Twenty years ago, when I was looking for a restaurant that could play host to a romantic meal, a friend recommended Café des Artistes. I knew nothing about the place, but was instantly transported by the voluptuous décor. Alas, a practically dessicated Duck à l’Orange ruined the meal, and I vowed never to return.
The restaurant had been there, attached to the Hotel des Artistes, since 1917. More than its old-school French cuisine—which had its ups and downs, to put it charitably—the space was known for the nine murals of Rubensesque nudes, “Fantasy Scenes with Naked Beauties,” painted by one of the building’s residents, Howard Chandler Christy, from the late 1920s to 1935.
Jennifer and George Lang took over the restaurant in 1975. Despite the mediocre food, it was a popular haunt for musicians, celebrities, and journalists. (We saw soprano Beverly Sills there on our last visit.) In 2009, the restaurant closed for its usual August vacation and never re-opened. Business was down, as it was for many restaurants then, and as Mr. Lang was 85, the owners felt it was time to let go.
Later on, it came out that the union was partly to blame. Café des Artistes was one of the few non-hotel restaurants in the city with union labor. In a bitter post-mortem, Jennifer Lang noted that the place was hobbled with uncompetitive labor expenses that no other comparable restaurant would have. Several prominent restaurateurs passed on the space, because of its union affiliation.
Finally, about a year later, Gianfranco Sorrentino, owner of the Italian restaurant Il Gattopardo in midtown, inked a 15-year deal to re-open the space without union labor, vowing to invest $1.5 million to refurbish the dining room, including “expert restoration” of the Christy murals.
The restaurant re-opened last month as The Leopard at des Artistes (Gattopardo means “Leopard” in Italian). The cuisine and service style are old-school southern Italian. The renovation is gorgeous, but when you see the menu prices, you won’t forget what you’re paying for, as entrées (other than a $24 meatloaf) are $30–46.
As is often the case at such restaurants, there is a lengthy list of recited specials, from which both of us ordered. Whole Turbot ($46; above left) was expertly filleted tableside, served with braised escarole. House-made Fettucine ($24; above right) was served with a pork ragú.
One may blanche at the prices and quibble that the chef isn’t serving unmentionable pig parts or market vegetables grown on a rooftop in Brooklyn, but both dishes were impeccable. It is hard to imagine anything much better of their kind—especially the wonderful turbot, which I’d order again in a heartbeat.
As we were going to a concert at nearby Lincoln Center, we drank only one glass of wine apiece; but I noted that the medium-length wine list had plenty of options below $50 a bottle, a much lower entry price than one is entitled to expect at a restaurant this expensive.
The restaurant was about half full at 6:45 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, too early (in the evening, and in the week) to draw any conclusions about its prognosis. It is too expensive to justify being a regular here, but for food this good I’ll certainly be back occasionally.
The Leopard at des Artistes (1 W. 67th St. near Central Park West, Upper West Side)