La Grenouille, a Manhattan restaurant enjoying its fifth decade of operation in a city where culinary tastes seemingly change every five minutes, reflects the belief that its husband-and-wife founders, Charles and Gisèle Masson, held in the virtues of succulent food served in an inviting setting. Its main dining room always has been decorated with arrangements of seasonal fresh flowers, some of which stand five feet tall and are perched between the booths, and its menu always has featured classic French dishes such as frog’s legs and grilled Dover sole in mustard sauce. But La Grenouille, which since Charles’ death in 1975 has been run by his son, Charles, is hardly frozen in time. (Gisèle, whose husband affectionately referred to as la grenouille, or the frog, is retired but remains involved as the owner.) Charles the younger, who begins each workday by tending the restaurant’s flower arrangements, attributes La Grenouille’s longevity in part to steady but modest changes to the menus, the decor, and the facade, which was redone in the spring of 2004 to add windows that provide views of the street. New carpeting and banquettes were installed last summer. “If you don’t change with the times, you’re history,” Masson says. “If we decided to do the changes all at once, people would say, ‘Oh my God, it changed.’ We make small, gradual tweaks. I’d hate to think of the restaurant as a shrine. It’s a living thing.”
Still, the survival of La Grenouille in the fickle New York dining scene is remarkable, especially considering that several classic French restaurants from the same era have closed in recent years, including Lutèce and La Caravelle; La Côte Basque reopened in scaled-down brasserie form in the summer of 2004, and Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque 2000, the most recent incarnation of the restaurant that Maccioni founded in 1974, closed in January after arranging an early end to his lease at the Palace hotel.
Despite the demise of its contemporaries, the expanding boundaries of French cuisine—particularly evident in the Time Warner Center restaurants—and the rise of more relaxed forms of dining, La Grenouille, which still requires male patrons to wear jackets, thrives. It is the only New York restaurant to have made the Zagat Survey New York City restaurant guide’s top-10 list in both 1979 and 1999, and it ranks among the top 10 for service and decor in the 2005 edition.
Tim Zagat, cofounder of the Zagat Survey guidebook series, credits the restaurant’s extraordinary run to the smooth transition of leadership within the family. “When families work together, it is a terrific strength. I think that has happened at La Grenouille,” Zagat says. “Also, [La Grenouille’s chefs] are not allowed to get a degree of celebrity, so when they depart, [the owners] don’t lose everything.” Masson likens his staff to the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ no-name defense. “As a whole, we are strong,” he says. “I take no credit. It’s the entire crew, from the dishwasher to the office staff, which works as an entity. There are no superstars.” Indeed, La Grenouille has carried on without superstars for 42 years, and shows no signs of fading.
La Grenouille, 212.752.1495, www.la-grenouille.com