NYC’s Zucco: Le French Diner
It’s my humble opinion that you have effectively conquered a city when you can confidently rattle off recommendations to friends and family – whether it’s where to get the best hot toddy when temperatures plummet or the perfect trendy (but not overly so) spot for a first date. For HIMYM fans, it’s the coveted golden stamp of approval.
With Frenchie in tow and my own obsession with all things Gallic, naturally the most frequent incoming question was “where do we get good, affordable French food in NYC”. For more than two years, I’d struggled with this same question myself, and I avoided a real response by murmuring something about “We have a LaDuree!” and then not so subtly pivoting to ask if they’d tried my favorite Mexican in Hell’s Kitchen.
New York is home to a plethora of well-known chefs who run establishments producing imaginative France-inspired dishes – such as at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Mr. Boulud’s empire, just to name a few. As expected, the prices are more “special occasion” than “random weeknight craving”. My own experience is that the bulk of restaurants offering more affordable French fare are far from authentic and crowded with tourists as opposed to expats.
Which is why I’m both thrilled and terrified to share my ode to Le French Diner with you – a restaurant that I discovered late in my NYC stint and that I’m missing dearly after just three weeks in Chicago. Echoing the thoughts of many a Yelper, I’m afraid that by talking about it, somehow this non-secret, long-established gem will become overrun. But alas, I cherish my own golden stamp, so here we go.
You might walk right past Le French Diner if you weren’t looking for it. The discreet storefront on Orchard is best identified by the quirky bulldog print on the window. When you enter, don’t give too much thought to your surroundings – which you might characterize as cozy or claustrophobic depending on your tolerance for small spaces. The narrow space is dominated by the bar, host to perhaps ten stools and housing the full kitchen behind it in full view. Three small tables crowd the remaining area between the bar and the door, and expect some creative maneuvering of your limbs should you be placed there. If you’ve dreamed of having a walk-in closet or maybe a foyer in your next NY apt, it wouldn’t be much larger than this.
What makes Le French Diner so special is the full experience; the sum of its disparate parts and the details that will charm your socks off.
An extensive menu includes French bistro classics such as Coq au Vin and L’Onglet aux echalotes, as well as more surprising dishes such as toulousain sausage and pates a la carbonara made French-style. Don’t waste time looking for the wine. They serve a handful of quality red and white options – whatever is currently on hand – and are happy to give you a few choices if asked. The fare is cooked before your eyes and is simple and delicious, the way French cooking should be. A plate of merguez was served with a flavorful vegetable ratatouille that had my legume-averse Frenchie eating peppers. Sauces are the stars here – whether it’s the creamy saffron-infused broth for the mussels or the various concoctions that accompany the steaks. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of good bread and fries for mopping.
The owner whips around the small space, seating guests and taking orders, interspersed with colorful commentary. Whether you’re conversing with him in French or English, expect a heavy dose of sarcasm and profanity laced with charm that only the French can deliver. Embrace it and the staff will reward you. A few hours of friendly conversation at the bar with a girlfriend earned me a two-cheek bisous at my next visit.
The details bring it all together. Modest tableware features classic Duralex glasses with the inlaid numbers on the bottom that clearly signify French childhood. The décor is eclectic; an assortment of (sometimes lewd) knickknacks and prints dots the walls, supplemented by Polaroids of guests and a cut out mask of DSK’s face one night I was there. The owner spins tunes from his laptop in the corner ranging from old school French hip hop that brought a nostalgic smile to my Frenchie’s face to more recent hits.
As for the price, it’s the brand of affordable that makes this jaded New Yorker order appetizers, dessert and an extra glass of wine or two. Just remember to bring cash or an AMEX – the only accepted forms of payment – and your best French cool. And don’t tell too many people – word might get out!