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La Ripaille Keeps the French Bistro Alive in New York

While its candlelit tables and jazzy French music may seem similar to the many other French bistros in New York, La Ripaille is unique in its longstanding history of 37 years. The interior, largely unaltered since its opening in 1980, stands proudly as a grandfather example for the many new French bistros that have opened recently during the re-emergence of the French bistro trend. For the first time this year, the eatery will participate in New York’s French Restaurant Week from July 3-16.

La Ripaille sits on a shaded street in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood that has evolved considerably since the restaurant opened its doors in 1980. Inside however, familiar faces and certain menu items, like the escargots and the broccoli mousse, remain as if suspended in time. When Alain Laurent and his brother first opened the bistro on Hudson Street, the area was still a hotbed of drugs and prostitution. At the time, French bistros were all the rage and the pair rode the trend by serving the traditional French food of their home country. They put in an intimate touch, which Alain tries very hard to maintain, by employing their girlfriends in the kitchen.

At the very start, the foursome had to work hard to survive. Alain would buy their ingredients locally, in the West Village, eventually developing the relationship he has today with suppliers. Having been trained in classical French restaurants in New York, the Metz-born chef and his girlfriend developed the French menu and atmosphere still present today while his brother’s wife, an Italian, “brought the pasta touch.” Alain touts his broccoli mousse, prepared in a lemon butter sauce, as one of the bistro’s  most popular dishes—one that he insists all the chefs who pass through the kitchen keep on the menu. Another dish from the past, the escargots, is “quite different from the traditional style” and is finished with basil, tomatoes and a little cream. By offering the most popular dishes as well as modern specials based on finds at the local markets, the restaurant keeps up with changing tastes while still highlighting the history that has kept it popular even now.

Today, only Alain remains and high-end boutiques and artisanal shops have taken the place of old nightclubs and bars. The popularity of French bistros has cycled down and up again in the meantime. Many comparable restaurants from La Ripaille’s time have shut down and lately, newer, sleeker ones have taken their places. While the good food, good service and decent prices that he cites as his goals may be the reason for its longevity, it is more likely that Alain’s constant presence in the restaurant, “7 days a week and 16 hours a day,” is what makes La Ripaille stand out. Still, he sighs, it is getting harder for the smaller bistro to survive as many newer French restaurants are backed by large corporations, which makes it harder to compete.

Norman Mailer at La Ripaille on November 24th, 1996: “To Alain, after the pleasure of being in Paris right here on Hudson Street, cheers.” © Melody Chan

Despite the challenges, it is obvious that this bistro owns a piece of history that many newer restaurants will take years to replicate. For a glance, a thick leather-bound book lies near the entrance of the bistro, full of signatures from famous patrons who have passed by dating all the way back to its opening. Among a picture of Pele and signatures from Johnny Depp and Derek Jeter, Norman Mailer gives thanks for the « pleasure of being in Paris right here on Hudson St. » and Marion Cotillard fawns over « l’acceuil. » Alain proudly flips through the book and lists off names and occupations with the razor sharp memory he uses to remember all his regulars. When asked why he doesn’t take a step back from the business, the 64-year-old chef replies that he cares about the people who dine there, citing the recent example of seeing a customer who hadn’t been in for 10 years. “He used to come here years ago but had moved out. He wondered if I was going to remember him,” he smirks. “But I recognized him as soon as he stepped in!”

La Ripaille
605 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014
(212) 255-4406
www.laripailleny.com

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