PRINT November 2011


the Leopard at des Artistes

Interior of the Leopard at des Artistes, New York, 2011. Photo: Melissa Hom.

PART OF THE AESTHETIC SINGULARITY of dining uptown, until very recently, included zebras prancing on bright red wallpaper, drop ceilings with weird stains, dirty pink carpets and matching tablecloths, fake flowers mixed with real ones, that weird moldy smell, bartenders who were probably actually vampires, a very large display of fresh but unremarkable supermarket vegetables in a basically empty restaurant, and extraordinary prices for terrible food. All of this seemed like it would soon be over when New York’s Café des Artistes (located, since it opened in 1917, at One West Sixty-Seventh Street) closed in 2009, followed by Gino (2010), Elaine’s (2011), and, the most macabre of them all, Bravo Gianni (2011). For those of us from a generation that thinks it is a culinary revolution to track the itinerary of produce, these realms of freaky food and forgotten decor were as riveting as they were revolting, and the perverse glee felt when entering the private realm of our wealthy, geriatric style icons—of the unknowingly antihip—made us feel alive.

These places offered opportunities to digest our cinematic nostalgia with distaste and delicious laughter, so the news that Café des Artistes was going to be resurrected piqued interest in a way similar to catching wind that a forgotten artist is about to have a big comeback (Gasp! Really?). Would it be awful, wonderful, or, even better, a marvelous disaster?

Would it be everyday Italian? was not the first thought to come to mind, and the current renovation does much to erase middling aesthetic questions. This glistening new restaurant, the Leopard at des Artistes, adheres dutifully to contemporary notions of “modern” good taste: The churchiness of the dark, wood-paneled room has been painstakingly lightened; most of the original Tudor-style detailing has been surgically excised and the rest covered with either white paint, drywall, or touches of unadorned walnut paneling. The floor is now terrazzo, with classic modernist circular metal inlays, and the old seating has been replaced with Thonet Era Round Armchairs (available at your nearest Design Within Reach). At first I find this blahmbiance charming, like stepping into a virtual, seminostalgic rendering of a possible future New York—one where we don’t cling to our secret spots so vehemently and where we are open to general pleasantness. And then our food arrives.

Dinner starts off nicely enough, with a primo piatto of pasta prepared as perfectly as the beloved Howard Chandler Christy murals have been restored. Crisp, clean, flawlessly buffed kitsch. But with the main course, the renovation’s weaknesses grow more palpable. My dining partner receives an acceptable though unremarkable grilled chicken, served with a vaguely creative corn relish; my porchetta, on the other hand, is shockingly dry and has the kind of gravy I have grown accustomed to in old-school restaurants worldwide—the kind of gravy that almost instantly develops a gloppy, gelatinous crust. (Whether the persistence of this phenomenon is attributable to mistiming in the kitchen or some sort of weird WASP thing, I’ve never been able to figure out.) This dip into the more arcane eating habits of those ossified by pretense immediately brings the Leopard at des Artistes into competition with the late grandes dames of spooky cuisine. Granted, the restaurant’s name is eccentric enough to warrant some praise. But, as my distressed taste buds prompted my eyes to register gruesome detail everywhere, my dining partner, also unhappy with our banal experience so far, said, “You could also say the place looks a bit like a pizza parlor trying to be fancy.”

Strangely, the Leopard’s souped-up bland chic makes the Christy murals (1934 and 1942) look out of place; strange, indeed, since we know that the restaurant was painstakingly renovated around them. The overwhelming design nonidentity of the new interior surrounding the murals stages a disjunction in eras that wobbles between novelty and lifelessness—it is utterly unclear which set of nostalgic frameworks you are to bring to this place and which fantasies you are supposed to leave behind. That the murals hark back to the friskier days of the Upper West Side seems to have been completely eclipsed.

A listing from the New York Times in 1919, two years after the Hotel des Artistes (the cooperative apartment building that housed the café and that, while never a real hotel, featured comparable amenities and staff) was completed, captures the spirit of that forgotten scene:

Fifty New York artists are to give a ball on Friday next, the eve of Washington’s Birthday, at the Hotel des Artistes, the entertainment including a “A Dream of Fair Women,” in which models for Howard Chandler Christy . . . and others, will pose. Another feature will be hoops of paper upon which six artists will draw sketches of leading actresses, each drawing to be destroyed by the actress herself, who will step through the hoop. In a large tank, fed from the hotel’s swimming pool, Madeline Gildersleeve will appear in a water fantasy, “The Fountain of Youth.”

One of the restaurant’s frothiest panels bears the same title as this wet and wild tableau vivant: Christy’s The Fountain of Youth features naked women cavorting in what looks more like a wading pool than a mythic pond. In fact, the historical details surrounding the production of the entire set of decorative paintings may help to explain why the nymphs seem so folksy, so real, so much more like models performing for an audience than mythological creatures discovering the mysteries of nature.

Howard Chandler Christy in his studio during the filming of a newsreel, Hotel des Artistes, New York, ca. 1924. Photo: Howard Chandler Christy Papers, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.

Howard Chandler Christy, who was one of the first people to buy an apartment in the building and who lived there until his death in 1952 at the age of 79, is most notable as an illustrator (he created the “Christy Girl”) and also as the judge of the first Miss America pageant. In many ways, he typified the kind of visual artists who lived in the Hotel des Artistes when it was first built—those working in kooky simulations of nineteenth-century academic tropes, equally at home producing “fine art” paintings, Life magazine covers, or illustrations for US war propaganda. In fact, the entire block had been developed by establishment artists who had realized that, by banding together financially, they could not only build “dream homes” for themselves but also, with their bohemian cachet, make a profit. According to the New York Times, the 1920 census listed the initial occupants of the Hotel des Artistes as fourteen artists, musicians, or writers; eleven actors or movie executives; twenty-two stockbrokers, engineers, or other businesspeople; and twenty-six household servants.

One notable exception is Marcel Duchamp, who lived there from 1915 to 1918. He had been brought to the “artists’ block” by collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg, who lived in a lavish apartment in a building called the Atelier, a few doors down from the Hotel des Artistes, and paid for the artist to live and work in a small studio in their building in exchange for the Large Glass, 1915–23. The Arensberg home was a legendary meeting point for the Paris and New York avant-gardes, or, as Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia described it, “an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz and alcohol.” This is the period during which the readymade was coming into being, and Café des Artistes was not an insignificant backdrop to that development. Before the current murals, other paintings by Christy decorated the walls, in particular a “huge old-fashioned painting” of a battleground, as Duchamp later recalled in an interview with Dore Ashton in the late 1960s. The artist went on to tell how, one evening in 1916, he “jumped up and signed” the grand tableau, thereby creating “a ready-made which had everything except taste. And no system.” Some years later, The Battle Scene (readymade) disappeared under a new Christy painting featuring the frolicking, naked nymphs that undress the walls today.

As the original residents started to pass away in the 1950s, the hotel’s largest communal spaces—including its theater and ballroom, where such memorably frilly parties had once been thrown—were leased to commercial tenants (ABC used the ballroom as a television studio). But the original concept of a “hotel for artists” had already begun to fade in other ways. One of the most spectacular original amenities—an arrangement in which residents could supply the kitchen with ingredients and then receive their “food cooked free,” delivered directly into their apartments via electronic dumbwaiters—had been discontinued early on.

In 1975, the remnants of the original kitchen and café space at the front of the building were taken over by restaurateur extraordinaire George Lang, and it is his renovation of Café des Artistes that most of us call to mind when thinking of the “original” today. Reviews at the time, like reviews of the newly opened iteration, tended to focus on the rejuvenated murals, the face-lift aspect, the “reborn classic.” But if this venue was already a nostalgia production in 1975—described by journalistic gems such as “Very pink within their very green copses, like peppermint mousse on beds of spinach, [the mural girls] were daring in their youth and are touchingly innocent in their reincarnation”—the tone this summer was quite different. Reviewers now celebrated the “extensive cleaning,” the pedigree of the new restaurateurs (Gianfranco and Paula Bolla Sorrentino), the celebrity clientele, the “particular subset of Manhattan society” that reserves its tables nightly—the positionings that make this place “a hit.”

In a city where geographies of consumption currently have more to do with the fickleness of Google’s PageRank algorithm and endless feedback loops of social media than where we physically live, we have all become tourists of each other’s neighborhoods. That this effect could be felt less dramatically in parts of the city with large swaths of very elderly populations—in the land the Internet forgot—was a glitch in the system that I had naively hoped would remain unnoticed and unrepaired. The current version of Café des Artistes (the Leopard @) is what happens when dynamos of yesteryear die, and I hope it is not a blueprint for what’s to come. I would much rather take a cab to the Seagram Building’s Brasserie and reflect on the “new” Lincoln Center through the lens of “How quaint early-2000s surveillance chic has become!” In some ways, Diller + Scofidio’s Y2K take on Brasserie is a model of “renovation”—a destruction of the original that thinks about the past but does not represent or attempt to preserve it; that creates something that can age in unexpected ways for another eighty years. Something that can develop a completely unforced, nostalgic patina.

But where, then, do we go when we happen to crave that special uptown frisson of dying decor and pricey fare? Luckily, there’s always Shun Lee.

Ken Okiishi is an artist who lives and works in New York and Berlin.