A Classic That Always Looks to the Future

From the time it first opened its doors on September 21, 1960 until its last day of service forty four years later on May 22, 2004, La Caravelle restaurant was a singular sensation that delighted critics and diners alike, that elicited rapturous memories of quenelles and soufflés, that fed New York’s elite as well as those who simply craved a fine meal in wonderful surroundings.  In its last review, just nine months before La Caravelle closed its doors, The New York Times summed up this grande dame of French dining perfectly as it awarded her a final three-star review.

Unlike other Midtown French restaurants, which seem like fusty museum pieces, La Caravelle pulses with forward momentum and energy, even while paying respect to the past.

La Caravelle’s illustrious history spans almost half a century, beginning with its first owners, Messieurs Fred Decré and Robert Meyzen from the famed Le Pavillon, Henri Soulé’s first New York temple to haute French cuisine.  They chose the name La Caravelle, a ship with three sails that Christopher Columbus used when he explored the ocean for the new world, to convey the idea of new possibilities for their restaurant, and hired founding executive chef Roger Fessaguet.

At its inception La Caravelle was one of the few restaurants that changed its menus daily, a European practice that was innovative to American diners, and which kept the regulars returning for the then-priced $5.50 prix-fixe lunch and the $7.50 dinner.  In 1975, Clive Barnes named La Caravelle unquestionably one of the city’s best restaurants – “unfaltering – the top French dining place for high society”, and The New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne bestowed a glowing four-star review.

Located in the Shoreham Hotel in midtown Manhattan, La Caravelle was once a speakeasy  – as evidenced by the tiny, leather-fronted bar tucked in a rear corner, out of eyeshot of the front door.  For its grand opening, French illustrator and muralist Jean Pages, a student of Raoul Dufy and great friend of St. Exupéry, was commissioned to paint the lively murals of Paris parks and street scenes that rimmed the walls of the restaurant, evoking the illusion of faraway places.

La Caravelle was virtually an instant success, partly due to the patronage of Joseph Kennedy, who had met the owners when they worked at Le Pavillon and promptly made La Caravelle his regular dining spot in Manhattan. A favorite luncheon spot of the entire Kennedy clan, John F. Kennedy frequently enjoying La Caravelle’s vichyssoise and chicken in champagne sauce, and Chef Fessaguet was even asked to pack the dish for many of Kennedy’s airplane trips.

When JFK was elected President, the owners were asked to recommend a French chef for the White House to satisfy the family’s penchant for French cuisine.  Chef Fessaguet settled on Monsieur Verdon, who spent two weeks in La Caravelle’s kitchen to pick up pointers on the Kennedy’s culinary habits and preferences before settling into 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue.  In gratitude for the prestige this transaction brought them, the owners of La Caravelle renamed the Chicken in Champagne Sauce dish Poularde Maison Blanche, the White House Chicken.

La Caravelle quickly became the most “in” French eatery for lunch and dinner with the world of fashion, art, theater, cinema, and politics. Celebrity guests were frequent and included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, Mrs. Henry Ford, Mrs. Winston Guest, Duke of Marlborough,  Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Otto Preminger, Robert Montgomery, Igor Stravinsky,  Charlotte and Anne Ford, Mrs. John H. Whitney, Mr. and Mrs. William Paley, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, and Salvador Dali, who made his own mark on the restaurant when he accidentally scratched one of La Caravelle’s murals with his cane while having lunch with friends.

During the 1970s, La Caravelle continued to attract a wide variety of socialites and celebrities like Happy Rockefeller, Barbara Walters, CZ Guest, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Kitty Carlyle Hart,  Lillian Hellman, Geoffrey Beene, Brooke Astor, Diane Von Furstenberg, Leonard Lauder, Lynn and Oscar Wyatt, and Swifty Lazar.  In 1977 Gourmet Magazine said

Seventeen years after its launching… the restaurant steers as steady a course as ever … Paris, dressed in its holiday best and transported to New York.

On the restaurant’s 20th anniversary in 1980, Roger Fessaguet retired from the kitchen to assume co-ownership with Robert Meyzen, with Mr. Decré retiring soon after.  In 1984 André Jammet was approached by the owners to become a partner of La Caravelle (ironically, La Caravelle was the first restaurant André dined in when he first visited New York City ten years earlier).  André and his wife Rita became sole owners of the restaurant in 1988, carrying on the original vision of La Caravelle while simultaneously ushering it forward as the New York dining climate rapidly blossomed and changed in the late 80’s.

The husband and wife team became known for their eye for young talent in the kitchen, while never becoming one of the many restaurants whose success was attached to any one chef.  From Michael Romano, now of Union Square Café, to Cyril Renaud, David Pasternak and Tadashi Ono  – all of whom have made their mark on New York City’s culinary world — the Jammets guided their chefs and menu, guarding its traditions while fostering culinary innovation where appropriate.  John Mariani summed up perfectly the delicate balance that the Jammets created with the menu, when he wrote

I will certainly miss the food, because …. despite different chefs, it was distinctly La Caravelle’s.

As it entered the new millennium, La Caravelle reached an icon status for fine French cuisine that successfully balanced classical elegance with creative energy.  In its last five years, the restaurant received awards and accolades, including yet another glowing three stars from The New York Times as well as a nomination in 2004 for the prestigious Most Outstanding Restaurant in the Country award from the James Beard Foundation.

When La Caravelle announced it was closing its doors in May of 2004, the press was unprecedented – and glowing.  From three articles in The New York Times to coverage in The Wine Spectator and by food luminaries such as John Mariani, the accolades rolled in.

“La Caravelle may have closed on Saturday, ending its run as a last bastion of Old World Civility and charm in a contemporary restaurant scene that celebrates DJ’s and T-shirts,” wrote The New York Times Alex Witchel.  “But the party that the Jammets have hosted in New York for the last 20 years will go on.”

La Caravelle brand lives on as per the successful introduction of La Caravelle Champagne and Bordeaux Listrac-Medoc wines.

 

La Caravelle ColumbusThe name La Caravelle conveys the idea of ‘new possibilities’

 

La Caravelle’s Dining Room

 

The Jammets on the restaurant’s closing day

 

La Caravelle ChampagneLa Caravelle Champagne

 

Bastille Day Ball mural by Jean Pagès from the walls of La Caravelle

 

Champs-Elysèes Stamp Market mural by Jean Pagès from the walls of La Caravelle

La Caravelle

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