Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Leopard at des Artistes: A New York Classic on the Upper West Side

Deciding where to dine in Manhattan isn’t easy – the island has over 3,500 restaurants for you to choose from - but finding the quintessential New York dining experience, the kind you catch a glimpse of in a movie and suddenly you’re in love with New York all over again? 

That’s simple.
You’ll find it around the corner from Central Park on West 67th Street at The Leopard at des Artistes.

A whispered welcome along an Upper West Side street. 
The Upper West Side restaurant is a neighborhood treasure that serves Southern Italian cuisine in a soothing, soft-lit ambiance. You leave hectic behind when you enter The Leopard at des Artistes, a landmarked space that has welcomed guests for nearly a century. Moments after you arrive you are as delighted as the dancing naked nymphs that surround you in the glowing murals that line the dining room. The murals were painted in 1937 by Howard Chandler Christy, a dashing figure in a black and white photo framed alongside one of his creations.
But there is more to The Leopard at des Artistes than food and ambiance.

The restaurant is a genuine New York classic in part because it is steeped in Upper West Side history.

A Colorful Past

Before Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino opened The Leopard at des Artistes in 2011 and Chef Vito Gnazzo brought his expertise to both its menu and kitchen, West 67th Street was home to a remarkable Upper West Sider’s legendary restaurant – for almost 35 years it was George Lang’s Café des Artistes.

Bill Clinton once said, “Although in New York, the only thing permanent is change, the people who keep saying that have never been to Café Des Artistes.” The look and feel of the restaurant, one that you can enjoy to this day in a more contemporary form, seems to have cast its spell over the former president. The space inhabited by Café de Artistes and now The Leopard at des Artistes has always had that kind of timeless quality about it. It seems as if it captured the essence of New York 100 years ago and never lost it.

In fact, the space where The Leopard at des Artistes stands has changed often.

“Every decade, it filled a different need for different people,” restaurateur George Lang’s wife, Jennifer Lang, was once quoted as saying. In the 1970s, “it was filled with people from Lincoln Center, which was then only ten years old. In the ‘80s, it gave people this café kind of experience, and it was one of the few places on the Upper West Side where you could have a really nice meal. In the ‘90s, we were discovered by Hollywood and the young, although it’s always had a lot of celebrities in it.”

From the beginning, it was destined to attract the Who’s Who of the creative world.

Art Meets Architecture

In 1917, when Café des Artistes first opened, it served artists, dancers, musicians and writers, all of whom lived in kitchen-less apartments above the restaurant in the Upper West Side’s famed landmark, Hotel des Artistes, and along West 67th Street, an area listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the “West 67th Street Artists’ Colony District.”
But the artists who lived and dined on West 67th Street were unlike the struggling avant-garde figures who transformed Greenwich Village into a bohemian district. They were renowned sculptors, illustrators, portrait painters and writers who were patronized by the wealthiest members of New York society. Café des Artistes’ regulars throughout the years always included bold-print names, among them Norman Rockwell, Rudolf Valentino, Isadora Ducan, Noel Coward, Marcel Duchamp and George Balanchine.

The building above Café des Artistes was designed by George Mort, in all its Neo-Gothic glory and medieval ornamentation, specifically to attract artists. For decades they arrived, turning that stretch of West 67th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West into a particularly vibrant hub of creativity on the Upper West Side.

When they were hungry they dined at Café des Artistes.

A glowing mural in the soft-lit ambiance of The Leopard at des Artistes.

The uninterrupted presence of the brilliant, famous and even notorious turned the place into one of the most fascinating restaurants in New York. Its often lackluster food (in the later years) rarely discouraged the landmark’s loyal and upscale clientele from dropping in.

Then the seemingly impossible happened. Café des Artistes suddenly closed. The news was crushing to many New Yorkers who had loved George Lang and his restaurant – it was a fixture, the steady, elegant face of a friend in a constantly changing city crowded with strangers. How could a place that had been around since 1917 simply close without warning? How could a restaurant’s story, woven into the fabric of a New York neighborhood just end?

A New Chapter in an Upper West Side Story

It was Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino who came to the restaurant’s rescue after union pressures and slowing business took their toll. With full appreciation for the significance of the space they were entering, they carefully restored it, bringing a more contemporary air to its dining room and bar while maintaining the integrity and “aristocratic bone structure” of the beloved institution.

Upper West Siders who had mourned the loss of Café des Artistes when it closed found a newer, fresher version of it when The Leopard at des Artistes opened in its place. They also found one significant but welcome change – in place of just above-average French cuisine there was now an exciting menu of Southern Italian dishes to explore – one rooted in the culinary traditions of an area once known as The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and those of Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Apulia and Sardinia.

Since opening in 2011, the restaurant has established itself as more than a successful dining establishment – quite a feat in a city where, by one estimation, 1,000 restaurants open and 800 of those same restaurants go out of business within five years. The Leopard at des Artistes has already become a New York classic. It’s a young Upper West Side restaurant but it has an old, welcoming spirit. As one longtime Café des Artistes patron said after The Leopard opened, it’s like “the offspring of an old friend, familiar but better in so many ways.” 

With so much history behind it and so much going for it at this moment, it may prove to be one of the most interesting chapters in the West 67th Street story.  

Review: Dining at The Leopard at des Artistes

I visited The Leopard at des Artistes on a Sunday eve recently, a night when the restaurant adopts a BYOB approach. I was treated to six courses of exquisite Southern Italian food prepared and served with what I can only describe as joy and genius. 

It was the kind of taste experience that can bring tears to the eyes if you are moved by beautiful, delicious food.

At first the dishes were delicate and light, matched with crisp white Italian wines. Then the flavors grew bolder. Grilled octopus with lemon dressing and green olives transitioned gently up the flavor spectrum to an amazing halibut in salsa verde with clams, cherry tomatoes and salmoriglio paired with Grecco di Tufo from Campania, onto a splendid veal dish followed by slow-braised Colorado lamb ossobuco served with sautéed spinach and celery root puree.

Each morsel gave reason to swoon.

In between glorious dishes I had moments to gaze and listen. The music throughout the restaurant set the tone – jazz, classical guitar, bossa nova. When Nicola Conte’s “Bossa Per Due” started playing it matched the mood of the restaurant perfectly – sophisticated but with a sense of relaxed celebration. One diner seemed as swept away by the mood of The Leopard at des Artistes as I felt: he was a man in a top-knot, long beard, paint-splattered safari-like clothes and an ascot. He moved about the dining room staring at each of The Leopard's revered murals with a dreamy-eyed smile.

The night I was there the service was excellent. The dining room staff was comprised of a graceful, intuitive team. Each member played a part in transforming a beautiful dinner for one into an event for all of the senses. The wines were perfectly paired with each dish; kind, elegant gestures were extended to every guest; the music, lighting, setting were all ideal for that evening - there was thoughtfulness and expertise behind each moment. 

When you dine at The Leopard, I suggest you set distractions, concerns and mobile devices aside - you won't want to miss a single detail. Let yourself get carried away by the entire experience knowing you will be in the expert hands of artists.

The Leopard at des Artistes - 1 West 67th Street, New York, NY  10023, Tel: 212.787.9767

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