Le Veau d’Or
Every once in a while, the Manhattan Sideways team meets someone who is so enigmatic, interesting, and real that he or she embodies the spirit of the side streets of the city. And, without a doubt, Cathy Trebaux is one of these people. She is a one-woman show and runs the iconic French restaurant that her father, Robert Trebaux, turned into an Upper East Side institution when he purchased the already fifty-year-old bistro in 1985. To our delight, Cathy invited us to sit down at one of her tables, and then pulled up her own seat and proceeded to share some of the classic Le Veau d’Or stories with us for the next several hours.
Cathy is Le Veau d’Or. As one of her many regulars said, “We love Cathy, that’s why we come.” She spoke to us about how being a restaurateur is a dying profession: eateries are now owned by businessmen, rather than the people who categorically know how to run a restaurant. In the age of restaurateurs, “the restaurant wasn’t really open unless you were in it.” Cathy, in that sense, is the definition of a restaurateur and knows it: “I have the shortest hours in New York.” She closes the kitchen at 1:30 for lunch “because I can,” and if she wants to close early for the evening, she does that as well.
Robert Trebaux was the son of French dairy farmers who worked his way up the Parisian restaurant trade before heading to the United States, and then managed to stay in business by buying the building. He also sidestepped the unions by hiring few enough employees that he did not have to trouble himself with their rules, and dealt with the diminished staff by turning people away at the door if the restaurant became too busy. He famously said, “Any fool can run a full restaurant. It takes a genius to run an empty restaurant.”
In this way, Cathy is very much like her father. She jokingly said that she runs a “nonprofit” because of this unconventional method of staying in business. And how do the customers feel about it? “My customers are the best trained in New York. Most of them have been coming for years and would not dream of going anywhere else.” Seeing Cathy interact with her regulars is like watching a witty film – she chummily banters, kissing them on both cheeks in farewell, laughing in between her Frenglish (franglais) patter. We witnessed her walking her old timers out the door making sure that they were safely on the sidewalk or even hailing a taxi for them. “We have leases on all our tables,” one gentleman jokes. Another said, “Some of us are latecomers – I’ve only been dining here since 1960.” We noted that each guest was wearing a suit and tie, and most of them were experts in their field, be it a designer, writer, and even the former publisher of Life Magazine. “I have the last characters of New York,” Cathy proudly announced, and we believe her.
Le Veau d’Or is a family business in more ways than one. Cathy worked in the restaurant business alongside her father starting at age ten, and essentially started running it a few years prior to his death. She had left the restaurant to raise her children, but then returned to her customers, whom she thought of as her second family. Her community at Le Veau d’Or is “dysfunctional, but family.” Now her son, a writer, occasionally helps in the restaurant, but Cathy laughed and said that she is not afraid to usher him into the kitchen if someone important comes in to dine. “I don’t want him using their dialogue in any of his books.”
This is mostly because Le Veau d’Or is a second home for many people, and a place where they can feel comfortable and at ease with their discussions. Most of her patrons are true conversationalists, for as she pointed out, “they grew up far before the internet age.” They are also intellectuals and have a need to talk intelligently with others. Sadly, many of their family and friends have passed on, but Cathy offers a solution – she sits solo diners together so that they can make new connections. She does not like to see two customers living parallel lives and never meeting despite shared interests and backgrounds. She knows her regulars so well that solid friendships are often formed through these seating arrangements.
The restaurant itself is like a time capsule. Except for the art, which occasionally changes, the space looks the same as when Robert first opened. There are twenty tables, allowing forty to fifty people to dine comfortably, however Cathy would never let that happen. The layout of those tables has never changed. This makes for a heightened sense of nostalgia for those who return after numerous years away. Cathy has many stories of people saying “I had my first date here” or “I ate here with my parents” or, in one case, “I came here with my ‘was-band.'” There are also many historic tales surrounding the restaurant. A now-famous divorce attorney once won a case because he recognized his client’s cheating husband spending lavishly on a mistress at Le Veau d’Or. In A.E. Hotchner’s, Papa Hemingway, he mentions Ernest Hemingway having lunch there, and the present-day best-selling novel, The Goldfinch names it as the place where the main character first tried escargot. The old school celebrity clientele are also impressive. Cathy brought out the ledger books from before the age of credit card accounts and as she flipped through, she pointed out notable figures on almost every page including Pierre Matisse, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Richard Nixon.
Cathy did reflect on the fact that today’s younger generation is more about visiting trendy dining spots in the city, and recognizes that her restaurant is not one that most would choose. And then she revealed another funny story. On a recent occasion, a loyal elderly couple told Cathy that they would be dining at Le Veau d’Or with their two twenty-something grandchildren. In her heart, Cathy knew that they would not be impressed; however, much to her amazement, as she stood at the door and greeted the family, the two grandchildren took one quick look around, and exclaimed, “We know this place, it was on Anthony Bourdain!”