This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
When I first went to La Rapaille in the early ‘90s, the minuscule bistro was celebrating only a decade or so in business. But it already seemed like an ancient relic of a quainter, quieter Greenwich Village. Today, at the age of 29, it feels positively pre-Prohibition. Perhaps, like dogs, La Rapaille ages seven years for each single human year.
The owner, Alain Laurant, admits he actively cultivates an Old World feel. And he certainly helps it along with the French-and-English menu; a wine list that sticks to grape variety and region, with few other details (a recurrent element, I’ve found, with Who Goes There? restaurants); and by hovering over all, clothed in jeans and polo shirt and Gallic attitude. He takes every order himself, making persuasive cases for various specials, and finds time to misguidedly chew out a server or two for good measure.
La Rapaille enjoys an unbeatable location, on Hudson Street facing picturesque Abingdon Square. The positioning adds greatly to the place’s self-consciously romantic personality. Laurent has managed to hold on to the prime real estate because he owns the building he occupies; check out the mailboxes in the lobby and you’ll find that almost every apartment above is occupied by somebody named Laurent.
The small, dimly lit interior holds about a dozen tiny tables. Each white paper tablecloth is crowded with a bottle of water, bread, a vase of tulips, and a long candle. The food is on the expensive side, but, for a holdout of La Rapaille’s character, quite excellent. I doubt the asparagus appetizer or special of chicken breast stuffed with Gruyere cheese could be matched by many other restaurants. Diners—a mix of regulars and virgins—are treated well and allowed to linger long after coffee. Given the date-bait atmosphere, it’s no surprise that couples make out well here. One woman’s eyelashes and laugh were working well overtime as dinner passed to cappuccino and then chocolate truffles. And a nervous man on a blind date, whom I thought didn’t stand a chance in hell, ended up with a surprise mid-meal kiss from his companion. What’re they putting in the broccoli mousse?
(The place also gives great play to the number of celebrities that have visited over the years—going as far as to quote, on their website, their comments from the thank you book. It’s hard to estimate the value, in terms of trade, of Leonardo DiCaprio having said “All the best in the world” or Catherine Zeta-Jones’ “Merci beaucoup.”)
Time passes slowly during a dinner here. The check arrives when it arrives. Everyone’s told to “relax.” Alain, meanwhile, goes over the books at the bar, paging through a local giveaway newspaper, complaining about the rain and chatting with a longtime patron about his daughter’s college choices. Whatever happens to her, one thing’s for sure. She’s got a nice place to live in the West Village.
—Brooks of Sheffield