'Is it really all you suggest?' "Certainly it's a 'fun' place, with more than decent food. It's in jolly surroundings, with a zany ambiance, that effectively evokes the mix of brio and pathos characteristic of Josephine Baker, the toast of Paris for over three decades.
"Sure, it's run by a shrewd fellow, often most amusing, with elfin looks and a sly smile. He used to do a nightclub act with Josephine, was a part of her rainbow tribe, of a baker's-dozen of children of international and interracial origins. But come on now!" you say, "Chez Josephine?, that place at 414 West 42nd Street, near 9th Avenue, "the best restaurant in the world?" You're kidding, right?"
No, indeed I am not! 'Am I deluded then,' you ask, 'blinded by friendship or sentiment, indifferent to superior food, flowers and décor found elsewhere?' Again, no!
I know precisely what I'm talking about. Sure, there is as fine and finer food, more lush bouquets and more refined decorations to be found in several New York eateries. Many enjoy a more exclusive, more expensively dressed clientele. Some boast rarer vintages in their vaster cellars and have better known artists entertaining a crowd of those who are most celebrated among us.
But at least when owner Jean-Claude Baker is on hand, there's no place that's better for brunch or dinner, because there is no one else capable, anywhere, of making one feel more comfortably at home, in an atmosphere of easy festivity, where it's impossible not to have an enjoyable time.
In Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock's interesting study of human limits, of our sometimes contradictory exchange of tolerance and vulnerability, for guardedness or treachery in the name of self-preservation, Tallulah Bankhead gives a marvelous performance. She plays a celebrity, not unlike herself, a renowned journalist, who lives on Manhattan's East Side, owns a sable coat and a large diamond bracelet.
These glittering accouterments help to define for Tallulah's character, as they do for many, the full-flowered-reality of her success in New York. Yet another more intangible success-signifier for Tallulah's career girl, is, she explains, being recognized by the headwaiter of her favorite restaurant, and treated accordingly, as an 'important person.'
This of course is the simple grain of sand at the heart of Chez Josephine's glowing accomplishment. For all its pearl-like luster, the chandeliers, wall-to wall portraits of Josephine, mirrors, live music, stiff drinks, the most delicious rolls, the most attractive and attentive waiters, none of it would mean anything whatever, without Jean-Claude's wonderful ability to make one imagine just how bored and harried he was, 'before you arrived!' "Mon ami, WELCOME! Right this way, your table is waiting my darling!"
Through a curiously Gallic mixture of great generosity and tyranny, Jean-Claude has painstakingly attempted to train his staff to emulate his effusive example. Beyond a doubt, they are adept pupils all. But this art of loving people instantly, of showing in a thousand little ways how much one wishes to fulfill their desires and holds them in the highest regard, it is a gift one must be born with.
So, the lamb chops are divine, the buttery-smooth calf's liver sublime, and the lobster bisque is exquisite, but what do I like best, you wonder? Without question, that would have to be Jean-Claude's fantastic cocktails, not, as one might imagine, meanly, a cocktail mixed-up from liquors and spirits, but a mélange of people just as intoxicating. Every type that's liable to be in the City has found their way here. It's been grand fun meeting the laudable likes of Miss Kitty Carlisle Hart, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, brilliant Bruce Weber, lovely Lynn Whitfield, Whoopi Goldberg and Baryshnikov here, having as much fun, from the look of things, as I was.
Spending her birthday in the same space with Jessye Norman, my, that too, was a delight. But a night out at Chez Josephine is just as pleasurable with old friends, like Phyllis Briley, Rocky Baron Boler, Sally Ede, Cordell Cleare, Tony Victoria, Curtis Quentin Phelps, Lou Willard, Dale and Ann Dobson, Randolph Black, Terry Wynn, Michael Mc Collom, Claudette Law, Eva Tucholka and her sister or Edna Ratner. Why? Because my friend Jean Claude treats royalty as his equals and all others as royalty.
When I ask in December if he'd like to donate to the "Open Closet" clothing drive sponsored by State Senator Bill Perkins, I was hopeful that the ironic name of the event would intrigue him into donating some suits or shirts. The great-coat that Bobby Short gave him was more than I'd hoped for.
And even more unexpected was his offhand directive that 50 of the 200-plus people participating and 12 representatives of the social service agencies co-sponsoring this effort of sharing during the holidays, should be invited for lunch. Some of those who attended this party had never been to a place quite like Chez Josephine, they said. But no one seemed ill at ease, and even without drinks, the mellow mood of conviviality was every bit as infectious as it had been on New Year's Eve.
As good as a scrumptious lunch was what one might call a testimonial. Jean-Claude offered encouragement to his attentive audience working toward recovery and fulfillment, by relating some travails from his life and from Josephine's life too. "What a great guy." Senator Perkins said when Jean Claude agreed that they would co-host this motivational lunch for VIPs annually. Later on the Senator wrote thanking my friend, "You are what people mean when they speak of humanitarians."
So, feeding fewer than 100 people, once a year, what does that prove? For me it's indicative of our ability to end hunger world-wide, for all time, if we only begin.
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