Monday August 31, 2009
From New York Times' Cara Buckley: No one got the chance to say goodbye to Café des Artistes, the storied New York City restaurant that served up Old World fare under the gaze of the painted nubile nudes that perkily graced its walls.
The restaurant had closed on Aug. 9 for a monthlong vacation and was to reopen Sept. 14. But on Friday, facing steady losses and a union lawsuit, its owners made what they described as a wrenching decision to close the landmark cafe on West 67th Street for good.
“It’s a very sad day for us,” said Jenifer Lang, whose husband, George Lang, has owned the restaurant since 1975. “It’s a death in the family.”
It was also the death of an intrinsic part of old New York. Countless couples got engaged in the glow of the restaurant’s dim, romantic lighting. Stars flocked there during its heyday. Business deals were forged. Yet for better or worse, as the latest foodie craze swept the city, the restaurant kept serving its standbys, like pot-au-feu and salmon four ways, considered classics by some and relics by others. It stayed frozen in time, like an Upper West Side Miss Havisham.
Mrs. Lang, 58, said that the restaurant’s business had been hurt by the economic crash but that its problems ran deeper. Café des Artistes was unionized, and she said the restaurant paid about $250,000 a year to cover its employees’ health and pension benefits, an amount she said the restaurant struggled to cover. Mrs. Lang also said the couple, whose home is half a block from the restaurant, put in $2 million of their own money to keep it running over the last 10 years.
“It makes it difficult to run a restaurant most of the time,” Mrs. Lang said of the union benefits. “When the economy is down, it makes it impossible.”
The final straw, Mrs. Lang said, was a lawsuit recently filed against the restaurant by the union demanding past benefit assessments.
Bill Granfield, president of Local 100 of Unite Here, the union representing the cafe’s 50-odd employees, said the restaurant had fallen behind on its payments for medical insurance and welfare funds, forcing the union to demand payment in court. He also said workers in 2003 took a pay cut and agreed to switch to a cheaper medical plan to ease the restaurant’s financial pressures.
“And here we are six years later, facing what might’ve been inevitable,” said Mr. Granfield. “We think Mr. Lang is a great figure in the restaurant industry, a great person, and it’s a great restaurant. But it feels like time passed it by a while ago.”
The Café des Artistes sits in the lobby of Hotel des Artistes, a part Gothic, part Tudor revival co-op building designed by George Mort Pollard that opened as artists’ studios in 1916; the restaurant opened a year later. Howard Chandler Christy painted its walls in the ’30s, according to Mr. Lang’s memoir, “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen,” creating 36 nudes, including one man, speculated to have been modeled after Buster Crabbe.
It is unclear what will become of the space, or the murals, all of which belong to Hotel des Artistes, Mrs. Lang said.
Mr. Lang, 85, was a violinist and a child prodigy from Hungary. He bought the restaurant in 1975, transforming it, for a while, into the toast of the town.
“It was one of the places that we would go all the time, after concerts,” said Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso and conductor, who still fantasizes about a Café des Artistes dessert: pound cake flavored with fresh orange and topped with whipped cream.
The restaurant became a home away from home for many, including journalists at ABC News, whose studios are across the street.
“I loved it,” said Lynn Scherr, a longtime ABC News correspondent. “Eating at a place with naked women on the walls is not my favorite venture,” she added, “but I guess they’re artistic.”
Café des Artistes faced tough competition from illustrious restaurants in the neighborhood, including Picholine on West 64th Street, Jean Georges at the Trump International Hotel and Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud on Broadway, all vying for the Lincoln Center crowds. “The pie is certainly smaller for us now,” said Terrance Brennan, Picholine’s chef and proprietor.
Passers-by and longtime customers lamented the closing, though several had noted a decline in foot traffic. Richard Perl, who lives in Hotel des Artistes, said while he liked the cafe, he would rather spend the money at Jean Georges. Rita and Bernard S. Berkowitz recently bought an apartment across the street, partly because of its proximity to the cafe where they had been regulars for 30 years.
“Now we’ll have to sell the apartment!” Mrs. Berkowitz said, only half in jest.
Through its windows on Sunday, the restaurant was already emanating an abandoned air. Sunlight filtered in weakly, catching dust particles hanging midair. Faint traces of dust lined the stilled ceiling fan, and the leaves of the abundant potted plants had begun to wilt.
It was only the naked nymphs, with their glowing skin and warm eyes, that seemed able to stay suspended in time. New York Times