Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Old New York: Chez Napoléon Ducks the French-Food Canards

The New York City dining room of Chez Napoleon
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.

A classic red sauce simmers on the stove of the Old New York restaurant Chez Napoleon
It’s been tough on the bistros, if indiscernible to the bypass surgeons. But for the daring few who would gamble on comforting food in a comfortable place, there is still Chez Napoléon, which actually also serves fries, since, as we know, they are French.

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.

A photo of a young Elayne Bruno, owner of the Old New York restaurant Chez Napoleon
This is Elyane with a fox.
Not only that, but they have a jigsaw puzzle menu. Burger joints don’t even have a crossword puzzle menu.

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.”

Elayne's mother Marguerite helps to run Chez Napoleon
This is Marguerite with a cat.
The patience ran out in 1969, when he sold to a French couple, and the couple’s ran out in 1982, when they sold to Elyane. Elyane had been a waitress at Chez Napoléon, and before that at L’Esterel, her family’s first restaurant here. Working for your parents prepares you for anything.

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.

A framed jigsaw puzzle adorns the wall at the old New York restaurant Chez Napoleon
This is a jigsaw puzzle.
Despite this abundance, Chez Napoléon has had its own battles. When it opened, for instance, its neighbor was Madison Square Garden, until it moved away eight years later, taking all the gourmet boxing fans. For years, the Garden’s site was a giant parking lot, and American cars have always been snobby about eating French food.

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.”
Signs notify patrons of what they can expect at the Old new York Chez Napoleon

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.”

One stool provides the perfect spot for a quick drink at the Old New York establishment Chez Napoleon

Shake off the shakes at Chez Napoléon, 365 West 50th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, in New York City.


  1. Wow. This one looks fantastic as well, Mitch! I have a weak spot for French food. In a restaurant or made by me at home.

  2. This is where I will take Phillipe, mon professeur français, who is a Napoléon nut! The emperor, not the pastry.

  3. Boeuf Bourguignon and a 90-year-old French grandma. Who could ask for more on a chilly late winter day. Sounds wonderful...maybe a little Django Reinhardt music in the background.

  4. Hey Mitch,
    This French restaurant is pretty nice looking, so maybe they should sell only hamburgers to the people who sit on that lonely stool. Also, in order to have a raffle to give away the $80 jigsaw puzzles, you’ve first got to get people in those seats. (I am sure the food is great.) - Peter