After being in Soho for almost 20 years, we have seen many places come and go in our ever changing neighborhood. Raoul’s, one of our favorite restaurants, proves that when you get it right, it’s hard to beat. Raoul’s has just turned 40, and we were dying to know the history and stories behind the classic bistro. Our Chief Concierge, Carmen Da Silva interviews owner Karim Raoul:
Raoul’s is celebrating 40 years in Soho (quite an accomplishment in NYC!), tell us about the early years. What was it like (or what have you been told it was like) in opening a restaurant downtown in the 70’s?
There was nothing here. Fanelli’s, Broome St Bar and a couple of lunch spots from what I’ve been told. Lots of artists living in illegal lofts who strangely enough mixed in well with the old Italian residents who had been here forever. Somehow everyone just got along. But at night, it was quite scary. No one came down here unless they had a reason. There definitely were no French restaurants. It was all very casual in the beginning and was a family affair. My father did the door, my aunt tended the bar and my uncle was the chef. No one thought that it would last and especially no one thought that it would become what it has become today.
In the past 40 years, who are some of the most interesting guests (celebrity or locals) that you have seen walk through your doors and what do you recall from their visit(s)?
The most interesting customers I think were Andy Warhol, Bill Clinton while he was president (he shook every person’s hand in the entire restaurant), Julia Roberts (one night we were slammed and I was working the line in the kitchen and Eddie, the maitre ‘d asked me to escort her to the employee bathroom because it was so crowded in the other bathrooms. I didn’t recognize her. While she was in the bathroom, I waited for her outside to bring her back to her table. She was taking a while so I started banging on the door telling her to hurry up since I could hear the tickets piling up. When she came out she was so nice and apologetic but I realized at that point who she was. I felt horrible.
Eddie Hudson, the maitre’d, is the longest employed at Raoul’s. He started in ‘78 I believe. Way too many memorable nights to pick one out.
There’s a woman that occasionally offers palm readings (or is it Tarot card reading) upstairs. Tell us about her and how she started working at Raoul’s. Also, has she ever done a reading for you and what did you learn?
Nancy Stark has been reading tarot cards and doing people’s charts (if you ask her in advance) since I could remember. I think she must have started in the mid-eighties. I believe that my father and her met by going to Sida Yoga together. My father swears that we were one of the first restaurants to do that sort of thing. She has done my chart many times. Some of the things she has told me are still playing out.
What menu item(s) would say are “Raoul’s classics” and what is your favorite dish?
Steak au poivre has been the signature dish at Raoul’s. It’s one of the few, along with the artichoke and friseé salad, that have been on the menu since the beginning. But Chef David Honeysett, who’s been with us for 10 years now, has really elevated the overall cuisine I think. Some of my favorites have been his inventions. He makes an amazing lobster risotto and a seafood fricassee that will blow your mind. He also invented a great burger.
Lastly, why do you think guests return to Raoul’s again and again?
I think people come back to Raoul’s because they can tell that the place is organic. It’s not a copy of anything. It’s not a concept. It just is what it is. Today when you open a restaurant you get a bunch of money together, you design it, come up with a concept and call it something that matches that concept. Places like that get their identity right away. They don’t have a chance to grow and evolve. There are fewer and fewer places like Raoul’s where it was opened without much change to the space (just some art on the walls) and no real concept in mind other than a menu and just wanting to be an unpretentious and cool place.