Le Veau d’Or (The Golden Calf)
129 E. 60th St.
New York, New York 10065
The essence of a bistro is that it conforms to its Archetype. This is its soul and this is why they are so popular. Comfort, tradition, familiarity. Fresh food from the market, cooked by mom and served in the casual dining room. Lingering over the newspaper having a glass of wine at the bar before moving to the dining room. Because this results in a certain uniformity of design, atmosphere, service and cuisine, we are left with the problem of evaluating bistros against the Archetype.
Most bistros fall in the midpoint in a distribution curve; a few are extraordinary and a few are poor. Most are within a narrow range of acceptability. You can expect competent food and service. You may not expect creative, brilliant or exciting food.
But some bistros have a magical quality that distinguishes them from the crowd. Le Veau d’Or has the magic.
“Monsieur, retirez votre chapeau.” The imperious and elegant madam of the bistro commanded me after she graciously welcomed and seated me in her bistro. She fluidly alternates between French and English. Discrete signs forbid cell phones and cameras. There are no hipsters intently staring into their Apple Air laptops projecting creativity and importance. There is no website. There is no social media. There is no one under fifty.
Chanson music plays in the background. Jacques Brel.Edith Piaf. Charles Trenet (Did I hear La Mer?). Chanson music makes me feel melancholy but satisfied with my old victories.
You walk along the Seine in Paris as the sun sets and it grows cold and the water turns from a brownish viridian to an oily black with the lights rippling and reflecting as it flows underneath the bridge and the ornate light posts. You see the red awning and golden lights and you pop in for a glass of wine and dinner and warmth. You feel stylish, you elegant, you feel the Belle Epoque, you want to dance up the steps from the water level to the sidewalk where the booksellers are closing the metal lids to put their books, maps and post cards to bed for the night. You want to watch old French black and white movies: Breathless, Hiroshima, Mon Amour or Jules and Jim. You want to write something important. You relish the familiar and take delight in it.
“If you want to know something about nothing talk to me!”
Catherine Treboux stops by my table for a chat. She recommends the fixed price special of lentil soup and monk fish. I accept her recommendation. She tells me the history of the bistro. We chat about Sibelius, Mahler and Carnegie Hall. I am going to hear the Sibelius Seventh Symphony and some Mahler songs. Gentlemen in suits enter, sit by the bar and are served their usual cocktail or glass of wine. They invite each other to parties. You have the impression they have been coming here for a long time; everyone speaks French and everyone knows everyone. Catherine brings me a glass of the house Bordeaux.
On the walls hang black-and-white photos of the historical Les Halles market in Paris (not the grotesque and soulless underground shopping mall), black and white Parisian street scenes, and some watercolors. There are red banquetes along the wall, wood chairs, and pink tablecloths with white linen pressed coverings. Flowers and candles are on the tables.
“Voila!” Dinner arrives. It is very light and delicate. The pommes frites are warm and crisp and served with hollandaise sauce as they should be. The monk fish is served in medallions but suffers from a bland whiteness. Same for the creamed spinach. Chocolate mousse is home made and brilliant. It is served on a plate with a dash of whipped cream. The espresso is perfect. The dishes are simple and traditional. There is no innovation or frills.
The pace is leisurely; one should enjoy dinner and wine without a rush. How can one enjoy the finer things in life while plugged into an iPhone while Facebook scrolls by pushing video ads in your face?
Le Veau d’Or was opened in the 1937 and Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, Grace Kelly, Helmet Newton, and Oleg Cassini dined here from the 1940s through the 1960s. In the window is a large stack of books that mention Le Veau d’Or.
Mr. Treboux bought Le Veau d’Or in 1985 which capped a long and distinguished culinary career in New York. The New York Times describes the atmosphere:
By the time Mr. Treboux took it over, it had settled into a dignified old age, supported by a fiercely loyal, older clientele who loved its unbending traditionalism and adored Mr. Treboux for refusing to change its menu, its décor or its highly personal style of management.
Mr. Treboux passed away in 2012 and the restaurant has been managed by his daughter Catherine ever since. She told me she knows of five generations of people who dine in her restaurant. It is popular among writers, publishers and theatrical people. Apparently, the menu has changed little over the decades. You will not find kale on the menu.
“Après moi, le déluge.” he is known to have said (“After me the deluge.”) They like their business the way it is-serving their regular customers and friends- and see no reason to change!
When you are there you feel like you are a member of a private club. You are participating in New York bistro history. The menu, decor and management and atmosphere has changed very little over time. And that is the way everyone connected to Le Veau d’Or likes it.
Happy, I leave Le Veau d’Or and I hope that it stays just the way it is for a very long time.
New York Magazine Review
New Yorker Review
New York Times Article on Robert Treboux
Boston Globe Review