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I hadn’t eaten at Brasserie Les Halles in months, and probably longer than a year, when word of its demise reached me. My memory of the place was decidedly mixed: I admired its steak frites but hated its increasingly corporate attitude. The lowlight for me came earlier this year when I walked into Les Halles, wanting to know the answer to a single question: Did they serve, or ever serve, calf brains? I was directed to the chain’s PR firm, which I never called. If I can’t walk into a restaurant and get a simple answer to a simple question, well fuck ’em, I thought.
But when it comes to dying institutions—-and a 15-year-old restaurant is as close to an institution as it gets in the hospitality biz—-I’m a softie. Plus, I like Bourdain, and not just because he asked me to be on No Reservations(though that doesn’t hurt). I like Bourdain because underneath that gruff, punk, New York-machismo exterior, there lies a genuinely friendly dude. I’d almost call him a romantic if I didn’t think he’d send his goons after me.
I think it’s only fitting to give Bourdain some space here on the Young & Hungry blog to provide a little perspective on Les Halles’ history. This comes from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, which I’ve cooked from repeatedly with satisfying results, including the first time I was downsized at the City Paper. (It’s never too late for a second time, right Erik?):
I should point out here, by the way, that I am in no way responsible for the creation of Les Halles. They’ve been making steak frites and steak tartare and most of their menu dishes the same way for years. They were successful before I arrived and will, no doubt, be successful long after I jump the shark and join Rocco DiSpirito on Hollywood Squares. The restaurant opened in 1990, the creative issue of Jose [de Meirelles] and his business partner Philippe Lajaunie—-who’d been sous-chef and waiter, respectively, at Park Bistro—-and Park Bistro chef Jean-Michel Diot (now the owner of San Diego’s Tapenade). Apparently, they’d been thinking about meat. The conventional wisdom of the late 1980s dictated that relatively fat-free fish and grilled chicken were what the dining public craved. The dining public wanted infused sauces that had never seen bones, fat, or flour. The wanted vegetables.
But Philippe had been reading Emile Zola’s foodie classic The Belly of Paris and had been thinking about all those bistros around the old nineteenth-century central marketplace (les Halles) in Paris. The bistros were places where a market worker in a bloodstained apron could kick back after work, buy a glass of gros rouge, and, if he had some tripe or a hunk of shank pilfered from the market, could have it cooked for him. Philippe had been further inspired by a recent trip to Ecuador, where he’d visited a steakhouse with a long meat display counter by the door where one could select one’s asado and have it cooked to order.
Jose and Jean-Michel had been thinking about a place where they could get some hand-ground fresh steak tartare, made the old-school way (raw, fresh, and mixed tableside), or a good steak frites. A bold, unfashionable, and carnivore-friendly concept began to take shape.
At the time, there was little evidence that the New York dining public shared the trio’s enthusiasm for slabs of French-cut meat, raw beef, high-fat charcuterie, and organ meat. More than one prospective partner declined, recoiling in horror at the absurdity of it all. But when the doors opened, Les Halles was immediately besieged. Displaced Frenchmen, nostalgic New Yorkers looking to relive happy moments, fashion models taking a break from dietary regimes, reactionaries, meat-eaters, mobs of people who were simply sick to death of the little-food-big-plate-candy-ass-low-fat creations of the day—-they all recognized Les Halles as a place where you could dress down, cut loose, gnaw bones, suck marrow, talk loudly, drink a little too much wine, and have a good time.