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Le Veau d'Or

Le Veau d’Or (“The Golden Calf”) has been serving traditional French cuisine since 1937. They say it has hardly changed since then. The owner, Robert Tréboux, who lives upstairs, looks like he’s about 85. The only waiter appears to be about 75. The lavatories probably haven’t been renovated since the Eisenhower administration.

Craig Claiborne awarded four stars in the 1960s. The last rated review I can find comes from Mimi Sheraton in 1977. She awarded one star, but it almost sounds like she’s describing a different place:

One recommended formula for success in the restaurant business is to have a jam-packed, noisy, elbow-to-elbow setting with plenty of bumping and pushing among waiters and clientele and an overall atmosphere suggestive of a subway rush. The idea, supposedly, is that everyone wants to be where everyone else wants to be and that such a place is necessarily part of the “in” scene. It is a theory that certainly gains credence at Le Veau d’Or, the 31-year-old, very authentic French bistro…

Recent visits indicated, unfortnately, that although the three-deep scene at the bar is still intact, and waiters continue practically to trample patrons standing at the door so they can serve the awkwardly placed front tables, the food is not nearly what it used to be, with only a few exceptions. The myth, apparently, is outliving the reality.

Sheraton considered the prices “moderately high,” the wines “overpriced,” and the atmosphere “jammed, noisy, attractive.” 

As far as I can find, the last Times critic to mention it was William Grimes, in an article called “The Restaurants That Time Forgot.”

Not long ago, a stylish South American woman walked into Le Veau d’Or, a small French bistro near Bloomingdale’s. She had not set foot in the place for 40 years, but looking around, all seemed in order. The décor remained intact, with the painting of a calf sleeping in bed, the covers pulled up under its chin. The menu, a rote recitation of bistro classics, certainly hadn’t changed. But something was not quite right. “Have you changed some of the waiters?” she asked suspiciously. Robert Treboux, the owner, tried to break the news gently. “I told her, ‘Some have died, some have gotten rich,’” he said. “It was a very funny question.”

I’ve been thinking of a visit to Le Veau d’Or for about a year now. My mom is in town, and she loves nothing more than classic French cooking. A review in this week’s Sun reminded me. It was time to give it a try.

You might think that no one under sixty visits Le Veau d’Or, but you’d be wrong. We actually saw young people there. Their presence gives hope that Le Veau d’Or could be with us for a long while—assuming Monsieur Tréboux and his heirs hold on.

The menu at Le Veau d’Or is as classic as it gets, but you don’t need to be on Social Security to appreciate it. Whatever your age, you’ll love the prices. M. Tréboux owns the place free-and-clear, and he has no need to jack up the bill. You get three courses for around $30, all impeccably prepared. One of the best wines we’ve had in a while was just $42 for the bottle.

We started with the escargots ($8 suppl.), and if anyone is preparing it better, we’d like to know who it is. It was decadent as all get-out. What’s not to like about garlic and melted butter? We happily mopped up every drop with the French bread. Duck with cherry sauce ($29) came with wild rice and a helping of potatoes au gratin that could easily become addictive. The duck was perhaps a bit dry, but I didn’t leave a morsel behind, and it was an ample portion (half the bird).

Rum parfait was nothing complicated: chocolate ice cream with rum poured on top. But the waiter left the rum bottle, and I added plenty more. Coffee came, and we added rum to that too. They didn’t seem to mind.

Many other dishes appeared to be worth a look on future visits. Even after a full dinner, my mouth was watering at a half-rack of lamb, delivered to an adjacent party and carved tableside. Cassoulet also looked impressive. Many dishes are finished at the table, with sauces coming in gravy boats or large copper pots.

The serving staff (the lone waiter and a busboy) are occasionally confused. We got a good look at that cassoulet because it was delivered to our table by mistake. The waiter smiled wryly when we pointed out the error. Earlier, when my mom asked if the duck was good, he had a deadpan reply: “If it wasn’t good, we wouldn’t serve it.”

A few patrons at Le Veau d’Or wanted to practice their French. One man asked the watier, “Êtes-vous français?” “Non, je suis Americain,” replied the obviously French waiter.

The food came out a little slowly, but we were having a good time and were in no hurry. With less than half of the restaurant’s seventeen tables taken, they were in no rush to get rid of us. If we wanted, I think we could still be there.

My mom and I wished that my late father could have seen this place. There are few places like it any more—even in France. There’s a slightly frayed elegance to the bistro décor, as old French songs play in the background. Yet, it is entirely sincere. What’s not to love?

Le Veau d’Or (129 E. 60th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues, Upper East Side)

Food: **
Service: *½
Ambiance: **
Overall: **

Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for capturing the essence of Le Veau d'or. How I long for a place of this vintage here in Victoria, BC. I can think of no restaurant which has survived since my arrival in 1970. Lucky you. What I wouldn't do for one dinner where "character" is as indispensable as the food...and at $30. Wow! Give me the good ol' days. And as far as the age of the staff...the older the better I say. Thanks for a good read.

April 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlastair Barnett

My husband introduced me to this charming French restaurant for our anniversary...we loved it. It is old world charm and old world cuisine wrapped up in one. The food was delicious and the drinks were generous. We had such a great time...a blast from the past!

January 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMana Allen

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