La Lunchonette is in Chelsea, but not of it. Although you can see the restaurant's ochre-and-brick red facade from the High Line, you won't find Diane von Furstenberg or Rachel Feinstein inside. It's low-key and un-hip: defiantly, lovably so.
Munching on creamy, tangy sweetbreads with vinaigrette ($8.50), we soaked up the pretension-free atmosphere. When so much of eating out in this city involves spectacle—foams and fame, reality shows and elaborate explanations of provenance or inspiration—being at a place that puts its simple French food first is refreshing. On Sunday nights, a live accordion player adds to the old-fashioned bistro feel.
We also tried the goat cheese puff pastry with greens ($8.50). The tough pastry tasted as if it had spent too much time in the microwave, but the lettuce was fresh and the goat cheese satisfyingly sharp. The duck confit salad ($9.50) tempted, as did the lobster bisque ($7.50).
The same woman sat us, took our order, cut our bread, re-filled our water, and ran the food, all while managing to call suppliers, write up a schedule, and plan out how the tables would be arranged for an upcoming party. Just when we thought we might have to offer to help, her daughter arrived to pitch in. Encountering an honest-to-goodness family-run restaurant mere steps from moneyed behemoths like Del Posto and Morimoto lets you stop worrying, at least for one night, that Carrie Bradshaw's Manhattan has totally taken over.
Our multitasking server punctuated every question with the word "honey" and worried that the couscous royale ($18.50), a special, might be too spicy. The merguez turned out to be a little too mild for our tastes, but the tender, nicely cooked chicken more than made up for it. Topped with root vegetables and broth, it was warming and homey, like La Lunchonette itself.
Roasted red peppers gave the salmon ($18.50), with its just-right black pepper sear, a not-unwelcome sweetness. Stiff haricots verts and salty potatoes au gratin finished the uncomplicated dish. On a future visit, we might try the roast half chicken with meaux mustard sauce ($15.50) and a bottle of red, the dining equivalent of a hug.
Stuffed and content, we debated dessert. Outside the wind strafed Tenth Avenue. Food gets prepared in an open-air, brick-lined area that bifurcates the two burgundy-colored dining rooms, decorated with mismatched portraits and exhibition posters. We watched as the chef sliced a thick triangle from the tarte Tatin ($7) resting on a cake stand. A scoop of velvety crème fraîche complimented the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized apples, and suddenly we had enough energy to brave the cold.
Searching for its website, we found a review published in the New York Observer in 1998, when the restaurant had already been open for ten years. That writer contemplated the sweetbreads but chose the goat cheese starter instead. She too found the service friendly, some of the dishes better than others. Most strikingly, appetizers still cost around $10, entrees around $20. A beacon of stability, La Lunchonette is best for: a date in a comfortable corner of an older New York.
130 Tenth Avenue, New York NY 10011 (map) 212-675-0342