There’s a nicotine light — a warm, dim, dangerous flicker — that suffuses a certain kind of brasserie. Bad decisions are made here gladly. It’s been years since anyone smoked in New York restaurants, but bathe in that luminescence and you can believe, for a second, that you could, maybe even that you should. Never mind that it’s usually the work of highly paid lighting consultants. We flutter like moths to char ourselves in it. If a martini with fries has become the New York Happy Meal, as my colleague E. Alex Jung wrote earlier in the year, this is the New York Tan.
That light radiates at Cecchi’s, which opened this past summer on the ashes of the late beloved Café Loup, the West Village stalwart where generations of writers sloshed bucket-size martinis and ate passable dinners. (“I threw up in the bathroom several times,” one much-read magazine journalist told me wistfully.) The wolf may have been at the door for Loup, which reportedly extended its loucherie from its ambience to its tax bills, but Cecchi’s has maintained the spirit of the original. It has, in fact, maintained the spirit of several progenitors, all of which have burned this same sultry oil. Yes, these are restaurants — where you can get a decent burger and sometimes a fine steak and always a good drink — but even more, they are haunts. Their lineage goes back at least to Elaine’s in the 1960s and Raoul’s, which opened in Soho in 1975. The modern iteration begins at the Odeon, Lynn Wagenknecht and the McNally brothers’ decade-defining Tribeca brasserie, which opened in 1980 and has arguably been the most influential of the three. Both Raoul’s and the Odeon are going strong decades later, despite a marked critical skepticism of their cooking, and both have spawned more imitators than many of their compeers, which began with Wagenknecht’s Café Luxembourg, the proto-Fauxdeon, and continued through about half of Keith McNally’s latter-day empire. But a Fauxdeon needs no family tie to its patriarchs, and at the moment, New York seems especially flush with new arrivals. This is the season of the Fauxdeons.
Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, Cecchi’s owner and namesake, has more claim to this line than most. He is an NYC restaurant lifer who ran the door for the Raoul brothers at Raoul’s for 17 years and worked for Keith McNally himself at Minetta Tavern after that. He knows all too well the food has to be good enough, but for this kind of joint, that alone is not sufficient. “Raoul’s is failproof,” he writes in Your Table Is Ready, his memoir from last year. “It didn’t matter if the steak was overcooked, the fish fishy, the escargot cold. People want to be there, be in that space, to see and be seen, to sometimes (especially in the old days) fuck and do drugs, and leave feeling like they’ve experienced true New York.”
Cecchi may have gone from maître d’ to owner, but he still patrols the floor like a wiry general, kibitzing. “From Charlotte? Glad to have you!” he crowed to a table near mine on a recent Monday night, the kind of democratic bonhomie that doesn’t necessarily thrill the old Loup set. “The food at Café Loup was bad,” an art critic I know snarled as he left, “but the people didn’t look like they came from Cleveland.”
To paraphrase Groucho, no one wants to belong to a club that will have both him and his midwestern cousins. But that’s gentrification for you. In our cynical private-club moment, I find it’s a relief that the gates are not so staunchly kept. In any case, clubhouses are more often claimed than built. They take years to accrue the bruises and neglect of history — though the new ones are designed to look patinated from day one. At Cecchi’s, the pendants are Deco-ish and the murals — of Pierrots and bellhops and showgirls — Weimarian. (Framed on one column is a solitary portrait that looks like Anna Wintour as seen by Otto Dix.) The food splits the difference between brasserie classics and the stuff of a Chicagoland supper club: soft, stretchy dinner rolls; giant cocktail shrimp on ice; steaks both frite’d and table size; and a thoroughly competent burger with happily excellent fries. They are skinny and golden, tasting more of fast food than potato — artisanal they are not. In fact, contra the provenance-spouting ways of many of the city’s haughtier bistros, they are frozen, Cecchi-Azzolina confirmed when he plopped down in our booth. “We tried them all,” he said, and these were the best; the secret is the oil mix, which he declined to share (it includes duck fat, is all he would say). This, too, is tradition. “People loved Raoul’s fries,” he recalled. “They were the cheapest fucking fries.”
Cecchi-Azzolina isn’t alone in recasting classic ideas for today. On Lafayette, just opposite Indochine (founded by Brian, the other McNally brother, after splitting from the Odeon), Jean’s has insider aspirations: It takes no reservations — officially, at least — and divides itself, like many before it, into Promised Land and Siberia, the better to assess your social standing instantaneously. Siberia, here, is a hallway opposite the kitchen colorfully called “the Cafe.” Make it to the inner room, lit by a crackling fireplace (a diversion from the typical Fauxdeon décor), and the world is, briefly, yours. Jean’s bistro burger is agreeable enough, especially at $28, a relative bargain these days. Jean’s entire menu, to its credit, is reasonably priced; it’s less focused than Cecchi’s, though possibly catering to a more eclectic dietary spectrum. Here, you can bounce from a Thai chicken salad to a French dip to a fluke meunière unlikely to displace sole from the pantheon. Jean’s naughtiness is of a slightly more teenage kind. But no one at my table complained about dessert: a single oversize chocolate-chip cookie, served warm with a chaser of bourbon-laced milk.
In Brooklyn, the Fauxdeon banner is flown at Swoony’s, a neighborhoody clanger in the not terribly accessible neighborhood known as the Columbia Waterfront District. The locals may be grateful, to judge from the full tables. I’m not sure I’d travel great distances for Swoony’s half-innovated brasserie classics (shrimp cocktail served warm, short ribs — rather than steak — au poivre) or its burger, served, for no discernible reason, on a squishy Portuguese bun. But the light warms and the din cheers, and one of the marks of a great Fauxdeon is its perilous proximity to mediocrity. The last laugh often belongs to the restaurateurs. In 1980, Raoul’s earned damned-with-faint-praise single-star reviews. The critics passed; the restaurant remains.