Thursday, March 13, 2008

Love Letter To A Restaurant

I am thrilled to the very core of my being. I have just found out, via the Village Voice, that my favorite restaurant in all New York is never going to close - or at least, not in my dining lifetime, which is good enough for me.

I love good old fashioned French food. I will eat damn near anything that doesn't eat me first, and some things that probably would if I gave them a chance (well, you try cooking a very lively lobster). (My exceptions are headcheese, things in aspic, tripe, and baby octopus with all its little legs still sticking out. Yecch.) But my deepest love is good old fashioned French food. Not French fusion. Not French Vietnamese. Not updated French. Not any damn thing except FRENCH.

And one of the last places in New York to get it is an old, shabby restaurant on 51st Street, just west of 8th Avenue, called Tout Va Bien.

Many years ago, the west 50's was a nest of these great places. When my parents and I lived here just at the tail end of World War II (yes, all right - birthdate 3/31/45, just before the end of the war - shit, I'm too damn old to be a baby boomer, for which thank God), we used to eat at a place that my father always called Larry's, but whose name was in fact Larre, accent acute on the e. (My father, a good London Jew, also invariably ordered "Chicken Charmaine" at Chinese restaurants.) According to NY legend, these places were all founded by homesick Frenchmen who jumped ship at the end of the war.

Tout Va Bien is just about the last of the breed, and according to the Village Voice, the family who owns the restaurant owns the whole building, so I can be assured of my beloved place.

And oh, how I love it. As I say, it has no decor whatsoever. It has a couple of tables out in front in a sort of little areaway, where you can sit in the warm months and smoke in peace and quiet. Inside, everyone has a French accent. There are some rather dim pictures on the wall, and darned white tablecloths and napkins.

But oh, the food. Escargot. Celery remoulade. Homemade pate - no, not pate de foie gras. Pate from a thrifty French housewife's kitchen, served properly with cornichons. Boeuf Bourgignon (I just KNOW that's not spelled right, but you know what I mean). Coq Au Vin. Filet Mignon with a good deep brown sauce. Filet de Sole Amandine. Tete de Veau (which I wouldn't eat if you paid me, but I like to know it's there). Just every single thing that a decent French restaurant should have. Oh, and Creme Caramel, which is only my favorite dessert in the whole world (it's not that I don't love Creme Brulee, but Creme Caramel was a childhood treat, and I'm very loyal to it).

And lovely reasonably priced bottles of wine, and an atmosphere of peace and quiet - there's usually some Piaf or Serge Gainsborough playing in the background, but at a level where you notice it subliminally (I'm not at all sure about the spelling of that, either). I think the absolutely best part about it is that the instant you walk in the door and take a deep breath, it smells FRENCH.

And what's even nicer is that they care deeply about their customers. One horribly cold night a while back, Sarah and I had dinner there on our way to the theatre, and we were paying the bill when our waitress came over to us with two balloon glasses and said, "You must not go out in the cold without something warm." And there was lovely brandy - a gift from the restaurant, which really did worry that we might get chilled.

And it will stay there. And now, anyone who reads my blog...patronize Tout Va Bien. Bask in their shabby wonderfulness. And me? I'm going back as soon as I possibly can.

And P.S. Two people, eating like pigs and drinking wine and tipping decently, will still come to just about a hundred bucks. These days, I call that a bargain.

Love, Wendy (who is suddenly hungry)

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