Cozy Bistro with High-End Prices: Le Charlot

Having lived most of my life in the rustic village of Oyster Bay Cove, its deep woods and winding lanes brightened only by patches of moonlight at night, I love being out and about in Manhattan after nightfall. Particularly during the darkest months of the year.

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So late one afternoon, after a session with a ‘genius’ at the Apple on Fifth, I'm walking up  Madison Avenue, when the soft glow spilling from the windows of a restaurant on East 69th Street catches my eye.  The darkening sky notwithstanding, two young women are seated at an outdoor table—coats unbuttoned, scarves hanging loose around their necks—enjoying glasses of wine. As if they were in Paris, where café culture is alive and well. What's not to like about café culture, except that's its not a part of the New York scene. But you can see for yourself what it's all about, if you click on the video in which Rick Steves, the travel guru, explains all.

The name of the restaurant, not the one mentioned above but the one off Madison, is Le Charlot. Pressing my nose to the glass, my eyes flitted the room—a bar in one corner, a roomful of starchy white table cloths, the folded napkins at the ready—and, in an instant, the heady Parisian atmosphere had me homesick for Paris. Homesick for those quintessentially French restaurants that years ago you could find everywhere in Paris—neighborhood restaurants in off-the-beaten path locations, the mere sight of which offered a good welcome and easy-on-the wallet prices.

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At the first opportunity, I return with a friend for lunch. Arriving at 12:30 PM, nearly every table was taken. Taken by a group of young Frenchmen; taken by tourists lugging top name shopping bags; and taken by young lovelies all of whom seemed to have long blonde tresses and Jimmy Choo pointy-toed stilettos.

Despite the crowd that day, service was attentive and we thoroughly enjoyed the salade avec poulet roti and a rosé from Provence. That day, I promised myself to return for dinner, which my companion and I did a few nights ago.

But that evening, when offered a table by the window, I wanted to be certain we would not be in a draft, as the temperature was dropping into the low forties.

Madame, I assure you, said the maître 'd, You will not be in a draft.

But monsieur, these windows are really doors, doorsthat open in summer.

Yes, Madame, but you will be most comfortable.

At which we settled down to find he was quite right, we were comfortable, and the view of the street—the lights from the store across the way, from cars going by, and from the blue holiday decorationson the lampposts on Madison Avenue—was delightful. See for yourself.

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The ambiance is cozy, traditional, with a few Art Deco touches and a couple of interesting prints on the wall—one celebrating a performance by Miles Davis, the other a likeness of Janis Joplin. What do you think, is that Janis Joplin? I asked about the name, Le Charlot, and, if I understood correctly, a charlot is a large metal pot—perhaps something like a cauldron.

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That evening we shared an order of escargot in a garlicky green sauce which was excellent, followed by superb moules marinière with frites. What was disappointing were the wines—we tried a chardonnay,  switched to a sauvignon blanc—that were rather ordinary at $15 a glass. What’s more, my companion felt the prices for this typical bistro fare were out-of-line. Of course, the restaurant is in a high-rent district surrounded by high-end shops, which may account for the $174 bill, including tip.  Certainly more than you would expect to pay for one appetizer, two bowls of mussels, so-so wine, watery espresso, and no dessert.

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Then, too, that evening the restaurant felt subdued by comparison with its daytime self. My advice? Go for lunch, skip dinner. Even though the place was half-empty, they insisted on seating everyone on a banquette along one wall. We were fine tucked away in the corner, but when they seated two women next to us, they complained—not because of us, but because they were put in between our table and a party of four which included two young children.

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When one of the women asked, in French, to have the table changed, management gave them a hard time, telling them that all the other tables were reserved. At which the woman quipped: Really? At what time is the Chinese delegation arriving? That made me laugh; management relented. By the time we left around eight, the tables were still empty and the Chinese delegation failed to show.

Well, that's it for this week. Time to get ready to ring in the New Year. I don't know about you, butwe'll be out on the town with friends come New Year's Eve. What's your style? Stay at home by the fireside? Banging pot and pans at midnight?  Or being one-of-a-million in Times Square? 

Remember, guys and gals, whatever you do, let's start the new year right by sharing this post with friends. Here's to 2015!  I'll drink to that; make mine Dom Perignon, s'il vous plait.