[Photo courtesy of Clayton Patterson]
Several EVG readers shared the sad news in recent days that Lucien Bahaj, the restaurateur behind Lucien on First Avenue, died last Monday in Florida. He was 74. A cause of death was not revealed.
Bahaj opened the French bistro at 14 First Ave. between First Street and Second Street in 1998.
[EVG photo from June]
Clayton Patterson wrote a feature obituary published at Document Journal:
Lucien was born in Morocco in 1945, and grew up in the South of France. By working at luxurious hotels and restaurants, he learned the etiquette, dress, and social mannerisms of their elite clientele. He refined his social skills in New York, becoming a player in the city’s ’70s and ’80’s nightlife scene by working at places like Indochine. It was always his New York dream to open a French-style restaurant, one that served quality food with sophisticated service, in his own idealized image.
Lucien’s eatery was his art form and his performance space. Every day, he worked to perfect his art; tasting the food and wines, changing the spices and the mixtures, trying out different seating arrangements, and curating a selection of avant-garde reading material. To give the impression of an old-school establishment that had survived the test of time, the walls were given a distressed paint job, on top of which were hand-scripted poems painted by Rene Ricard. If Lucien wasn’t sitting inside, he would often be found by the entrance, always the gracious host who made sure his customers felt welcome.
Bahaj also operated the Pink Pony on Ludlow Street from 2001 to 2013, closing it after the landlord wanted a $6,000-per-month rent increase. Rent hike aside, as the Times noted then: "[H]is cafe had come to seem out of step in a neighborhood sprouting condominium towers, boutique hotels, mixologists and sports bars."
Lucien, whose walls are adorned with a variety of framed photos of artists, actors and filmmakers who have dined here, remains a timeless classic. Per a 2014 revisit at Serious Eats:
Lucien runs off an old, seemingly forgotten, formula from a time when nasturtium and nettles were just weeds. The food is reliable, seasoned well, and portioned with hunger in mind. It isn't necessarily progressive or trendy or challenging, but that's exactly why eating there is so great.
[EVG photo from June]
Patterson writes that Bahaj's son Zac has "the learned etiquette and special magic required to make Lucien hum along without his father."
[Lucien and Zac by Clayton Patterson]