As Soho’s Iconic Raoul’s Expands, a Look at What Keeps It a Classic
“Without atmosphere, a painting is nothing,” Rembrandt once said. Some would say the same about a signature dish at a restaurant. A Katz’s pastrami sandwich, for example, just doesn’t taste the same on a park bench. Randazzo’s fried calamari simply can’t be served anywhere but waterside. And steak au poivre from Raoul’s must be eaten at Raoul’s.
Karim Raoul, owner of the 47 year-old Raoul’s, claims that the atmosphere simply “happened without a plan.” No designer. No consultants. Not even a sketch on a napkin. Yet he knows that same flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude doesn’t quite work in today’s restaurant world, especially as he plans a spin-off of his iconic Soho restaurant right across the street.
Even he wonders if he will be able to replicate the magic of Raoul’s at 179 Prince Street, the soon-to-be-home of Revelie Luncheonette.
The atmosphere at Raoul’s has always been a big part of what makes the restaurant a destination. Depending on where you are seated, you might end up alongside a reclining, flame-haired nude; within inhaling distance of smoke tendrils emanating from Keith Richards’ cigarette; or under the protective gaze of Charles de Gaulle. That’s just the art.
In real life, you might be a booth away from Sarah Jessica Parker; or sitting along the same banquette as a group of astronauts; or nearly touching elbows with a financier who holds the fate of the stock market in the same hands with which he lifts his glass of whiskey. Or, you might be next to a “normal,” though neither that person, nor anyone else in the room, ever feels ordinary at Raoul’s.
The extraordinary ambiance of Raoul’s begins at its threshold, capped by a brown-and-white striped awning and classic cursive signage announcing that it is a “Restaurant Français.” The family name glows in bright white neon in two windowpanes, just beneath a pair of vintage red-and-blue Ballantine Ale logos.
The interior has the curated feel of a film set, even though it was not as deliberately put together. (It has even served as the location for shoots of “The Departed,” “Addicted to Love,” and “Sex and The City,” among others). The long, antique wooden bar dominates the front room, where a spiral staircase twists up to the bathrooms — and a waiting clairvoyant — on the second floor. Newspaper sticks with the dailies hang from a frame that partitions the back room. Underneath, a fish tank bubbles and gleams. Black-and-white striped leather booths anchor coat racks there, and an ancient stove stands at the rear, doubling as a service station. Then there’s the art, each piece with its own history; and the patrons, each with their own “Raoul’s story” of martini-soaked celeb spottings, tabletop dancing, and marathon dinner dates gone right or wrong.
But there’s more to the Raoul’s story than its trappings. As a longtime New Yorker with my own Raoul’s stories, it wasn’t until I started working on a documentary about the restaurant that I learned about the many layers that make up the Raoul’s narrative.
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Raoul’s Through the Years
Alsatian brothers Serge and Guy Raoul, Karim’s father and uncle, respectively, opened the bistro in gritty Soho in 1975, just as the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” plastered papers. When most French restaurants preferred the safer harbor of Midtown, Raoul’s fueled downtown’s art scene, with the likes of Haring, Warhol, Basquiat, and Koons — who were not above swapping sketches for a meal — populating the tables.
Even the staff was made up of artists: Photographer Pepe Diniz, for example, worked as a busboy while building a portfolio of area habitués, like Miles Davis and Salvador Dali. And maître d’ Rob Jones, when not sculpting, expertly worked the door and performed in drag on top of the bar after hours.
The artists begat the models, who begat the celebs, who begat the Wall Streeters. Serge and Guy Raoul begat Thomas Keller, who wandered into Raoul’s from the street to score one of his very first cooking gigs. With Keller, Raoul’s begat Rakel, the portmanteau restaurant that so embodied the boom-and-bust era of the late ’80s. While Soho was awhirl in change amid it all, Raoul’s remained a constant, dynamic center of boho-power.
On the menu, Raoul’s most well-told tale is the legendary steak au poivre, which casts a large shadow in chef David Honeysett’s kitchen. Its aroma — of fresh-ground peppercorn, reduced stock, and sherry — pervades the place. It’s a heaping cut of strip, draped in the divine, velvety sauce, edged with just the right touch of those fragrant peppercorns. The accompanying frites — fried in duck fat and unfailingly crisp — betray the consistency that has marked Honeysett’s kitchen for the last 17 years. A bitter side of watercress is a welcome respite for all of that unctuous luxury. An au poivre burger, served in meted quantities at the bar only, is its spawn, with an impossibly fluffy bun, creamy Sant-André cheese, and an exaggeratedly juicy custom meat blend.
One would think that the au poivre relays the Raoul’s origin story, but the dish that really hearkens to the restaurant’s roots is much simpler: an artichoke vinaigrette. When in season, it takes its place on the menu like the trusted veteran that it is. The mayonnaise vinaigrette is the same recipe that founding chef Guy Raoul created when the restaurant opened, a classic don’t-fix-what-ain’t-broke tribute to the restaurant’s beginnings. Dishes like a cornichon-specked steak tartare, daintily topped with a quail egg; frisée au lardon, with oversized chunks of bacon and lush egg yolk; and even usual-suspect desserts, like profiteroles, play a supporting role, underscoring that Raoul’s is indeed a bistro with a verité heart and a “je ne sais quoi” that the new wave of New York bistros struggle to recreate.
Could there have been an Odeon or Balthazar or Frenchette without Raoul’s first? Doubtful. Even Keith McNally admitted to me in an email, “When I built the Odeon I copied the design and the colors of the booths.”
In telling the story of Raoul’s on film, I was often struck by how often the arc of the tale would come full-circle. One example: how current owner Karim Raoul had no intention of becoming a restaurateur, just as his father, Serge, had originally opted for a career in television and film in the U.S. instead of inheriting his family’s restaurant in Alsace.
“We come from a long legacy of people who didn’t want anything to do with the restaurant business,” Karim, also a filmmaker, once told the New York Times. I’ll leave it to the documentary to chronicle the winding path that led both Serge and Karim back to the restaurant business, but what’s significant today is that not only is Karim firmly ensconced as the second-generation owner of Raoul’s, he’s doubling down on the industry by opening Revelie Luncheonette in the fall.
In another full-circle moment, this new restaurant will occupy a space that was once Raoul’s Boucherie, a butcher shop they ran in partnership with Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Revelie Luncheonette (yet another portmanteau name, of Karim’s two daughters) will be a 20- to 30-seat French American diner with a retro soda fountain counter as its focal point. The menu will focus on casual fare, from omelets to a green chile cheeseburger to a classic bar steak, along with beer, wine, and fountain treats like milkshakes. David Honeysett will be in charge of the kitchen, yet Karim assures me, “It won’t compete with Raoul’s.” Instead, he aims to fill a gap in the neighborhood between spendy destination spots and bar food.
Thus is the vision of a reluctant, yet accomplished, restaurateur who plans to make a new mark on the New York dining scene, just the way his father and uncle did before him. According to Karim, the food’s the easy part. He says that the pandemic taught him about the “fragility of a restaurant’s energy,” and how that energy is an essential part of a restaurant’s success.
A recent check-in at Raoul’s revealed to me that it’s certainly still as electric as always, giving me every confidence that Revelie Luncheonette will be Karim Raoul’s own Rembrandt moment. Perhaps it will even become the next Soho classic.
Raoul’s is open daily for dinner starting at 5 p.m. and serves brunch on the weekends starting at 11 a.m.
Kathleen Squires is an award-winning food and travel writer and documentary producer based in New York City. The documentary “Raoul’s: A Story” is in post-production and slated for release in 2023. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.