Letter of Recommendation New York
Midtown’s French Legends Are Gone, But La Bonne Soupe Ladles On
This week on Resy we’re exploring the many facets of French restaurants in New York. We unpack why New York has always been obsessed with them. We ruminate on the timeless joy they bring. We help you get a table at Frenchette. We tell you where you should go to drink French wine. We’ve got a list of French restaurants for every occasion. And we’ve got a soft spot for this Midtown bistro in particular.
Over the years, Midtown Manhattan has been a font for ambitious French cooking. La Grenouille, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, La Goulue — all the Las — plus Lutèce, Le Bernardin, and so on. These restaurants endeavored to define French cuisine on these shores, or at least to transmit a Francophile brand of class and status. They were, by and large, all opened by French expats, of which a great number flocked to New York in the postwar years, and they helped to catalyze New York as the center of a certain sort of culinary universe.
La Bonne Soupe was not among these. It was contemporaneous with them, and certainly it was in the right neighborhood: at 48 West 55th, just up the street from La Caravelle and down the street from La Côte Basque. But from its opening in 1973, it ran the opposite direction from the fancy veneer espoused by its Gallic Midtown siblings. While most of the other Las were immersed in haute cuisine, Bonne Soupe trafficked in simple, inexpensive French food that was satisfying in the most unfussy way
Today, 50 years later, it still does. And its offerings have barely changed over that stretch, such that the menu in 2023 looks remarkably like it did in 1973: Its iconic onion soup has been there from the start, the source of 100 thousand simple Midtown dinners. There have been omelets; “les hamburgers”; the eminent pleasure of fondue available year-round. True, there were occasional nods to ambition early on: a quenelle de brochet was a splurge at just over $4.50, and in the mid-1970s the steak au poivre commanded a princely sum of $8.50. (Now $48.)
But the food at La Bonne Soupe was — and remains — meant to be a low lift even by the standards of the Paris-homage bistros that pervaded New York. In 1975, while praising those quenelles, the Times pointed out that Bonne Soupe was “essentially a short-order restaurant.”
Like its fancier neighbors, La Bonne Soupe was created by a French expat: Jean-Paul Picot, a Breton native who arrived in 1969 as part of that wave of chefs who saw opportunity blossoming in New York. Early on, Picot worked at La Crepe, which was 48 West 55th’s occupant at the time, and which featured 100 variations on its namesake dish, along with — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — onion soup and a green salad. The space would evolve to briefly become La Quiche (La Fondue was across the street), before Picot and his wife Monique took it over.
“La Bonne Soupe” was not, in fact, a reference to the intended menu. The Picots borrowed it from the title of a 1958 Félicien Marceau play, and subsequent movie, about a middle-aged woman who spills the details of her various dalliances to a casino croupier. Regardless, it was soup — specifically a fortifying onion soup with a thick gratin — that quickly found the restaurant an audience.
The appeal was obvious: You could get soup, bread, a glass of wine or coffee and dessert for just $3.25. And the Picots made one other savvy decision in the mid-’70s — to buy the building that housed La Bonne Soupe. This would prove to be a less obvious but key element to its longtime success, as New York would become a brutal landscape for restaurant leases. And the simplicity of this success should have been no surprise to dedicated students of Parisian eating — in that it hewed close in spirit to a Parisian bouillon, versus a more elaborate bistro. Not diverging far from this formula would indeed become the key to its enduring popularity. As The Times put it: “New York could use Bonne Soupe just around every corner.”
My own history with La Bonne Soupe began a full 30 years ago; there are few restaurants I’ve been going to nearly so long. Its appeal in the early 1990s was no different than it had been 20 years earlier — and no different than now. In my case, I could escape my uptown neighborhood for a few hours to indulge in a bit of Midtown adventure. La Côte Basque and Le Cirque were well out of my orbit, but a bowl of onion soup, a salad, and a glass of red wine for under $20 was a pretty rarified night out for a college student. (It didn’t hurt that our names were homographs.) Today, I realize I must have known about La Bonne Soupe even earlier: Among the businesses run by the Picots was J.P.’s French Bakery, one of the first spots in New York that offered quality baguettes and croissants. My father sourced bread for his food business from J.P.’s in the early 1980s, and I often would ride down to the city with him early on weekend mornings to retrieve fresh baguettes. Something must have imprinted.
More broadly, though, what drew me to Bonne Soupe was precisely what drew so many New Yorkers, and many visitors too. No different than other longtime restaurants like Becco, with its pasta tasting, or its 55th Street neighbor Menchanko-Tei (now known as Katsu-Hama), Bonne Soupe provided an efficient answer to sourcing a cheap, unfussy meal in Midtown — the sort of place you’d stop after a trip to MoMA, or before the theater, or for a break from window shopping at Rockefeller Center. While fellow expat chefs harbored grander ambitions, Jean-Paul Picot clearly relished his more forthright accomplishments, as evidenced by a 1987 ad — for American Express, natch — in which he described New Yorkers as “burning for bouillabaisse, fondue, and mesquite-grilled specialties” at his restaurant. The writer and chef Pierre Franey was both a friend and a fan of that bouillabaisse.
Even as the most epochal French spots came and went — Lutèce, La Caravelle, and La Côte Basque all shuttered in 2004, victims of a waning fascination with French food — Bonne Soupe remained a constant.
La Bonne Soupe had more or less faded into the patina of 55th Street when, counterintuitively, the pandemic returned it to the foreground. Jean-Paul Picot had retired in the early 2000s, and his son Yves, who’d taken over, was himself ready to retire when in 2019 he connected with Gehad Hadidi, a hotel and restaurant consultant who was checking out spaces in Midtown. Hadidi saw what might not have been obvious to more vainglorious restaurateurs: a restaurant with a baked-in formula for success, and a devoted following. If Yves was planning to shutter it, Hadidi inquired, could he take over the space and keep the name?
Hadidi knew enough not to tinker with a 50-year formula, although he did usher in a few changes. For one thing, he hired a new chef, Nicolas Frezal, who had refreshed classic French dishes at Astier, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, a neighborhood as fashionable as Midtown is not. (Frezal would not be the first Frenchman to arrive at Bonne Soupe from a plum Paris gig; in the 1990s, Picot hired Romuald Fassenet, an alum of La Tour d’Argent.) Frezal made modest edits to the menu; among other things, he added boeuf bourguignon — or rather returned it, as it was among Picot’s favorite dishes decades earlier. The constancy of the cooking is evident by a full house on nearly any given evening.
Hadidi also took on the task of freshening up the wine list, adding natural-minded French picks and a handful of modish California labels like Sandlands. He hired bar staff to tune up the cocktails, so that you can now get a very good martini as a prelude to fondue. But he was also mindful that New Yorkers are strong partisans of both Gallic cooking and nostalgia. So, he made a point of querying Yves Picot about the limits of change.
“I asked if there was anything he would call sacred,” Hadidi recalls. “And he said: the French onion soup.”
Quite so. That soup remains one of the city’s simple pleasures, now as 50 years ago — the hearty calling card of a Midtown haven that has defied the city’s endless pulse of the new.
La Bonne Soupe is open daily for both lunch and dinner.
Jon Bonné is Resy’s managing editor and author of the forthcoming book, “The New French Wine.” Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.