It’s a word that is seldom used anymore, but it is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Robert Treboux, the recently deceased proprietor of Le Veau d’Or restaurant on 60th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. And indeed it was inevitably one of the first words used when certain of his long-time loyal customers learned that he had died this summer and were remembering the man.
The dictionary defines courtly as “polished or refined, as befitting a royal court” and the thesaurus equates this adjective with “civilized, gracious, and suave.” Yes, indeed, all those adjectives could describe Monsieur Treboux.
At least, they could describe his public personality.
But since he was a restaurateur, there aren’t really too many people who would be privy to (or interested in) his more private side. And when a man spends so much of his life, so many hours of every day, at his restaurant, is there really any other measure by which to judge him?
After all, this was an individual who lived above his place of business and who once told a reporter, “I take a nap in the afternoon, I come down for dinner, then I close the place. To me, that’s living. Going on vacation is not living. This is my life. I like to talk. I like people.”
Robert Treboux, the son of dairy farmers, was born in 1924 in Vinzier, a village in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeast France. While still in his teens, he left the farm and went to work in Paris at a hotel managed by one of his cousins. The hospitality business being what it is, this led to a series of restaurant jobs—each a bit more demanding and prestigious than the last—at such well-known places as Lasserre in Paris, the Palace in Madrid, and Claridge’s in London.
Eventually, and while still quite young, Monsieur Treboux was hired by the French Line to serve as maître d’ in the first-class dining room of the liner SS Liberté. It was while doing this that he met Samuel Silverman, the famous New York judge who sponsored him for citizenship in the United States. Once there, his first job was at Le Pavillon, the New York restaurant that was the undisputed benchmark of haute French cuisine in America from 1941 to 1966. He worked there for five years and later at Maud Chez Elle, another popular and well-reviewed restaurant of the period.
Toiling for others, however, was not to Robert Treboux’s liking. In the late 50s, he opened Le Manoir on Park Avenue at 56th Street, and eventually Le Clos Normand, and then La Rotisserie Française—all of which were favored and respected restaurants of the Mad Men era.
And then, in 1985, he bought Le Veau d’Or, the celebrated small bistro that had first been opened in 1937 and which, in its early days, was one of the most glamorous and popular places in town. By the mid-80s, the restaurant was far from the hot spot it once was, but Mr. Treboux was able to infuse it with a new vitality and relevance. Curiously, and perhaps paradoxically, he did this without changing very many of the basics. Indeed, even today the room looks substantially the same as it always has and the menu is still classic and predictable. Undoubtedly what accounted for the change was his own personality and the personality of his daughter Cathy with whom he co-hosted. By the early 90s it was no longer “Oh. Le Veau d’Or? Let’s go someplace new.” Under his direction it became “Let’s go to Le Veau d’Or. We know what we’ll get and it’s always good.” He was able to keep the place very much alive and popular with succeeding generations of clientele.
Readers of this website will know that Le Veau d’Or is a personal favorite of mine. The food is reliable, consistently delicious and comforting. The lighting flatters and the noise level makes conversation not only possible but, depending on who’s talking, a delight. These qualities are becoming more and more rare in today’s world and it was undoubtedly Monsieur Treboux’s genius that he knew they would always attract a loyal and content group of followers.
Liz Smith, the popular columnist, paid tribute to Le Veau d’Or in May 2011 when the restaurant received the prestigious James Beard award:
This week one of my all-time favorite restaurants in Manhattan was awarded the coveted James Beard “Lifetime Achievement” award before a crowd of 2000 “foodies” in Avery Fisher Hall of Lincoln Center.
The winner was Le Veau d’Or, a little informal French bistro on 60th Street between Lexington and Park. This place was opened in 1937 and is the last of its breed. The “winners” were owners Robert Treboux and his beautiful daughter, Cathy, who bought it long ago from the original creators and have kept it going ever since.
It was once a celebrity haunt where Grace Kelly met Oleg Cassini and Jackie Onassis, Diana Vreeland and Truman Capote hung out. The late Times food critic Craig Claiborne once said it was the one café he couldn’t live without. And I am in agreement.
M. Treboux is still always elegantly on hand to greet and Cathy is the soul of hospitality. They went to the Beard awards against four competitors . . . . I’m not surprised that my pet, “The Golden Calf,” won because not long ago I congratulated my friend Cathy on its being named one of the three best French restaurants in America. This appeared in USA Today and the editors cited Le Veau d’Or with La Grenouille and Daniel of New York City.
Yes, there was also a feisty side to this restaurateur of the old school and none was more aware of it than his aforementioned daughter, who now presides over the restaurant. She knew he could be cranky and she knew he was sometimes difficult. But now, when she criticizes her father, she always adds, with a Gallic shrug and a little self-deprecation, “Les chiens ne font pas des chats.” Dogs do not produce cats.