||Café des Artistes has a substantial but manageable wine list.
It’s possible to order quite good wines that are not very expensive,
half as well as full bottles. We had a clean, crisp California chardonnay
that was perfect for July, Chalk Hill (Somona County, Pomona) 1999.
There is a nice selection of dessert wines as well – including
ice wine from New Zealand, ports and Madeiras by the glass, and a slew of
refreshing desserts made with ice creams, sorbets, and a range of summer
fruits. But through all the seasons the Ilona Torte is a staple. This
flourless walnut espresso chocolate cake is based on the one George’s
mother used to make.
Recently we were talking to some friends about how so many
restaurants come and go. Short lives seem to be the rule. By comparison,
Café des Artistes’ longevity is exceptional, even if one limits it to
the nearly three decades of George Lang’s domain.
He had said to us, “My dream is for the original owner of Café
des Artistes, the man who opened the restaurant in 1917, to awaken like
Rip Van Winkle, come into the Café for dinner, and then say to me
‘George, you did a pretty good job.’”
No doubt about it; he would.
# # #
Café des Artistes
One West 67th Street
New York, NY
Phone: 212 877-3500
Photographs: Fern Berman Communications
# # #
Having celebrated its eighteenth birthday this year, Montrachet is
yet another among the select New York City restaurants that can claim
longevity. Not only does it
survive and thrive, this, our favorite downtown eatery successfully
continues its original mission: truly fine French cuisine in an
unpretentious, welcoming environment, at reasonable prices.
Effervescent as a glass of champagne, Montrachet’s sommelier
Bernie Sun communicates to diners his passion for wine. This summer, he
innovated “What’s My Wine?” You select a price range and color;
Bernie selects a wine to match your meal. It’s a win-win situation. Just
for playing, you get 10% off the price of the bottle. There are six
questions ranging from hard to hardest; country, region, appellation,
major varietal (grape), vintage, and producer. One correct answer saves
you 15%. Get all six right and the bottle’s on Montrachet. Corresponding
savings occur along the way. The table beside us got five out of six and
We bring all wine-related queries to Bernie. Our local merchant had
introduced us to South African wines. What was Bernie’s opinion? The
young ones, especially Sauvignon Blancs from the coastal region, are quite
good, he said. He opened a 2002 Thabani. It was cold, clear and crisp, not
at all sweet, and quite wonderful.
239 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013
Myriad Restaurant Group
# # #
375 Greenwich Street
New York, NY 10013
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights