If you had asked anyone in New York to name a few of the city’s finest restaurants off the top of their heads between the years of 1961 and 2004, Lutèce most likely would have been mentioned. It was a paragon of fine French dining, and for many years the crown jewel of the New York culinary landscape.
Lutèce was opened in 1961 by founder Andre Surmain, who brought in a 29 year-old chef by the name of André Soltner, who soon became co-owner, to run the kitchen. During Soltner’s 34-year reign at the restaurant, he only missed five days of work, and saw the restaurant earn a coveted four stars from the New York Times and be named the best restaurant in the United States for six consecutive years in the 1980s. Soltner remains one of the world’s most esteemed chefs to this day.
In May 1980, as the restaurant was fully enjoying its heyday, its menu (which we found on the New York Public Library’s archive) very closely resembled those from a hundred years prior. Namely, 100% French, no descriptions, no prices. Each item on this menu could warrant a lengthy explanation, but we’ll stick with some classics.
The menu is separated into nine sections: soups; a variety of mousses and appetizers; seafood including sautéed lobster and a whole salmon or bass en croute (in a pastry crust); “Truffe en Pate Lucullus;” entrées including crab cassolette, the classic sole meuniere, cote de boeuf, and several preparations of veal, lamb, chicken, and duck (including the popular braised lamb with garlic); sides including glazed carrots, green beans, endives in butter, and morel mushrooms; French cheeses, and desserts including chocolate mousse with rum, flambéed crepes, chocolate-orange cake, and soufflés; and finally coffee and tea.
Soltner was one of the first chefs in America to emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients (the morels indicate that this was a spring menu), and he incorporated rustic dishes of his native Alsace into the menu and nightly specials, like an onion tart, which became one of the restaurant’s most famed dishes. And while the menu might indicate that Lutèce was stuffy and pretentious, the presence of Soltner and his wife Simone, who ran the dining room, gave the restaurant a homey, mom and pop feel (in fact, the couple lived upstairs).
This style of cuisine, rich with heavy meats and buttery sauces, began to fall out of favor in the 1990s, however, and the menu was given an edgy, modern overhaul in 1994 after Soltner sold the restaurant (a move that only served to alienate its longtime clientele). Pair that with the decline in lavish expense account meals and a tourism drop due to the September 11 attacks, and soon management knew that the restaurant’s days were numbered. Lutèce served its final meal on Valentine’s Day 2004.
The space today, on 50th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, remains vacant and on the market, and there’s a good chance it will soon be demolished to make way for condos.