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.
Les Sans Culottes East, the musty French mainstay on Second Avenue near 57th, must have one of the oddest culinary greetings in town. They don’t just bring you bread soon after sitting down, or bruscetta, or an amuse bouche. They crowd your table with a huge basket of raw fruits and vegetables (everything from cantaloupe to radishes to whole celery stalks) and what I can only describe as a sausage tree: a wire stand draped with links of variously thick and thick tubular meats. There is also bread, a bowl of a house dressing and a dish of some kind of pate.
Le Sans Culottes has been starting meals that way since the restaurant opened in 1976 on this unremarkable stretch of Second Avenue, in the shadow of the Roosevelt Avenue Tram. The menu—divided into differently priced prix fixes and replete with old standards like Coq au Vin and Truite Meuniere—has hardly changed since then. My waiter, the son of the chef and owner, said that hue and cry ensued when they once took that quaint old standby, Chicken Cordon Bleu, off the list. They were forced to reinstate it.
The red-white-and-blue façade (French colors, not American) is pretty distressed. The inside is newer looking, as if there had been a remodeling in recent years. The décor errs on the wrong side of kitsch: A Lillet poster on the wall; wallpaper featuring French peasants hoisting the tri-color; a large oil painting of the storming of the Bastille; clocks that tell the time in New York and Paris. If Les Sans Culottes (which means “those without knee-breeches”—the French peasants who revolted back when) was ever reviewed, there’s no evidence. Nary a clipping adorns the dining room.
The restaurant is the epitome of the neighborhood place. My waiter—who said he began working there as a dishwasher when he was 13—said regulars from the immediate area sustain the place. “The same people who saw me when I was a boy see me now.” If the family that runs the place doesn’t own the building, they certainly act as if they did. Clan members roam in and out of the kitchen, laughing and talking, smoking cigarettes on the pavement outside. Kids tromp about the room and, when told to do their homework, climb up the stairs to the second-floor private party room, as if they were going to their bedrooms (which, in fact, they may be).
Their mother—my waiter’s stepmom, it turned out—is a thin, stylish, utterly French woman with a dark bob, who joked with the customers, opened bottles of wine and moved her feet to the bad Europop that played over the speakers. And the food? The sausage tree may have been the best part of the meal. My Cordon Bleu was fine, but grew less flavorful with each bite, and the frites were on the stale side. The people at the few other occupied tables in the room, however, were loving their meals.
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