Cozy Bistro with High-End Prices: Le Charlot

Le Charlot and Madison Avenue 016.JPG

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, I adore being out and about in Manhattan after nightfall. Particularly during the darkest months of the year.

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 is Le Charlot. Pressing my nose to the glass, my eyes flit the room—a bar in one corner, a sea of  starched white table cloths, with 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 were easy-on-the wallet.

The nighttime glow at Le Charlot...

The nighttime glow at Le Charlot...

At the first opportunity, I return with a friend for lunch. Arriving at 12:30 PM, we find nearly every table taken. One by a group of young Frenchmen, another by visitors to the city with top name shopping bags, and still another by a bevy young lovelies all of whom had long blonde tresses and Jimmy Choo pointy-toed stilettos.

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

That evening, when offered a table by the window, I wanted to be certain we would not be in a draft, as the temperature had dropped 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, doors that open in the summertime."

"Yes, Madame, but I assure you, you will be most comfortable."

At which we settled down to find he was right, we were comfortable, and the view of the street—the lights from nearby shops, the cars going by, and from the blue holiday decorations on the lampposts—was delightful. Full of good cheer.

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

That evening we shared an order of the 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 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, a so-so glass of wine, and no dessert.

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.

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, but we'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? Being one-of-a-million in Times Square? 

Remember, guys and gals, whatever you do, I hope to see you back here the new year. I'll drink to that! Un verre de Dom Perignon s'il vous plait.