The Ghosts of New York’s Fine-Dining Scene: La Caravelle, Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque
We remember several of these long-gone and cherished Manhattan establishments.
Having lived in Manhattan for 73 years, I find when walking around the city, many of the buildings appear as double-exposed photographs—the new overlaying old memories. Not surprisingly, many such visions relate to the restaurants that were my favorites.
No matter what building replaces it, the Paris limestone facade of the townhouse that was Lutèce will always float up to my mind’s eye when I’m on East 50th Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, as will the original location of both Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque on 55th Street just east of Fifth Avenue before they decamped to other addresses. And in my home neighborhood of Greenwich Village, the sign marking Babbo on Waverly Place will always read the Coach House to me.
But the street I am on more often than the others is West 55th between 5th and 6th avenues, where I favor two excellent restaurants, Michael’s and Benoit. Never do I approach either without first glancing across to the north side of that street at the Shoreham Hotel, the former home of the bygone, much-missed La Caravelle, which has never been replaced by another restaurant.
The restaurant was opened in 1960 by partners Robert Meyzen and Fred Decré with Roger Fessaguet as chef, all graduates of Henri Soulé’s legendary Le Pavillon, as were many other restaurateurs of that era.
Featuring stylishly classic and totally delicious interpretations of French cuisine, La Caravelle with its sparkling decor almost made a meal there feel like having spent a few brief hours in Paris. Sunny, Raoul Dufy-inspired murals of Parisian scenes by artist Jean Pagès and lipstick-red velvet banquettes that flattered women, attracted movers and shakers in all fields, along with others who simply valued great food and service, and could afford that pleasure. Cold striped bass, seafood terrines, billi bi mussels soup, Dover sole, roast duck with green peppercorns and a sublime, deceptively simple poached chicken gros sel were just a few of the enduring favorites as were the ethereal dessert soufflés and caramel-glazed crème brûlée.
Time has a way of bringing changes and gradually the restaurant’s original partners retired, making way for new regimes. In 1984, the sole proprietors became Rita and André Jammet, who had shared the scene with Fessaguet for a few years. A well-experienced scion of the French family that owned the luxurious Bristol Hotel, André learned the ins-and-outs of hospitality and the intricacies of care and feeding of celebrities and high-rollers at that Paris hotel, where among other tasks, he personally supervised the purchase of all ingredients. On visits to New York, La Caravelle was the place he and his wife Rita most often chose to dine.
André with the well-traveled, business-wise Rita, set about restoring much of the establishment’s former luster by updating the decor and kitchen in line with modern tastes. They also decided to create and serve their own Champagne, naturally labeled, La Caravelle.
To recall the restaurant’s final era, I recently had lunch at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit with Rita. We began the meal by toasting the past and present with La Caravelle Champagne Rosé, which brought to mind a flowery garden in summer. It proved the perfect refreshing foil to the richly flavored food created by Benoit’s talented chef, Laetitia Rouabah.
What interested me most about their ownership was the reason for closing La Caravelle in 2004, the same year coincidentally that marked the end of two other landmark French restaurants Lutèce and La Côte Basque. As Rita explained to me, none of the three were victims of greedy landlords, but rather suffered from a temporary, faddish disaffection for French food, plus a certain ennui that persisted in the city after 9/11.
Now back at the profession at which he excels, André is the manager of the Members Dining Room of the posh Metropolitan Club. Rita, meanwhile, has managed to sell their three Champagnes—Brut Rosé, Cuvee Nina and the premium Blanc de Blancs—to dozens of restaurants and liquor stores in New York, Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Nevada.
Genes being what they are, it should be no surprise that Nicolas Jammet, one of the Jammet’s twin sons, along with a partner has opened Sweetgreen, a quality fast-food chain with outposts popping up all over New York and seven other states like chives on the first warm spring day. “I learned a lot about restaurants when I hung out at La Caravelle and watched my parents work,” Nicolas said. His generational answer is a basically vegetarian menu but with eggs, seafood and poultry and now and then even some red meat—cannily tucked under a garden of greens.
Apparently, the gene, like the beat, goes on.