A French Connection on the LES

When I emerged from the Delancey & Essex Streets Subway Station on New York’s Lower East Side (LES), I had only one place in mind to visit. I had recently heard of the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street as being a rare opportunity to visualize the life of immigrants in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

From the station, I turned onto Orchard Street where old tenement buildings with their iconic fire escapes lined both sides of the street. At the museum, I learned that the tour I wanted to take wouldn’t start for over an hour, so I headed north on Orchard across Delancey Street to explore the neighborhood.

Delancey Street

The boundaries of the Lower East Side are Canal St. to Houston St., and the East River to the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. There’s much history there as well as new business development, nightlife and music venues. Delancey Street is named after a French Huguenot family that owned much of the land in pre-revolutionary America. Some may know of it from the 1988 film, Crossing Delancey, that was set in the area.

Along the route, there were many types of shops and boutiques, some new and trendy while others must have been there for ages. I also saw many lounges and bars that were closed at that time of day.

I passed by intriguing French restaurants like Zucco Le French Diner at 188 Orchard. Épicerie Café Charbon at 168-170 Orchard is an interesting place with a façade that gives the impression of having a crèmerie (dairy) and tabac (newsstand) located there, too.

I was particularly drawn to Lucien, a bistro at 14 1st Avenue. I peeked in the window and the look of the place gave me the feeling that I was in France. Although I wasn’t quite hungry for lunch, I decided to stop in for a glass of wine.

I was greeted by a pretty, smiling waitress who was happy to let me sit at a prime table by the window even knowing that I wouldn’t be having lunch. At a table on the opposite side of the narrow room, two men were enjoying their food, wine and conversation.

As I waited for my glass of bordeaux, one of those gentlemen came over to my table and offered me a dish of French fries to eat “while I was waiting”. He said that they were “the best in New York”. By the way, they were delicious.

It turns out that the man was Lucien Bahaj, the very charming owner of the restaurant. He kissed my hand and returned to his table. I’ve since found out that he and his restaurants are quite well-known and highly regarded in New York. The waitress then brought my wine and a basket of French bread and butter. Since I seemed surprised to be served so much food while just having a drink, she pleasantly said, “Oh, you’ll be fed very well here.”

I was thoroughly enjoying watching the scenes outside and enjoying the warm ambiance of Lucien’s, but knew I’d have to leave soon for my tour. I had gotten my check when Lucien asked the waitress to pour me a glass of Cahors, a remarkable deep red wine from Southwest France. I half-heartedly declined, but ultimately couldn’t resist.

Lucien Bahaj

Lucien sat down across the table from me and we had a short, but memorable conversation. He talked a bit about his early days in the United States, some of the famous people he’s met along the way, and the time he spent in Northern California many years ago. He also told me about his other popular restaurant, The Pink Pony on nearby Ludlow Street, and its literary and filmmaking clientele. Lucien is very interesting and I was glad that I had stepped inside his bistro on a whim.

I wished that I could spend more time at Lucien, but the Tenement Museum tour was next on the agenda. I hurried along to 97 Orchard Street, smiling all the way.

For more information:

Related guest post on Traveldudes:
New York’s Tenement Museum: An extraordinary look into the lives of immigrants

39 thoughts on “A French Connection on the LES

    1. Cathy Post author

      So true, John. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of those experiences where we really feel special. That’s why this was so memorable for me.

  1. Abby

    Thank you for a lovely trip down memory lane! I used to live near-ish to there many years ago, and I can’t believe how much it’s changed. I went to that museum a decade ago, at least, and I do know Lucien. So happy you enjoyed — excellent post!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Abby. It must have been pretty cool to live around there. So glad the post brought back some good memories!

  2. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Wow, this is great! Sadly we don’t hear these kinds of stories enough, but it’s the type of thing that makes me want to fly to NYC and eat at their restaurant just to support them. 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      Well, Christy, if you do go to Lucien’s restaurant please tell them I sent you! 😉 Yes, it was one of those experiences that make you smile.

  3. robin

    What a charming story – you must have some charm of your own to attract these encounters. They never seem to happen to me! I get the crazy guy OUTSIDE the restaurant shouting at me…

  4. Renee

    I have never been to that part of NYC, but I will make sure to check it out the next time. What a lovely story, Cathy….Lucien was a very generous host indeed!

  5. Andrea

    NYC is the one place where I find the French restaurants to be as good as (if not better) the ones that are actually in France =) I so miss the food scene there in general, yum!

  6. jade

    Cathy, I loved this story! I didn’t want to you leave your new charming friend! This is my favorite part of traveling- finding and meeting new people and having great connections, especially when unexpected.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Jade. I agree — It does seem like some of the best times traveling or in our daily lives are those that are unexpected.

  7. Uttoran Sen

    This is excellent, good that the owner of the restaurant was so good, always nice to get something extra and a company when you are traveling alone.

    Now looking foreword to your Tenement Museum tour story next 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      I love NYC, too. I think that every time I’ve been there, I’ve found something new and it’s often just by chance!

    1. Cathy Post author

      I’m with you, Grace — nothing like wine and hand-kissing! And that glass of Cahors was particularly nice, by the way.

  8. Pingback: From Shoes to Sex: 14 Intriguing Museums in North America » Traveling with Sweeney

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