Café Boulud: To Dress or Not to Dress...

Table-side at Café Boulud ...

Table-side at Café Boulud ...

It was a brilliant summer day, the temperature climbing into the 80s. Entering the dining room of Café Boulud, I wondered if the air conditioning was working. It wasn’t cool enough for me, but then few New York City restaurants are. Having lived off-and-on in Florida for 15 years, I can vouch for southern expertise when it comes to turning an overheated dining room into a chilly igloo at the flick of a thermostat. And doing so night after night. C'mon, New York! 

That day, my companion, natty in a navy blazer and a striped long-sleeved shirt, didn’t comment on the air conditioning, as he had other things on his mind; namely, the ‘come-as-you-are’ state of undress of the lunchtime crowd. 

Madame, said the maître d', who himself was dressed to perfection in a well-tailored suit, would you like to be seated on the banquette?

"Mais oui! That would be perfect," I said, knowing the banquette would offer an unobstructed view of the dining room—thereby fulfilling an unvoiced wish of this flâneuse.

Making myself comfortable, smoothing the skirt of a Ralph Lauren shirtwaist, I overhear my companion saying to the maître d’ "Young man, I think you and I are overdressed today." My friend often speaks his mind without giving me any advance warning—not so much as a raised eyebrow or a meaningful wink. Consequently, the comment leaves me as surprised as it does the maître d', whose cheeks are a most becoming shade of pink.

At which he conveys his thanks that we've come dressed as we are. They (the management) appreciate it. Or something to that effect.

After which we settle down. The dining room was still too warm, but then, there were quite a few guests. I ordered a lovely rosé, a glass of the Chateau d’Angles ‘Le Rosé Classique’ from the Languedoc, and my companion the sommelier’s selection of the day, a Villa Botanica, ‘Chardonnay-Viognier,’ also from the Languedoc. We inhaled, sipped and relaxed and then the fun began!

Seated next to us was a lovely couple from Norway—she a professional golfer, he a businessman—visiting a daughter who's living and working in Manhattan. Neatly, if casually dressed, they most likely overheard my companion’s comment to the maître d', because after chit-chatting a bit, they said they had found Café Boulud by googling ‘The 10 Best Restaurants for Lunch in New York,’ but felt not quite dressed for the occasion. 

"Oh, don’t be silly, you look fine," I said. "You’re visiting, you’re sightseeing. It is what it is!"

At which we toasted and continued the conversation. When he showed us a photograph of their waterfront property in Norway—a pristine fiord without a person in sight—I asked if he had photoshopped that pomegranate sunset (he hadn't) and wondered if property was available in their neighborhood.

“It is what it is!” was something to see. The sight that took the prize was a young man at the next table in a grimy tank-top; think Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, without the muscle, without the sexual intensity. Had he shown up without a shirt, would they have seated him? If he takes it off, will they ask him to leave? What are the rules?

I realize that restaurateurs are not in the business of turning away patrons and gone are the days when, if you showed up at a fine French restaurant without a jacket, you’d be pointed in the direction of the coat room where one would be hanging at the ready. I have no problem with casual elegant sports attire, but the tiresome world-wide uniform—the pervasive sneakers, faux worn-out jeans, and shabby cotton t-shirts—is downright dreary.    

Yet there was a bit of high style in the room that day, thanks to a group of well-dressed matrons, one from Lebanon and another, her friend, in a pale pink turban grand enough to make a maharajah envious. I adore hats, can hardly resist buying them, but find too few places to wear them. I admired her elan and self-confidence  and Madame was so kind as to let me photograph her. Note, if you will, the Chanel suit, the peach-y handbag, and the clunker on her ring finger. A lady with style and the courage of her convictions.

Our Norwegian neighbors commented that you would NEVER find that in Norway. That's why we invented New York!  

Coincidentally, the same week, the James Beard Foundations Awards were announced with Le Coucou crowned Best New Restaurant in the United States. If interested, you can read about it here. The times we’ve been to Le Coucou, the clientele was well-dressed, many of the men in dark suits. Then, again, our visits have been in the evening, not midday.

Somehow, the chef at Le Coucou, Daniel Rose, after a dozen years in Paris, has intuited that New Yorkers are again ready for elegance—white table cloths, flickering candles, chandeliers, and impeccable service—to quiet the roar 'n' rumble of the city. Prepare to be cosseted! Of Le Coucou one food critic said, “For visitors to the city, there’s currently no better place to enjoy a meal they couldn’t have back home.” I’ll second that.

As for our lunch at Café Boulud, it was splendid, beginning with an amuse-bouche and ending with a few madeleines and a perfect espresso. The restaurant has long been a favorite and over the years, we've spent many a New Year's Eve there with dear friends, popping the bubbly at midnight.

When it comes to the attire worn by the public in restaurants, let me ask you: am I carping, being an old fogy? My childhood friend, Nancy Drew, said, "If you dress well, doors will open for you." So what does it mean if you don’t dress well, if you detract from the ambiance of the restaurant, and doors still open for you? I’d love to hear what you think.

By the way, a few of you have mentioned having trouble using ‘Comments’. To leave a comment, you need to go to the end of the blog post, to where it reads COMMENTS. Click on COMMENTS and a page will open for you. Try it, I'd love to hear from you.

That’s all for today, Guys and Gals. Thanks for dropping by, hope to see you next week when I'll have the coffee brewing. Perhaps my Norwegian friends will be stopping by. And don't forget, sharing is caring!

Merci beaucoup mes amis. À plus tard.

Cafe Boulud 20 East 76th Street (bet. Fifth and Madison) 212 -772-2600