There are still a few Manhattan restaurants that satisfy my multiple desires for a calm, peaceful and lovely space with lots of room between the tables, enormous floral arrangements, quietly competent and unobtrusive wait-staff, excellent food and the time to fully savor all of it. A place worth dressing up for, but not one demanding I carry a $5,000 handbag and attitude to match.
This week, after many years living here, I finally walked through the doors of the legendary La Grenouille, a 47-year-old fixture at 3 East 52d., a world away — although mere steps — from the frenzied insanity of Fifth Avenue’s fanny-packed tourist hordes.
Upstairs is a narrow room, with white-painted brick walls, lit by three 20-foot-tall lead-paned windows. A huge rug in the lightest shades of yellow, cream and green. A highly polished dark wood table marks the entrance. There are only five white-tableclothed tables, with another at the top of the stairs beneath a skylight, shaded by palms. Each has a small, perfect floral arrangement. There are paintings and drawing everywhere. You feel as if you’ve stumbled into someone’s private home, and you have. For many years, this was the home and studio of French painter Bernard LaMamotte — and before that, in the 1800s, the stable housing the horses of the owners of the mansion across the street, now the Cartier boutique. Those tall windows were once used to bring in hay.
It is, wrote Vanity Fair last year, “a private dining room of such beauty that one could be talked into becoming bedridden as long as one’s bed were there.”
The waiters wear starched white jackets and do not, thank God, introduce themselves or try to chat you up. I ate my first, delicious, cheese souffle. My Dad — celebrating the sale of my latest book — treated. Six elegant Germans sat at one table, two bored Britons at another and half a dozen Frenchmen huddled around the table at the top of the stairs. We passed on dessert but were brought a tiny silver server with thumb-sized madeleines and tuiles, just the perfectly tiny hit of sweetness to go with the dark, rich coffee in white Bernadaud cups. (Yes, I peeked.) There are three prix-fixe lunches, the least $29 for three courses. I could see spending my last $29 on it.
As we left, I discovered that one of my favorite books was begun in that very room, “The Little Prince”, this historic fact marked outside by a bronze plaque on the wall. Some people might find this sort of classic French food and service oppressive and stuffy. I loved it.