Known as the first wine bar in New York City, the French bistro Le Bateau Ivre will be participating in French Restaurant Week through July 15.
The owners of Le Bateau Ivre are from India. The chef is from Venezuela and the kitchen staff is from Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala. Yet the French atmosphere can be seen from miles away. A garland of French flags hangs in the front window. The name of the restaurant itself, Le Bateau Ivre (« The Drunken Boat »), was inspired by a verse from French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Inside, dark wooden chairs and tables bring up a scene from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and behind the bar, waiters in striped shirts and berets uncork bottles of wine.
Herbert Robertson, who helped opening the restaurant in 1997 and came back as a chef in 2012, fell in love with French cuisine in his native Caracas, Venezuela. The French owner of a local bistro, Marc Provost, inspired him to enroll at the prestigious culinary institute Ecole LeNôtre, in the western suburbs of Paris. Robertson went on working in several Michelin-starred restaurants around France, including Apicius and and L’Espérance in Paris, and La Côte Saint-Jacques in Burgundy.
Le Bateau Ivre prides itself in being New York’s first wine bar. Similar bars eventually opened on every street corner, but this French bistro remained famous for keeping unusually late hours. The kitchen closes at 3 am and the bar at 4 am. “It became more than a restaurant,” remembers Chef Robertson. “It was a place for everyone to sit and relax after work, Francophones, Francophiles, and passer-byes alike.”
With over 200 French references on its wine menu, Le Bateau Ivre has been a destination for wine enthusiasts for the past twenty years. Chef Robertson, however, has observed several changes in the drinking habits of his customers. “People no longer want to drink old, expensive wines,” he says. “They prefer younger wines. People also no longer drink champagne. Patrons tend to be educated with wines nowadays, so they know what they like and stick to it.” Another thing that changed at Le Bateau Ivre is rosé. The wine is now poured year-round, and at any stage of the meal. “Rosé used to be considered a refreshment before you ordered your food, but the rosé that is produced now has more body and pairs well with any kind of food.”
As part of this year’s French Restaurant Week, the restaurant will offer a 38-dollar dinner menu through July 15. Patrons will be able to try, among other traditional French dishes, confit de canard, onion soup, steak tartare, and bouillabaisse. The most popular dishes are the magret de canard and the coq au vin. Chef Robertson recommends pairing the former with a Côtes du Rhône and the latter with a Bordeaux. “But if you prefer rosé, try the coq au vin with a glass of Tavel from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
Le Bateau Ivre
230 East 51st Street
New York, NY 10022