March 23, 1970 | Vintage Insatiable

Lafayette, We are Leaving!

        In this grand and preposterous kingdom of new-Oz-in-the-Hudson, to be “first,” “best,” or “most” is a cosmic triumph. Bravo Lafayette Restaurant! Here in this wee cramped masonry fortress at 202 East 50th Street, hauteur has been elevated to unsurpassed superciliousness. In a town where, snob, snoot and snub flower in perpetual renaissance, Lafayette is the “most.” Here the spleen is infinitely more memorable than the sweetbreads.

        It is true that Jean (Tartuffe) Fayet and his falsettoed Mme. Defarge, the solid Jacqueline, did not crown themselves holier-than-thou out of sheer megalomania. They trained with the late beloved tyrant, Henri Soulé, maitre de snob both malignant and benign. Jacqueline tended Le Pavilion’s cash register for two decades, and Jean, first a saucier, started as a waiter and ascended to captain before a power struggle forced his embattled exit. But, as one Pavillon alumnus observed sadly, a Soulé temper without the Soulé charm is insufferable. “Jean Fayet has the head without the heart.”

        In less than five years, the apocrypha of insult at Lafayette has waxed fat. Classic snobisme is not the point here: name pedigree or celebrity clout means nothing. The Fayets have their own subjective rules of elegance and Almanach de Gotha. A longhaired scion of the French banking Rothschilds was refused his table on esthetic grounds. Beauty editor Amy Greene was banished for her thigh-baring Pucci while the ABC executive who chivalrously protested, “I don’t think her skirt’s too short,” got his check torn in two and an invitation never to return. Alfred Knopf Sr. wanted coffee with his entrée. Absolument, non… with a dissertation on the gaucheries of coffee prematurely served. Conde Nast publisher S.I. Newhouse asked for iced coffee. Such sacrilege – for, as he was informed, “You have just had the best lunch in New York.”

        Washington attorney Stephen Spingarn was asked to remove his Humphrey-Muskie button and to check a plastic tote bag containing what he said were confidential political papers. He refused and was not seated. A Lindsay loyalist got debuttoned. She stayed.

        Italian couturier Valentino was turned away in turtleneck. A sartorial elegant in blazer, tartan trews, white shirt and riding stock was halted at the door: “Are you riding now?” Angela Lansbury was asked to shed her shades. She propped them atop her head. That didn’t suit either … so inelegant the reflections on the ceiling. Obediently she placed them on the table. But then her companion asked for coffee, although Miss Lansbury was still nibbling at salad. The impropriety of this request was pointed out. But there was a plane to catch, Miss Lansbury explained, cajoling. She lingered over coffee after her companion had fled, and when she asked for the check, was informed that there was none and the house would appreciate it if she never returned.

        A traditional insolence of Manhattan’s haute dining scene is the refusal to honor standard credit cards. M. Fayet extends the inconvenience with the hyper-exclusivity of house charge accounts. Bennett Cerf’s credit is good. Phyllis Cerf adores Lafayette, almost never lunches anywhere else. Just across 50th street, Random House, a Goliath with an expense-account appetite, bulks over Maison Lafayette. But our incurable bourgeois, M. Fayet, abhors the tradesman. He has forced titans and politicians and such capitalist riffraff to check their portfolios, not to clutter the tables with contracts and briefs. Not even with Cerf’s personal blessing would Fayet open an account for Robert Gottleib, editor-in-chief of Random-House-owned Knopf. “Though he did agree to let me sign, just once, on Daddy’s account,” Gottlieb notes, visibly unperturbed. “They are happy to have Bennett, but they don’t want the hired help.” Gottleib has bought a house around the corner so he can go home for lunch. And he boasts: “The food is better. “ “If they like you it’s the greatest place in the world,” Bennett Cerf explains. “If they don’t,… well, they’re very snooty.” Truman Capote is loved. And he loves Lafayette. So does Suzy. Marios Javits likes the privacy, the reserve and the scarcity of the usual lunchtime “adorables.” A publicist asked not to read his New York Post at table was miffed. “Perhaps they wouldn’t have objected if it had been the Times. Or Figaro.” But he acquiesced. “I feel they live up to their standards of elegance, and so should I.” “I feel like I am dining in the Fayets’ home,” says Phyllis Cerf.

        Lafayette is Jean Fayet’s castle. So, let iced tea be taboo. Let there be one tiny oasis free of shrieking chic, free of Valentino in turtleneck, free of females dressed like garage mechanics, free of the grubby million-dollar deals of bronze-gelled financiers. But spare us the misguided lessons in etiquette and the gratuitous verbal whippings. One poor numb creature was so soundly scolded by M. Fayet for neglecting to check a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag that, “I sat there paralyzed… I was so embarrassed and mortified. I’m 34 years old and no one has spoken to me like that since my French governess. I ate my lunch, threw up – I was so upset – and left.”

        Lest Lafayette be inundated by masochists in need of a booster fix, I hasten to warn: There is simply no depth to the Lafayette snub. The misdirected rigidity reflects the nagging insecurity of the parvenu. As with the Nixons in the White House, where white gloves, Girl Scouts and Red Skeleton are the ultimate in elegance. So at Lafayette, the calligraphy of the menu is so exotic, several items are simply illegible. No menu may leave the house. I asked, once anonymously, once professionally. I can imagine Jacqueline counting the menus each morning, then again each night, like a young liberal housewife in Woodmere counting the silver after her first interracial kaffee klatch.

        Bette Davis once asked her Lafayette waiter to get Yogi Berras’s autograph on the menu (yes, Yogi and Bette across the crowded room). M. Fayet intercepted the waiter mid-mission. “The menus belong to the restaurant,” he exclaimed. “They do not go out of the house.”

        “At $90 a snail, you can afford one menu,” Bette recalls her escort’s protest. He then offered $5, at which point Fayet grudgingly surrendered the menu.

        There is a fire cracking on the tile-framed hearth and a fresh warmth in bright striped fabric walls – crisp skipper blue, red and yellow – with copper tubs of dried flowers. But the host’s smile seems forced… the eyes dart warily. “We are Lafayette,” he seems to say. “Who, Lord spare us, are you?” Quick… into the second-string annex, cramped with tables but an inch apart, like the front room, sparsely populated. Is it the recession? Winter blahs? After all, Truman is secluded in Palm Springs. Or is it disaffection?

        The menu is a bore. And the food is anticlimax.

        The prix fixe lunch – hors d’oeurve or soup, entrée, mixed green salad and dessert – runs from $7.50 for omelette George Sand, eggs benedict, émincé de volaille Florentine or supreme de volaille Pojarsky (that mock veal cutlet molded from bits of chicken) to $11.50 for entrecote sauté. The prix fixe dinner starts at $11.25 for kidney and goes to $15 for tournedos sauté, $15.75 for the entrecote, $26.50 for rack of lamb for two. The hors d’oeurve are predictable: coquille, pâté maison, smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, fruit cup, celery remoulade, artichoke hearts, mushrooms orée du bois. With the exception of a spectacular pudding, desserts are equally modest in reach. The wine list is limited. No years are listed. Only a scattering of half-bottles is available. The house is already serving a ’66 Bordeaux, Chateau Siran from Margaux country, $4.50. The Siran is drinkable… but in my crowd, uncorking a ’66 Bordeaux is considered infanticide.

        The pâté was pleasant. Just that. The coquille was delicately studded with tiny batons of shrimp and scallops, both rather chewy. Cold striped bass, light and sweet, was served with a fine, zesty sauce gribiche and cucumbers vinaigrette, undrained… the liquid sloshing the bass. The quenelles de brochet were a disaster – two little ovals of ground pike poached into a girdle of sheer elastic resisting the thrust of a fork. The julienne of beef bourguignon was most genteel, with it salt-porkless sauce refined to blandness… a bit like Eric Hoffer in a tie, not quite the peasant dish it was meant to be. The gluey chocolate mousse sprawled over the plate in justified shame. A fresh pear tart was perfect. And we all were instantly seduced by a wanton fruit-studded custard, bathed in a thin but beautiful run-and-vanilla-scented sauce Anglaise. Lunch for three, three drinks, a half-bottle of Siran, plus tips, came to $56.

        At a second lunch, my friend Ruth, the East Side desperado, was disenchanted with the mushrooms orée du bois. They tasted canned, bland, without texture. The maître d’ was polite, concerned, insisted they were fresh, not canned, and urged her to accept a substitute. The artichoke was just as blandly sauced, but the vegetable itself had a bit of character. The délice de sole d’antin – delicate, sweet flesh blanketed in an excellent cream sauce flecked with mushroom, parsley and bits of tomato – was served a few minutes shy of proper opaqueness through the middle. The paillard of veal – a thin wing of meat handsomely served with crunchy matchstick potatoes and a hedge of watercress – was flat and a notch away from fork-tender.  From the maître d’s presentation, it sounded as if endive and watercress salad came with the lunch. It cost $1.25 extra. But for dessert there were fresh strawberries doused in Grand Marnier, another voluptuous pudding, an aristocratic rice ring, and lace cookies. Lunch for two, with one $1.25 tomato juice, tips, no wine, came to $25.

        Wednesday dinner limped of to a disastrous start. “Your table is not ready,” announced M. Fayet. We gazed forlornly at a sea of virgin tablecloths in the near-deserted front room. True, many tables were set for four. We were five minutes early for an 8:45 reservation. And another unpampered pair were patiently sipping drinks at the bar, awaiting their table. Suddenly the room grew heady with electric tension. Drama: pantsuit division. Enter a slim young thing in black satin tunic and pants, with her escort and another couple. M. Fayet’s eyes roll back to the medulla. “No pants.” Satin Baby wraps her sin in a fuzzy maxicoat and slinks to her seat. M. Fayet is adamant. N o one will be served until she removes her paints. The skirted lady pleads in French. M. Fayet is unmovable. To the lady’s room strides the transgressor, hatcheck girl in wake.

        Hatcheck returns, satin trophy held triumphantly. Depanted, Satin Baby is granted grudging asylum. For this elegance we banished Amy Greene’s thighs?

        At last, after our 20 minutes of neglected isolation, the last malingerers from the first sitting in the back room have departed and we are seated. Unlike lunch, dinner is oversubscribed, the crowd mostly tacky. Service can be slow. There are no captains: only M. Fayet and his maître d’ and a crew of efficient, professional waiters in snappy blue tailcoats with a compulsion to grind pepper on absolutely everything but dessert.

        The word I could not decipher that night was … palourdes. Seven tiny clams sparked with garlic and parsley were served, not hot enough, but good, on a doily. The Kultur Maven’s lobster bisque was magnificent, a rich, heady blend, lots of it, ladled into the bowl from a copper casserole. His entrecôte was also good – a large, tender steak coated with a satin glaze named for Chanturgue, where the best red wines of the Côte d’Auvergne grow. My sweetbreads – two huge white globes with mushroom caps in a drearily bland white sauce – seemed ideal fare for an invalid. I would not have been surprised to see them served by a registered nurse. No amount of pepper-mill resuscitation could possibly revive them.

        I’d overheard the host offering some VIP pets asparagus instead of salad… naturally we had to have some too, mine in a delicate lukewarm vinaigrette, the Kultur Maven’s in hollandaise.. The waiter, noting there was still some Gevry-Chambertin in the bottle, asked if we would like some cheese “to finish the wine.” The great wheel of brie was presented for inspection in the hour of its perfection, mellow and buttery. Two generous cuts were set before us. I felt totally disarmed, transported back to France. There the great restaurants insist on dazzling you – whoever you are – out of pride and tradition, unlike New York, where dining is a challenge. In our greatest restaurants, only fool’s luck or expertise count if you are unknown.

        With dessert, a pot of filter and the check, cynicism was restored. The hospitable coup de brie, $1.25 each, the VIP asparagus, $4.50 for two, had boosted the bill by $7; with wine and tips, $66.85.

        At the door, as always, there was the maitre d’ and a Fayet to say “goodnight,” “au revoir” or “adieu,” as the case might be. By the time you have gone through a meal without reading Screw, stealing a menu, baring your midriff or chanting the Hare Krishna, the Fayets are so relieved they seem almost warm. 

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