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The lights were bright and the mood was c’est magnifique once more as Elyane Bruno and son William Welles welcomed back old friends to Chez Napoleon for its first dinner service since a nightmare 11-month shutdown.
“We feel very good, but we still can’t believe it – it’s surreal,” said Elyane as she surveyed a cheery, pre-theater dinner crowd at the beloved Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, decked out with white tablecloths and signs declaring “Exiled No More!” around the space.
“The long part is over, but the hard part is now,” said William after a sprint to restaff, restock and reopen by December 1. “We are soft launching so that we can get back into the groove and the swing of things.” There is currently a trimmed down menu of customer favorites like Moules Napoléon, Escargots and French Onion Soup so that they can focus on the prep aspect of the cuisine.
“85 percent of French cuisine is the preparation,” said William, whose chefs have been assembling the restaurant’s signature stocks and sauces for days and baking their own baguettes in an elaborate, 24-hour process.
The famous French eatery – which has been a Hell’s Kitchen staple for 62 years and operated by Elyane and William for the past 40 – had lost over $750,000 in revenue and nearly a full year of business after being shut down on December 8, 2021 due to a faulty gas meter and myriad required repairs.
The ensuing bureaucratic maze of endless contractors, city agencies, and approval paperwork nearly sent Elyane and William into despair, and they set a deadline to resolve the issue or close permanently by November 30. Miraculously, the final FDNY approval was procured in the nick of time and the pair began the long road to getting customer ready.
One patron who had been eagerly looking forward to the evening’s reopening was West Side resident Dale, who has been dining at the café “at least once a week” for half a decade. After reading coverage of the shutdown, Dale took it upon himself to reach out to his contacts within the city’s agencies: “I did what I could in terms of pressuring political figures.”
“I love to support Chez Napoleon because it’s a true, family-run small business that couldn’t survive anywhere else besides this neighborhood,” he said as he sipped a glass of red wine with his steak frite. “Every time I take a French person here they’re really interested in the menu – it’s true French comfort food,” he added. “There’s nothing else like it in New York.”
Elyane and William are looking forward to inviting back fellow Francophiles throughout the city’s holiday season, adding more Chez Napoleon classics to the menu as well as even developing some new vegetarian entrees.
But for now, they are taking a (cautious) breath while reveling in finally being able to connect with regulars and new faces alike. “I do worry that Murphy’s Law is still right behind us,” said William. “It’s been great to finally get to this step. But I’ll really, truly celebrate once everything is the way it used to be.”