NEW YORK — Lutèce will close its doors this weekend, and André Soltner, the restaurant’s former chef (for 34 years) and owner still has many fond memories of the place. Still, it’s difficult for him to pin down his favorite regulars. “We had customers who came in once a week, we had customers who came in once a month, we had one or two who came in once a day,” Soltner says from his office at the French Culinary Institute in SoHo, speaking in a thick French accent. “I had hundreds of favorite customers.”
Soltner rattles off a few names — President Richard Nixon, Paul Newman, Jackie Onassis — before insisting, “I had a lot of people who are not well-known who were just as welcome as the others.” The tendency to avoid preferential treatment was the norm at Lutèce. “We ran it like a very welcome French restaurant: No fuss, no snobbishness, nothing like that, and I tried to do the best cuisine with the best ingredients possible. People would always ask, ‘What’s your secret?’ There is no secret. We treated our customers and our ingredients the best we could. That’s the only secret. You don’t have to look good or be on television or have a lot of presence, you just have to be nice to the customer.”
This story first appeared in the February 12, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
One of the chef’s favorite stories involves no boldface names: “We had two young ladies who had been playing violin in the subway holding up a sign that read ‘Two Young Violinists Need Money to Dine at Lutèce’ and they made enough money to eat there,” Soltner recalls. “They gave me the cardboard sign when they finished their meal.”
André Surmain opened Lutèce in 1961, and he brought Soltner over from Paris to open as the chef; in 1963, Surmain offered him a partnership, and in 1972, Soltner took complete ownership. By 1994, Soltner had spent almost 50 years working in kitchens and, when an offer from Michael Weinstein at Ark Restaurants came along, he decided to sell the place. “I had a lot of glory,” he says, “but I was working 15 hours in the restaurant and my knees started to hurt.”
Soltner, who has only eaten at Lutèce a few times since he gave up the reins, held onto the lease for the building, so the fact that it’s closing means he will have to make some major choices. “At first I am sad because it didn’t go for them, but it changes my life,” he says. “I have two options — to rent the restaurant or to sell the restaurant with the building. I’m almost 72, I don’t need the hassle anymore, but I haven’t decided anything. I’m going to digest it for a week or two.”