Posted on February 14th, 2013
Circumstance recently brought me to the drab, cluttered 3rd Avenue stretch just east of Manhattan’s Flatiron / Murray Hill neighborhoods, and my mind immediately conjured the late La Petite Auberge. It was my favorite French restaurant for its last couple of years of existence, though my sporadic patronage – the meals were neither healthy nor cheap – obviously failed to save it from demise about a year and a half ago.
The restaurant occupied an unlikely location on a street corner surrounded by a mix of Indian eateries, Middle Eastern dives, and various mediocre holes-in-the-wall catering to college students. It was easy to miss from the street, but once inside, you knew this was a magnificent dinosaur.
La Petite Auberge (French for “The Little Inn”) would almost be difficult to imagine in any part of New York City today. Serious white-shirted waiters fussed (without imposing) around mostly elderly regulars and their middle-aged children clad in classic prep. The dining room looked formal and decidedly unhip, the floor uneven in places, and there was an absence of background music that transformed the murmur from nearby tables into an improvised soundtrack. Unlike the majority of NYC’s French restaurants, which tend to cluster their tables so close that your elbow has as much claim to the next table’s duck liver pâté as its occupants, a party’s space was respected here. The chief colors, besides the white of the tablecloths, were the dark brown of the old wood bar and walls, and the burgundy of everything else.
In this setting, La Petite Auberge served some of the finest authentic French fare that NYC had to offer. Never have I tasted duck a l’orange that was both so plentiful and flavorful, extra crispy on the outside and juicy within, the layer of fat under the skin thinner than usual yet still very much present. The pâtés were perfect, accompanied by the always-welcome crispy crusted fresh baguette slices. Desserts were solid if standard (cheesecake with chocolate sauce, etc.), and the same could be said of the wine selection, which featured enough Pinot Noir and Bordeaux to keep any Francophile happy. I brought two separate parties to dine here, and both left charmed and impressed with the food and experience, meaning to return. Alas.
I suppose in a city with a rapidly growing economic gap between the wealthy and the barely middle class, where some sort of gimmick is almost necessary to survive even for a hot minute, buzz is everything, and luxury frequently outsells charm or authenticity, a place like La Petite Auberge couldn’t hold its own forever. Its gimmick, if you choose to see it as such, was the refusal to bend to trends; its status quo was incredible food and meticulous service. To this day, I have not found a French restaurant in New York that scores as highly on both the culinary and the atmosphere fronts. But for about 25 years, La Petite Auberge made a lot of people happy, and I consider myself fortunate to have experienced its charms, even if for a short time.