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Chez Napoleon — the oldest French restaurant in the city — may be forced to close permanently after a Con Edison Smart Meter conversion led city officials to shut off their gas in early December. Nine weeks later, the Hell’s Kitchen eatery is still shuttered.
The family-run restaurant on W50th Street just east of 9th Avenue, open since 1960 and operated by the Bruno family from 1982, was unexpectedly shuttered in early December 2021 after Con Edison representatives inspecting their newly installed Smart Meters detected an unusual smell and turned off gas services. William Welles, co-owner and son of co-owner Elayne Bruno, says the smell wasn’t from a gas leak but rather an oil-based paint recently applied to the ground floor of the building. “Usually Con Ed has some sort of meter where you go around and you see where a leak is coming from — he just was going by his sense of smell,” says Welles. “So it smelled like a little bit of gas and nobody could tell us where this gas leak was.” Whatever the source, the smell led Con Edison to shut down operations and request new pipes for the building.
“Somebody came in, took measurements with an architect. Then we had somebody with a clipboard show up, also did something, and now it’s like, we’re just waiting for the Department of Buildings (DOB) to give the license for the work order,” said Welles. Chez Napoleon joins the unfortunate ranks of other New York food institutions that have been shuttered by the DOB, some of which never reopened.
The closure was a major blow to Chez Napoleon and the Bruno family, who were hoping for a strong holiday season and the chance to celebrate their 60th year after lengthy COVID-19 shutdowns and a lack of pre-Broadway crowds. “We couldn’t have a proper 60th anniversary because we were shut down with COVID. We lost all of the Christmas people, and then now January and February — I mean it’s slim out there, you know?” says Welles.
The uncertainty has hit his mother, co-owner Elayne Bruno, particularly hard. She has been involved with Chez Napoleon since working there as a waitress under the original ownership, eventually purchasing the restaurant with her mother, Chef ‘Grandmere’ Marguerite Bruno in 1982. Welles and Bruno have kept the spirit of Chez Napoleon alive for 40 years, serving hyper-traditional dishes developed from Marguerite’s own time-honored recipes. Now in her mid-seventies, Elayne “can’t sleep at night,” says Welles. “We got the PPP and the grant and all that, but now that’s been pissed away, because in the last six months we’ve lost like $200,000 — and that’s gone from the aid money from COVID.”
The co-owners are also concerned about the impact of perpetual closures on their team — “My employees, we had to put them on unemployment again, and we have a great team back there, but if worse comes to worst, they might wanna look elsewhere for jobs,” says Welles. Added to that, “retraining a new chef with my grandmother’s recipes” would be an additional hurdle.
The Bruno family’s recipes and a long-standing convivial crowd of regulars have kept Hell’s Kitchen residents flocking to Chez Napoleon for decades, landing amongst W42ST readers as a neighborhood “institution” for decadent, traditional French fare. Said Ross Avant in a recent West Side Story profile, “Intimate, and beautifully bedecked, it instantly transports you to Paris. And the food is absolutely sumptuous.” Chez Napoleon has taken sumptuousness as a de rigeur philosophy, serving up dishes rich with traditional French ingredients like butter, cream, and garlic and proudly declaring: “Amenz votre appétit en tant qu’invité’, mais laissez votre régime à la maison,” or — “Bring your appetite as a guest, but leave your diet at home.”
Chez Napoleon held the title of oldest French restaurant in NYC for three months before the shut down. “If we were open, it’d be still the oldest French restaurant, because Tout Va Bien went during the pandemic, and Le Veau D’or, which was the oldest one — that’s been under construction — they’ve been closed for more than three years even before the pandemic, and that was the oldest from the 1930s, so we’re now the oldest restaurant,” says Welles.
Welles is acutely aware of this legacy, and hopes that the DOB’s red tape won’t waylay them into a permanent closure. “I understand now, with what happened with the Bronx fire and the gas leaks and all that, they want to be extra cautious and everything, but I mean, it’s gonna be losing — I’m not saying we’re a landmark or an icon, but we kind of are, in a way, and with all of the restaurants shutting down one by one in this area — to lose one more … we’re now the oldest French restaurant,” says Welles.
Con Edison spokesperson Alfonso Quiroz spoke to W42ST and noted that the status of this particular case is with the energy services team: “The way the process normally goes is — if there’s a gas leak, we turn off the gas for safety’s sake. Then the landlord’s plumber would be responsible for any and all repairs. Once repairs are completed and the customer gets in touch, we turn services back on right away.” Chez Napoleon is currently awaiting updates from the Department of Buildings on the timeline of their pipe repair.
Welles and Bruno have been in contact with Council Member Erik Bottcher’s office, who in turn contacted the DOB in hopes of pushing the timeline of the work order. For now, Welles is holding out hope for an update and focusing on his other business, Wolfman Snax Beef Jerky.
“It’s just trying to get the work done, and then having us back up — ’cause then I would like to try to get like a real push of marketing, saying that we’re the oldest one, to make sure the people that know that we’re still alive.” Here’s hoping the city can come through so that regulars can once again exclaim Vive Chez Napoléon!
UPDATE 2/16/2022: W42ST heard back from Andrew Rudansky, Press Secretary for the Department of Buildings on the situation at Chez Napoleon. Says Rudansky — “The owners of this restaurant are not waiting on DOB for repairs. Our records indicate that they are waiting on the registered design professionals they hired, who has not taken the required steps to obtain work permits from DOB.”
Rudansky noted that in general, the DOB needs a paperwork from a Professionally Certified plumber to assign a work permit for gas repairs — which usually takes 1 day to process (unless the plumber already has Professional Certification privileges, in which case permits are awarded immediately). Once a permit is awarded and repairs are finished, the DOB must inspect the gas plumbing before granting a Gas Authorization order to turn services back on. This process usually takes about 3 days to complete.
In regards to Chez Napoleon, Rudansky says: “Our records show while the owner’s engineer filed the initial application notification with us online [on 2/3/22], they never filed any of the required paperwork items needed to get them the Professional Certification approval. Among the missing documentation that they have not yet submitted is the scope of work for the job, and the actual plans for the work. Once their design professional files the required items online, they will get their approval right away because they filed ‘Pro Cert.’ At that point they can obtain the required work permit, and the owner’s Licensed Master Plumber can perform the repairs.”
Rudanksy also notes that in the case of emergency gas leaks, the “Dept. has a separate Emergency Work Notification (EWN) process. Through the EWN process, there is literally zero wait time for the gas to be restored that can be attributable to DOB” as the EWN allows plumbers to make repairs right away and file necessary DOB paperwork after services are restored and the business is reopened.
We will update regarding situation at Chez Napoleon as information becomes available.