NEW YORK — Le Veau d’Or does not have a television, a craft cocktail list, or a kale option on the menu. Nor does it have a website. The restaurant predates the Internet by decades and never bothered to get up to speed.
That’s because it doesn’t have to. The tiny French spot on the Upper East Side is a sanctuary hiding in plain sight — just paces away from the retail carnival of Lexington Avenue. What the place does have is Edith Piaf playing on a loop and a collection of books in the front window, spines facing the street. There is a mention of the restaurant in each of the volumes, including Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York” by William Grimes, and dozens more novels and cookbooks. On the walls are photographs of Les Halles, the long-gone outdoor market in Paris, and, on any given night, you’ll find a gentleman sporting a bow tie and sport coat. Or maybe even a few such gentlemen.
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The menu here reads like a table of contents in a classic French bistro cookbook: celeri remoulade, the creamy salad made with celery root, sole meuniere, the classic butter-lemon preparation for pan-frying fish, coq au vin, chicken in wine sauce, and beef Bourguignon, the traditional beef stew of Burgundy. Everything is offered prix fixe, so you order three courses for a set price, in this case around $50 (another throwback).
It’s the same menu that was offered when the late Robert Treboux bought the place in 1985. He inherited the menu from previous proprietors of Le Veau d’Or (the name translates as “the golden calf”). In fact, it’s barely changed since the restaurant opened in 1937. Treboux, who cut his teeth in the 1950s working as a waiter at Le Pavillon, Henri Soule’s legendary haute French restaurant, then went on to own several celebrated Manhattan bistros, famously told guests that they could go across the street if they wanted “the plate with the little bit of food in the middle.”
The restaurant has been called a time warp, a time capsule, an institution, and a relic. But the diners, especially the many neighbors who count themselves among the habitues, simply think of it as going to Cathy’s for dinner. Catherine Treboux took over when her father passed away in 2012. She’s hasn’t changed much about the decor, except for adding a few paintings of Dad in the doorway.
She spends each night greeting guests, taking their coats, telling them to watch their step, then she wanders the room. Sometimes she’ll pull a chair up to a table so she can catch up with a familiar couple or bachelor or widow. Then the phone that dangles from a chain around her neck will ring and she’ll excuse herself. “Bon jour!” she’ll chirp. “Are you coming in tonight, darling?”
The restaurant has many regulars and if she isn’t there, Le Veau d’Or isn’t opened. Treboux will also tell you that the table in the corner by the window is known as the Orson Welles table. He was just one of the many legends who frequented the place. That list includes Rudolph Nureyev, Bobby Short, Helmut Newton, Princess Grace. Once Ernest Hemingway’s biographer, A.E. Hotchner, spotted his book, “Papa Hemingway,” in the window. When he popped in to introduce himself, he reminisced to Treboux about dining here with Hemingway, who would ask about the specials, and then, without fail, order the calf’s liver.
Treboux tells stories like this with the same casual astonishment she shows when she tells you about the longtime radio producer at a classical station who brings her vintage cookbooks and cocktail books when he comes to dine. She doesn’t exactly name drop, at least not about the people who come in today. One, Anthony Bourdain, put Le Veau d’Or into his “Disappearing Manhattan Travel Guide,” for its “uncompromised Escoffier cuisine.”
The restaurant, says Treboux, is “about an era that doesn’t exist anymore. If you want something different, go across the street.” Like father like daughter.
Le Veau d’Or, 129 East 60th St., New York, N.Y., 212-838-8133
Liza Weisstuch can be reached at [email protected]