The doppelganger of Philip Johnson’s coolly understated Pool Room at The Four Seasons, Brasserie might be one of New York’s legendary restaurants, in one of the world’s most distinguished modernist buildings, but it has always been a bit of the boozy mistress, furtively tucked into the 53rd Street side of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building while the power-lunch set openly dines in the full light of 52nd Street.
You don’t just take a table at Brasserie, you glide while resisting the urge to do a cakewalk. The descent below street level and into the main dining room is as close as mere mortals will ever get to performing the title number in Hello, Dolly!. Like the main feature in the eponymous Pool Room, the centerstage glass staircase is the real celebrity here, prolonging the descent of everyone who enters and putting them on display.
And that goes a long way towards explaining why Brasserie reached its apotheosis in the days of Studio 54; not only could you not hide, you often arrived intending to make a statement, like entering with one partner and leaving with another. It was a place where uptown met downtown and high and low cultures mingled into the wee hours – in subterranean Midtown for crissakes! – choking back fluffy omelets and béarnaise frites in a smoky room that made everyone look good, almost.
I’ll even go so far as to date myself by confessing that a handful of my favorite early memories of NYC involved nights at Area, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, followed by moule frites at Brasserie
So where did it all go wrong? A not-so-late-night visit this week had me waiting at the check in desk for a good five minutes while a flummoxed coat check girl filled in for the host. After my party of two was plunked at a four top in the half-empty middle of the main floor, we had to negotiate our way into a booth. And the lighting! Holy mother of God, if there’s one way to suck the life out of a restaurant it’s to light the place like an Automat and make it safe for tourists. At least the omelet – studded with wild mushrooms and vidalia onions – was as serene as I remembered (clarified butter is the trick, I’m told) and my companion’s rare burger looked rare without being raw. The rest of the menu, too, remains chockablock with French standards like fruit de mer, a salad of frisee with lardons, and cassoulet.
But something essential was missing: some spirit to the whole enterprise. Restaurants come and go in this city. And a lot of really great spots have packed up while the going was still good – Lutece, La Côte Basque, and La Caravelle come to mind – because their time had passed and nobody could put their heart into it anymore. That’s what it feels like at Brasserie as it continues loping into the night. Is it too strong to die or is someone just too weak to kill it?