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August 30th, 2009 04:52 PM
Diners' Clubs / Café des Artistes


How fitting that the NEW YORK TIMES chose to place the article about the closing of the Café des Artistes on the obituary page (in the paper itself). It is a death notice, a death in my family, as well as the passing of a restaurant beloved to people from New York, and all over the world.

The story of how my husband, George Lang, took over the Café des Artistes in 1975 is amusing. The Café had been in the same space since 1917, and it was a forgotten, dusty, sad place. No one ate there, if they could help it, but it supported many ABC barflies, since the television network was on the same block (still is). In fact, there was a telephone on the bar that was directly connected to the ABC newsroom, so that when a story broke the editors could call up the bar to round up the drunken reporters.

David Garth, the renowned political consultant, was the president of the board of the Hotel des Artistes at the time. (In spite of its name, the building is an apartment building, not a hotel.) He called up my husband, who lived just three buildings away, and was a world-renowned restaurant consultant – some say he invented the profession. He begged George to take over the place and make it into something special. George demurred, saying he didn’t want to go into restaurant operations, god forbid. That night, when George was on the block trying to hail a cab and having no luck, he muttered to himself, “If we had a successful restaurant on this block I’d always be able to get a cab!” So, the next day, he called David and accepted the offer.

George, of course, is brilliant at everything he does, and equally unconventional. He completely redesigned the restaurant to make it look beautiful, and – more importantly – to look like it had been the same since 1917. He brought all of his old-world sensibilities to every aspect of the Café. He was born between the two world wars in what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Café felt like it could have been at home in Vienna, or Hungary, or Paris, or Berlin. When asked what kind of food was served, he always said, “The kind of food you’d get at a Sunday lunch in some country in Europe if your grandmother was a good cook.”

The Café was never about the food, though, even though you could always be assured of something delicious; for example, Salmon Four Ways has been on the menu since the beginning – smoked salmon, gravlax, salmon tartare and poached salmon. For many years, the Café was practically the only restaurant in town that served Pot au Feu, boiled beef in a rich broth no matter what language you use.

No, the Café was never one of the many temples of gastronomy that abound in New York, but a respite from those. It was a place where you could feel comfortable, and welcome. My favorite maitre d’ story is the time I was standing near the front door and the manager greeted an incoming guest so warmly and profusely that she said, “Have we met before?” He said no, but he was deliriously happy to see her.

The decision to close the Café is exceedingly painful to make, but inevitable. We are one of the very, very few independent restaurants in New York City that operates with a union; many of those have closed in the last few years, and hundreds have closed in the last few decades. In that respect, we are a dinosaur because the huge added expense of having a union restaurant can be crippling, especially when the economy takes a nosedive.

Since 99% of the independent restaurants in New York City do not have a union, we are not playing on a level playing field with the rest of our competition. One example: We pay approximately $250,000 more each year for health insurance and pension coverage for our employees than we would if we were paying for non-union coverage.

The number of diners who have come to our restaurant has declined, as with every other restaurant in town, but the more dramatic downturn is in how much the guests spend when they get to the restaurant. We have had a prix fixe menu in the Café since 1975, when it was almost unique in New York. In the last two years the number of people who chose the prix fixe increased significantly. And other diners spent less per visit than they had just a couple of years ago.

For more than a decade, my husband and I have been pouring our own money into the restaurant, in order to keep it going. We have a family of employees, many of whom have been with us for more than 20 years, and we have always cared about them and their families enough to want to keep them employed.

Now George is 85 years and – thankfully – in excellent health, but it is time for him to move away from the restaurant that has absorbed his life for so many years. He is the doyen of his profession, and has so much to offer; he will concentrate on his other projects, and leave the Café behind, as a memory.

Of course it’s sad for George, and sad for me. I have been on an even keel every since we made the decision to close the Café des Artistes – that is, until an hour ago, when I received this email:

“How can you do this to me??? How can you do this to all your loving patrons??? You cannot close! You are where my late husband and I fell in love. You are where we had graduation, anniversary and birthday parties. I was last there in July with my 18-year-old granddaughter. I am so glad we took some photos - but she will never learn to love you and expect you to remain in her life as I did - if you really do close!! I am devastated. “

Then I started to cry.

  1.  August 30, 2009 06:18 PM 
    I'm sorry to hear that the Cafe has closed. It was a beautiful establishment and will be missed.
    - Posted by JB
  2.  August 31, 2009 08:18 AM 
    Always sad when an institution like this closes. That penultimate paragraph describes the Cafe for many.
    - Posted by Tom
  3.  August 31, 2009 12:42 PM 
    Tears were in our eyes on Saturday morning as we scanned the NYT obit page... yes, a fitting placement to announce the closing of one of our favorite spots: my husband's and my first date; several anniversary dinners; a family reunion dinner; my 50th birthday dinner; many other meals (where will I ever find a wiener schnitzel as good outside of Wien?!) and cozy, boozy evenings observing the colorful characters at the bar. Our hope is that the Cafe can one day be re-opened by a skillful restaurateur who can honor the Lang's tradition of such gracious, elegant dining.
    - Posted by Princess
  4.  August 31, 2009 12:46 PM 
    though not frequent diners at cafe my wife & i are saddened by it's closing. after dining at gundel in budapest (one of the best meals we've ever had) we were hoping cafe would evolve into that type of austro-hungarian restaurant that would be about the food, as well. best of luck, sam & liz lefkowitz
    - Posted by sam lefkowitz
  5.  September 02, 2009 05:55  
    A sad sign of the times. I have very fond memories of the place. I dont see it coming back in another version- it was an original, unique and a fixture in NYC. There are not many places that can stand up to this legacy. It will be missed.
    - Posted by angela
  6.  September 02, 2009 06:18  
    You will be so sadly missed. I have celebrated many family occasions at the Cafe, romantic dinners, and wonderful Sunday brunches. Champagne has never tasted so fine as when imbibed at Des Artistes. Perhaps the murals can be loaned to a museum to be preserved and enjoyed for the next generation.
    - Posted by Rebecca
  7.  September 02, 2009 08:14  
    Attention must be paid... Victor, at the bar. was truly a gem. He always welcomed you as though you were very special and it never mattered that you had been away for a long time. His smile made you feel that he was truly happy you were there. His service was impeccable and he was a reason to return again and again. Thank you , Victor, you and the Cafe were the essence of New York. All our best wishes, Bette and Joe Kessler
    - Posted by Bette Kessler
  8.  September 02, 2009 08:28  
    Is just that you can't close it, we go to NY every year and every time we go to the Cafe, we don't want to missed it for ever. Posted by Enrique Saavedra.
    - Posted by enrique Saavedra
  9.  September 02, 2009 09:21  
    For us native New Yorkers, a genuine tragedy. O tempora, o mores...
    - Posted by Jeff Gross
  10.  September 02, 2009 11:13  
    We had our 50 th anniversary with you and I was just thinking we will have dinner there next time we are in NYC. Boohoo
    - Posted by The Vauchers
  11.  September 03, 2009 08:37  
    What a shame. Romance takes a huge hit in the city. What will happen to the wonderful murals?
    - Posted by james donahoo
  12.  September 03, 2009 10:52  
    It is very sad. But what a lovely goodbye.
    - Posted by Max Van Gilder
  13.  September 03, 2009 11:16  
    I loved the cafe it was so sexy to have had dinner there with my boy friend at the time now husband. xo
    - Posted by Jill
  14.  September 03, 2009 11:19  
    A great restaurant indeed.
    - Posted by Stan
  15.  September 06, 2009 04:23  
    I am saddened by this news. i will never forget my first meal at the restaurant; I was with my boss, Peggy Kennedy,(we worked at House Beautiful magazine) and two renowned interior designers. I can't remember what I ate, because as an ingenue in New York with no expense account, I was more enchanted with the decor the finery, romance, and attention to detail than the food. I retiurned to the restaurant for a wonderful meal last fall...I'm glad i was able to experience it again, not knowing it would be the last time.
    - Posted by Sally Belk King
  16.  September 06, 2009 06:57  
    Jenifer, I, like many of those who have commented above, was saddened to hear of you and George closing the CAFÉ DES ARTISTES. I have not been there in many years but still remember it fondly. I have promised to take my wife Evelyn there over the past 30 years and failed to do so for many reasons that do not matter now. Good luck to you and George and maybe Evelyn and I will see you in Monaco or ?? Gary
    - Posted by Gary Corbitt
  17.  September 08, 2009 06:38  
    Many great nights at the opera began at the Cafe. My wife surprised me on my 50th birthday at the restaurant. My son had his first Pot au Feu there. As the opera season approaches, the Cafe will be missed. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.
    - Posted by Mark & Susan Grossbard
  18.  September 14, 2009 03:22  
    George and Jenifer, Like so many of your friends we are mourning with you and wishing you would or could reconsider, knowing this isn't even remotely possible. When Joe Baum was forced to close The Rainbow Room, we thought we could never go back, and so far, I haven't, but we can hope the next owner will give and receive as much joy as gave and received to and from your loving admirers. Irena
    - Posted by Irena Chalmers
  19.  December 28, 2009 10:17 P 
    Dear Mr. and Mrs. Lang, My "significant other" and I were heartbroken and outraged when we read that "The Cafe" was being forced to close. For a number of years now we've dined there at least once a year while visiting NYC. We will miss you terribly. For now, I'm frantically studying the two "Cafe Des Artistes" cookbooks as well as Mr. Lang's Hungarian cookbook and my saved menus, hoping to reconstruct something. Thank for all the lovely meals.
    - Posted by Nancy Fiedler
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