I think Cafe Luxembourg is the only restaurant in the Lincoln Center catchment area that I had never—until last week—visited. I was put off by reports it was over-priced and over-crowded, and (a little bit) by Frank Bruni’s one-star review for The Times.
Cafe Luxembourg is a lot better than that.
Let me make a meta-critical point, as my rating at the bottom of this review is identical to Bruni’s. Bruni had a habit of writing scathing reviews, and then awarding a star. This was a perversion of the original New York Times system, in which the meaning of “one star” is supposed to be “good.” Many of Bruni’s one-star reviews, including Cafe Luxembourg, didn’t sound good at all.
I don’t give out a star unless I liked my meal. I might have complaints—even significant ones, especially if the restaurant was billed as being something much better. Still, I think one star ought to be a compliment, and under Bruni’s system it often wasn’t. His star for Cafe Luxembourg was a pan; mine isn’t.
To be sure, at least one thing has changed since Cafe Luxembourg arrived in 1983: it no longer has the Lincoln Center area to itself. Marian Burros awarded two stars just six weeks after it opened. Bryan Miller affirmed that rating three years later, noting the “gastronomic tundra” in the neighborhood. He reviewed it again in 1988 and 1992, awarding two stars both times. Those were the good old days, when important restaurants could be assured of reasonably frequent re-reviews. After that, it took 13 years before Bruni returned.
Lincoln Center is a gastronomic tundra no more, with Picholine, Lincoln, and Bar Boulud among many others within sight of the complex. And that’s without counting the three- and four-star restaurants at Columbus Circle, many of which do a strong pre-concert business. In a field it once had to itself, Cafe Luxembourg wouldn’t even rank in the top ten—not because it has gotten worse, but because its competition has become much, much better.
The founding owner, Keith McNally, relinquished Cafe Luxembourg (along with its sister restaurant, The Odeon in Tribeca) many years ago in a divorce settlement. Nevertheless, it retains the trademark “French brasserie chic” that McNally imprted to many other properties he has built since then, such as Balthazar, Pastis, Minetta Tavern, and so on.
My mother, who has been to Paris dozens of times, said, “This place must be 85 years old.” That she was off by five decades is a tribute to McNally’s talent for architectural impersonation. Cafe Luxembourg just feels like it has been part of the scene since a time unremembered.
I don’t know what a photo of three naked Parisian ladies has to do with Cafe Luxembourg, but it’s on the website, the restrooms, and the postcards. It certainly commands attention, so there you go.
Like all of the McNallyish restaurants, Cafe Luxembourg serves three meals a day. Prices at dinner, which once seemed expensive to me, now seem average; perhaps they’ve risen less here than elsewhere. Appetizers are mostly $12–15, entrées $24–34.
Both mains (we didn’t order starters) were right out of the bistro playbook. The steak ($34; above left), if not a rival to Minetta Tavern’s, is a 28-day dry-aged Creekstone farms specimen, very good for the price. The kitchen substituted haricots verts in almond butter, in lieu of fries, at no charge. Monkfish ($29; above right) was a daily special, and also very nicely done.
A scoop of rum raisin ice cream ($4; right) was a satisfying end to the meal.
Cafe Luxembourg is not as crowded as it used to be. It was only about half full at 7:00 p.m. on a Monday evening, and I now see 1,000-point reservations on OpenTable with regularity. The service was polite and attentive.
Many neighborhoods have French bistro cuisine about as good as this: Keith McNally himself owns or founded a number of them, and of course he doesn’t own a monopoly on the genre; it only seems like he does.
So I can’t tell you that Cafe Luxembourg is destination cuisine, but if you’re in the Lincoln Center vicinity, the reasons usually given for avoiding it—too crowded, too pricey, too sceney—no longer apply. It’s on my pre-show rotation from now on.
Cafe Luxembourg (200 W. 70th St. near Amsterdam Ave., Upper West Side)