By Mitch Broder
Broadway patrons have abandoned French restaurants for places like Steak ’n Shake and Shake Shack, because cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and fries don’t have all those rich sauces.
It’s an increasingly rare New York outpost for brain, liver, and thymus, cleverly translated into Cervelle de Veau, Foie de Veau, and Ris de Veau. But it’s more than organs and glands. It has all the less-functional classics, like Boeuf Bourguignon, Canard à L’Orange, and Bouillabaisse (though that does have mussels).
Not only that, but the food is cooked in a cozy French kitchen, often by a cozy ninety-year-old French grandma.
Not only that, but the meals are served in two soothing dining rooms with soothing thematic accents like guns and battle scenes.
|This is Elyane with a fox.|
Stirring this cassoulet is Elyane Bruno, who bought Chez Napoléon with her mother — the grandma chef — thirty years ago, when it was twenty-two. To celebrate the anniversary, she told me, she plans to do nothing. It’s that sort of prioritizing that keeps escargot alive in a nachos world.
The restaurant began as La Gérbe d’Or and became Chez Napoléon in 1960. It was not named for the emperor; it was named for the owner, who was nicknamed for the emperor. He was called Napoléon, according to the restaurant’s Web site, “due to his short stature and even shorter patience.”
|This is Marguerite with a cat.|
Elyane’s father, Alfred, died in 1992, and as for her husband, she says: “I sent him back to France in 1985.” So she runs Chez Napoléon with her mother, Marguerite, who is known as Chef Grand-Mere, and her son, William Welles, who is known as the bartender and the creator of the jigsaw puzzle menu.
It is not a jigsaw puzzle of a menu. That would hamper turnover. It is a menu of French-themed jigsaw puzzles. It offers entrées like the 6,000-piece “The Coronation of Napoleon” ($80). Some of William’s finished puzzles are on the walls with the guns and battle scenes.
|This is a jigsaw puzzle.|
Even worse, Americans became snobby about eating French food, probably around the time that Elyane took over the restaurant. “I think people have this idea that French food is too rich and too heavy,” she says. “But French people are not obese like here.”
The theater district, she says, once had many French restaurants, but now it’s down to a few. “Other restaurants opened,” she says. “Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Mexican, so many different cuisines — what they call cuisine — so there’s more competition, and little by little they all disappeared.”
She has lost office workers to office cafeterias, not to mention to shrinking lunch hours. And she has lost a little of everyone to the burger stands. But she still has regulars and she still has theatergoers, and she still has the place itself, as long as she doesn’t lose it to richer and heavier rent.
And she still has another attraction that you hardly ever see: a bar that invites you to sit down and drink by yourself. Its one stool is a rest spot for Chef Grand-Mere. But otherwise, Elyane says, it is the centerpiece of “the singles bar for people who want to stay single.”Shake off the shakes at Chez Napoléon, 365 West 50th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, in New York City.