Old SoHo: A Love Poem to Raoul's
Raoul’s is a classic.
If a classic is something unique and enduring that has passed the test of time—Puccini’s opera La Bohème, for instance—this French bistro on Prince Street is a classic. For over 40 years, it has been itself while the world changed around it.
I go there when I want to go “home.”
I came to New York from London to run the BBC television bureau in the early 1980s, and went to Raoul’s my very first week, urged there by an old friend, the feared and fiery TIME magazine art critic Robert Hughes. In those days, SoHo was full of artists, and Bob chose to live among those he rated or mocked in a nearby loft.
“It’s got my enemies and friends—and my kind of food,” he said merrily, slipping into his usual banquet beside the bar. Impatient at my slow perusal of the menu, he ordered himself a steak au poivre and a large glass of red right away. As I marveled at the dark room lined with paintings and photographs of every description, I realized this was an artists’ hangout, and Bob had come to see and be seen by those he loved to praise or pan.
Hunkered in a far corner was the bulky “plate painter” Julian Schnabel, and at the bar, the postmodernist David Salle. Later, their flamboyant dealer Mary Boone swept through the door to join her “boys”—both of whom she made famous—after shuttering her West Broadway gallery for the night. I noticed she gave Bob a look of pure hate as she passed, no doubt for some savage slight. This was clearly a scene, the kind I had come to New York to be part of. Bob paid the comings and goings around him scant attention, wishing only to rave about the sauce. “Great au poivre hinges on the precise brand of peppercorns, Cognac, and cream you use. This one is pure perfection. It’s why I come here again and again.”
I too returned. My houseguest in the West Village then was the late literary pugilist Christopher Hitchens, and many were the night he and I cabbed it further downtown to eat, laugh, and close the place, drinking up a storm. He knew little about art, had no eye, but knew a lot about living and talking well, and Raoul’s was his sort of hangout. Other times, we came with my wife and her childhood chum Anna Wintour, who was then living around the corner on Macdougal, often with local painter Jennifer Bartlett in tow. For us, it had to be a table near the front, preferably next to the sensual black-and-white photograph of Julie Christie looking quizzical and slyly irresistible, and underneath the formal portrait of the formidable General de Gaulle. For me, it was always the steak au poivre. For the rail-thin Anna, the immaculate frisee salad with lardons of bacon and poached duck egg seemed to be the thing.
I sat down recently on a rainy afternoon before opening time to share some wine with Raoul’s general manager Andrew Newlin, and Karim Raoul, the co-founder’s genial son. They are full of wonderful stories.
“It began without a plan,” Karim says. “Just sort of happened.”
Once upon a time in 1975, as he tells it, in the dark dismal days when New York faced bankruptcy, a pair of immigrants—Karim’s father Serge, a French TV journalist working in the city, and his half-brother Guy from the food-rich Alsace region of France—conceived the crazy idea it might be the right time to open a bistro. Short of funds, they gravitated downtown to SoHo, a once thriving hood that had fallen on hard times. The schmatta biz had abandoned the area for pastures new, and unknown penniless artists in search of high ceilings and peppercorn rents had moved in. It was an urban wasteland. As the two Frenchmen pounded the disheveled sidewalks, they happened on Luizzi, a mom-and-pop eatery on Prince. The Italian food was nothing much (standard pasta), but physically, the place oozed charm. There were dark corners and comfy booths. Serge and Guy said “oui” to the low price, and moved in.
SoHo was, of course, a culinary Sahara. You could drop by historic Fanelli up the road for a basic burger and a Bud—but that was about it. The idea of French food was unknown in these parts and surely best left to the white linen, fine dining crowd on Park Avenue uptown. On a dusty scruffy predominantly Italian block, then still Genovese controlled, “fergedaboudit!”
“At first, things were tough,” Karim tells me. “Guy, who knew how to cook, was in the kitchen, and my father, who did not, stood outside trying to lure folks in. At first, no one came. But the food was good and cheap, even cheaper at the bar, and artists began descending from their damp and drafty studios to drift in and drink.”
As Karim describes it, the early years were straight out of La Bohème: penniless painters, late-night parties, dancing on the bar, love affairs, drunken brawls—and many a broken chair. The place caught on. And then in the ’80s, miraculously for Raoul’s, the art market exploded. Suddenly, West Broadway became “gallery row,” and the art czar Leo Castelli moved into 142 Greene Street exhibiting the likes of Donald Judd and Andy Warhol. I recall once encountering Warhol on the sidewalk. He exiting as I slunk in. “I want to take a Polaroid of you,” he said flatly, did so, pocketed the print, and swept off in a large limousine. La Bohème had gone Big Time as the money rolled in. Now, the artists had cash in their pockets and brought in the models and collectors that loved them—even picking up the tab. The SoHo “creative industrial complex” had gone nuclear and Raoul’s was the white-hot core. But the romantic soul of the place remained untouched. It was still a magic corner of France in brash Manhattan, a timeless jewel in a restless sea. Other places—high concept, shiny, and well received—came and went. Raoul’s endured. Yes, over time the menu became more ambitious, the food more delicious, and the walls filled with more art donated by newly celebrated patrons—stark photographs by Larry Clark, and Mary Ellen Mark, and a giant full-length, red-haired nude by Martin Schreiber. “I know who she is, but I cannot say,” says Karim mysteriously. There are even paintings by those who worked at Raoul’s, such as the talented former barman Jimmy Gilmore. And up the spiral stairs, Nancy Stark casts tarot cards for the clairvoyant and curious while Picasso woodcuts of bulls adorn the bathroom walls.
The place feels ‘lived in.’
The secret is consistency, Karim believes. “It’s what keeps them coming back. David Honeysett, our amazing chef, has been with us 12 years. He’s wisely kept the basic themes of the menu intact, tweaking and improving things here and there, bringing old dishes to perfection. But he’s also innovating with new ideas. The lobster risotto, and seafood fricassee, both of which he created, are amazing. He also makes a great burger.”
The word “great” is an understatement. Honeysett’s burger is actually beyond words. Ineffable. A few years back, the late lamented Josh Ozersky—fastidious food writer for Esquire magazine, founder of the influential food blog Grub Street, and author of The Hamburger: A History, the definitive account—declared his burger “the best in America.” Not one of the best. THE VERY BEST. Here is how he described it:
“Powered by a potent, piquant au poivre sauce, a separate au poivre mayonnaise, a sweet, brisket-heavy LaFrieda blend, topped with a little yarmulke of triple-cream St. Andre cheese, wilted watercress, cornichons, and served on the most delicate of challah buns.”
And get this, it’s not on the menu. You can only order it at the eight-seat bar, if you are lucky that is since the kitchen only turns out 12 a day. Those were apparently the tough terms Honeysett, an artist in his own right, laid down in exchange for agreeing to riff on an American icon. He tells people he does not want it taking over. “I will not be making more than I do. It’s an amenity basically, though I’m glad people like it.” Nevertheless, gourmets in the know line up each weekday afternoon before opening time at 5:30pm, in the hopes of being one of the lucky few to savor his classic. A classic within a classic; a classic squared.
WORDS Peter Foges
PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of Raoul’s