Classic New York: Raoul's

You cannot order the burger at dinner. Well, unless you’re sitting at the bar, and are one of a dozen very lucky people. After burgers are sold to the first twelve people sitting at the bar in the front half of legendary Soho restaurant Raoul’s, its kitchen will emit no more burgers for the evening. No ifs, ands, or buts.

You can more easily order the burger, which comes with a side of steak au poivre sauce meant for dipping, a gang of duck fat fries, and a slab of triple cream Saint-André dripping over the edges of its hot Pat LaFrieda beef patty, at weekend brunch. While you can certainly visit Raoul’s for brunch, the service of which started just last year, you instead come in the evening, when it’s getting darker outside. It’s so dark outside that it’s very dark inside, with a few flattering golden globes of light. You come when the unconceited wine list is beginning to loosen the lips of the celebrities and the increasingly disappearing Soho artist set who also come here.

Beyond the burger, the menu is fine: chilled artichokes with vinaigrette, house-made country pâté, frisée salad, the famous steak au poivre, risotto, a side of haricots verts, creme brûlée for dessert. It’s classic French bistro food, and it’s been that way for decades. Before Odeon or Balthazar, there was Raoul’s.

Opened in 1975 by Alsatian brothers Serge and Guy Raoul, the restaurant was (and still is) a family business that served roast chicken to, in the beginning, a mixture of artists living in illegal lofts and elderly Italian residents who had been in the neighborhood forever. Then it served roast chicken to Andy Warhol, Bill Clinton, and Julia Roberts. It didn’t launch as a concept restaurant, and it still isn’t a concept restaurant; it’s just a comfortable place with an awesomely wonky patchwork quilt of artwork covering its walls that came to be frequented by some very important people. That clientele, paired with an honest and consistent menu, gave Raoul’s the confidence to keep its feet planted in a neighborhood that grew flashier and more trend-driven all around it. Yes, A Raoul’s by any other name would have closed by now in this dog-eat-dog town. The booths in the dining room are so rickety you can feel every shift in weight of the guy one table over, and the servers can make you feel like you should thank them just because you have a seat. But New Yorkers are gluttons for punishment, celebrity sightings, history, and, as writer Alyssa Shelasky puts it, “a dirty martini with a plate of frites and a side of sexual tension.”

“When I moved here, this was one of the places my longtime New Yorker friends said I had to go,” a patron of the restaurant told me. (This patron and I met after being pushed into each other by other patrons – a common occurrence at Raoul’s.) His friend took him there, his friend’s friend had taken her there, and now he was taking his little sister there, because she just moved to the city. While we talked about Raoul’s, New York, art, and scandal, said little sister was up the spiral iron staircase on the second floor with tarot card reader Nancy Stark, who has been stationed at a two-person café table next to the restrooms a few nights a week since the mid-eighties.

That’s Raoul’s. It’s a place where you might spot an A-list celeb pleading with the chef to make just one more burger and then, all luck lost, heading upstairs to get a forecast of the future.

Words by Julia Bainbridge