Volume 18 • Issue 23 | October 21 - 27, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Madelyn Wils, left, former chairperson of Community Board 1, Dennis Elliot, director of the International Studio Curatorial Program, and Judge Kathryn Freed attended the anniversary party.

Brothers Capsouto mark 25 years at their Tribeca restaurant

By Daniel Wallace

At 9 p.m. last Sunday waiters at Capsouto Frères, the landmark contemporary French bistro in Tribeca, rolled a huge chocolate cake from the kitchen, cutting a path through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that had answered the call of free canapés and champagne and gathered to celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary.

Jacques, Sammy and Albert—the brothers who started the restaurant in 1980—stood behind the cake in the middle of the floor, blinking back tears while Sammy’s children played the violin and cello and the crowd erupted into a chorus of happy birthday.

“We have been here 25 years,” Sammy said, pausing with emotion.

“We love you Sammy,” someone yelled from the crowd as he gathered himself.

“We’d like to thank America,” he continued. “Our parents. And of course, all of you.”

Located in a Flemish-style landmark building that was erected in 1891 as a grain warehouse, Capsouto Frères is a quaint French bistro with wooden floors, brick walls, upon which hang antique mirrors, and a brunch, lunch and dinner menu that offer soups, soufflés and entrees that have become staples within the fine dining scene of New York.

The restaurant first opened on October 16, 1980. Beforehand, the Capsouto brothers had been working in various restaurants and bars in Soho. They wanted to start their own restaurant and, for over a year, searched for a building in Tribeca, which they believed was an up-and-coming renovation district with potential for growth. And when they found the warehouse, they were hooked.

“We fell in love with this building,” said Albert, who at 49 is the youngest of the brothers (he was 24 when the restaurant opened).

The brothers renovated the room mostly on their own. They visited auctions, antique shops and flea markets. They found wainscoting and mirrors in barbershops and old drug stores. And they built the bar-counter themselves.

“We didn’t have a lot of finances,” Albert said. “But we knew what we wanted; and we were able to put it together ourselves. That’s why it has such a settled, comfortable atmosphere.”

Over the years very little has changed within the restaurant. Table cloths were added. The china and silverware were replaced. But for the most part it’s the same room you would have encountered in 1980 when the young brothers first opened its doors for business.

Albert said he and his brothers were always confident of the restaurant’s success.

“We had the attitude of: build it, and they will come,” he said.

And come they did. Capsouto Frères now has a staff of 35 and a loyal customer base. It has evolved along with New York’s fluctuating economy, expanding and contracting with the market — after 9/11, they greatly reduced their menu prices and served prix fixe meals — but the brothers have stayed true to their vision and the food has remained consistent.

In the first days after the attack, the brothers gave meals to rescue workers and residents who managed to venture south of Canal St. Albert is a longtime member of Community Board 1 and has played an active role in the discussions on rebuilding and on ways to help small businesses.

“It’s a great neighborhood place, where you’re guaranteed a good meal in a nice environment,” said Sarah, a 28 year-old resident of Tribeca who declined to give her last name and was present at the anniversary party.

Albert said the restaurant is not simply a job, but a lifestyle. He and his brothers are motivated by a restaurant philosophy in which restaurants are viewed as anchors to the community, important social places within the fabric of a society that has become increasingly individualistic, where people can relax and connect.

“It’s not just the food, it’s the meal,” he said. “And the meal consists of the company, the atmosphere, the service, the music. It’s a very nurturing place.”

Albert said he and his brothers learned their nurturing instincts from their mother, Eve, who, before passing away two years ago, was an integral presence in the restaurant for 23 years.

“In my family, meals were always a priority,” Albert said. “Everyone ate together, no matter what. And it was at the meals that we told each other about our lives and stayed connected. When I first moved to America, I was shocked to see that this didn’t happen here. At my friend’s house, for example, the kids ate separately while watching television.”

The Capsouto brothers were born in Egypt to Turkish parents, who went to France for a few years before the family came to America.

As important as the atmosphere is, the key ingredient to Capsouto Frères’ success has always been its food. The restaurant is well known for its desert soufflés, and last year they introduced a new item to the menu: savory soufflés, which at $9.50, offer an affordable taste of French luxury.

“The soufflés are awesome,” said Jackie, a resident of Tribeca who was present at the anniversary party.

After Sammy finished his speech behind the cake, the eldest brother, Jacques, who is in charge of the product ordering, wine, and kitchen management, stepped forward.

“My mom would have been very happy tonight,” he said, proceeding to share anecdotes about her involvement in the restaurant over the years.

Then it was Albert’s turn.

“I have to go back to my mom, as well,” he said. “Because she was the glue that held us together, and after twenty-five years—” he paused, blinking. He rubbed his eyes and looked down, and for a moment it was silent. “Even when she’s not here,” he said in a quiet voice. “The glue is still very strong.”

There was a loud pop as Albert uncorked a giant bottle of champagne and filled his brothers’ glasses. The three brothers stood together, surrounded by a crowd of friends, family and customers. They raised their champagne.

“Chin, chin,” they yelled.

Everyone drank. And the room erupted in cheers.


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