The theater district is full of secrets, mysteries and coincidences from history that can make for interesting conversation. At Café Un Deux Trois, next to the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street, one such coincidence was revealed to me recently. Café Un Deux Trois, I should mention, is my regular watering hole.
Artists, playwrights, producers, publicists, directors and other creatives love this place. Amidst the before and after theater crowds, often seated at the bar, there are those who linger. The attractions of the place are many, the food and drink being foremost among them. I may not have eaten the onion soup at every French boite in Manhattan, but I’ve tried it at most of them. Hands down, Un Deux Trois has the best of the lot.
The brasserie-style food is all exceptional quality fare. The drink pours are generous, and then there’s the conversation, which is always lively and rarely mundane. Among the many characters, few are more fascinating than co-owner and host Gerard Blanes.
Café Un Deux Trois opened in 1977 and I’ve been coming here, off and on, since 1978 and have never had a bad meal. Blanes and his business partner Georges Guenancia opened the place with an American who since passed away.
Georges Guenancia, Blanes’s partner since the beginning, is the affable host at lunch time, The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, and reservations are often required in the evening. Guenancia and Blanes met on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza where Blanes had his first success in the restaurant business. The two reconnected in the mid-1970s and decided to open a place in Manhattan. “We’ve been here forty two years, ” says Guenancia, with a smile. “We must do something right.”
The bonhomie that accompanies the consumption of good food and drink pervades the atmosphere at Café Un Deux Trois day and night. Mr. Blanes loves his patrons, whether they are out-of-towners or his regulars. His thick French accent lends a genuine romantic flair to his enthusiasm for people. He jumps right in singing when it’s someone’s birthday. At 75, he still seems unstoppable. “It’s my job and I love it. I’m a restaurateur, ” he says, adding with a Gallic shrug. “It’s who I am.”
Born a French Catholic in Algeria, he was forced to flee the revolution there, in 1960, at age sixteen. He landed in Nice, France and began to comprehend the wonders of cuisine. In his early twenties he made his way to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza. “I knew his places well in Ibiza, ” says Lanny Powers, artist, writer and curator, who can be found almost nightly at the bar.
After his success on Ibiza, Blanes came to Manhattan. (From the Department of Apples Fall Close to the Tree, Blanes’s daughter Laurence owns two popular Manhattan watering holes – both named BXL – one in the next block on West 43rd Street next to Town Hall and the other on West 22nd and Sixth Avenue. Guenancia’s son Charles also works in the food service industry)
In the early days, Cafe Un Deux Trois was the apex of chi chi. Pacino was a regular. Bette Midler was a frequent patron and Oscar winner Meryl Streep was there almost nightly. This brasserie was the food equivalent of Studio 54, which opened at the same time ten blocks away. Unlike the disco, Café Un Deux Trois is still here. The bold-typeface names still slip in quietly for a meal now and again.
It is a fun, relaxing atmosphere, with red leather banquettes, towering ceilings, marble colonnades and massive antique crystal chandeliers. The mosaic tile floor and historic eglomise (rear-painted glass) murals behind the bar are from an earlier incarnation. I commented on the painted-glass panels one recent evening over dinner. “They were covered with plywood when we took over, ” said Blanes. He rose from his seat and left with an admonition to wait.
In his absence, Lanny Powers filled in with some design history. “In the beginning, when there was not a lot of money for renovation, the main designer, Pierre Hitier, came up with an ingenious solution: rather than try to create a spanking new interior, he created a ‘glamorous ruin.’ He played on the imperfections and patina of age and made a fantasy of trompe l’oeil painted remnants of torn wallpaper and such, with artfully constructed broken walls and a ceiling painted with clouds.”
Powers sipped his wine, then added, “The chandeliers glittered and lent an unmistakable glamour to the many layered interior. It became the hippest approach to restaurant and club design and lasted for more than twenty years. Although the interior was subsequently reworked, the legacy of the early days still persists.”
Blanes returned with a manila envelope from which he slid some clippings someone sent him. It was all information about the Hotel Gerard, which was built at 123 West 44th Street in 1893. The space the restaurant now occupies was the hotel lobby.
“Somebody sent me this recently. I didn’t know about the name. Here. Look at the menu prices back then.” Blanes almost hands me the sheet. “Maybe you better not, ” he says, slipping it back into the envelope, with a wry grin. “The point is the name. This was the Hotel Gerard and I am Gerard. I was meant to be here.”
And thank goodness! This brasserie continues a long tradition of serving the public while providing a place for writers, artists and thespians to gather and huddle over some good wine and a hot tasty meal while exchanging stories. Café Un Deux Trois has gone beyond being an institution. It has become part of the soul of New York.