“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They are published every week. Last month, News Editor Anna Rahmanan argued that fall activities for children around New York City were about to reach peak glory.
I’ll be honest—while frolicking around the city, I constantly picture myself as the main character in a Nancy Meyers movie, where every season looks like fall, homes are elaborately yet delicately decorated, the food always looks delicious yet healthy and fashion trends are made, not followed.
Alas, my imagination can only take me so far: I live in the real New York, where the seasons change within a day, rent is so high that half of our apartments are to forever remain furniture-less, food is delicious but oh-so-expensive and our daily style choices have to take into account the fact that we’re constantly walking around streets filled with garbage.
I’m pleased to report that, after almost two decades in town, I found a nook where my imaginary self and my real self blend into one, a place filled with the warmth that I feel every time I watch a Meyers film, where the decor elicits feelings of peacefulness and where the food is just perfect for what I’m looking for.
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Shockingly, given my disdain for generalizations and their culinary equivalents, said Narnia is actually a restaurant chain: Le Pain Quotidien. French for “daily bread,” Le Pain Quotidien first opened in Brussels back in 1990.
According to the company, founder Alain Coumont was a young chef dissatisfied with the bread that was at the time available to him in his home city.
Coumont decided to take matters into his own hands and open a bakery serving loaves inspired by the rustic ones he grew up eating in Belgium. He decorated the space with finds from a local flea market, including a long table ideal for communal eating—an item that is now a staple across the over 200 locations of the chain operating worldwide.
The first Le Pain Quotidien to open state-side was right here in New York City on Madison Avenue back in 1997. Fast-forward almost two decades and, today, there are a total of 30 Le Pain Quotidien locations in New York alone, comprising about 54% of the share currently in operation across the United States (the company did undergo plenty of management changes, including Chapter 11 filings).
Just like some of the best Meyers movies—The Holiday! The Parent Trap! It’s Complicated! Something’s Gotta Give! The Intern!—it’s hard to really describe what makes Le Pain Quotidien so amazing, it’s all about a feeling.
To be quite honest, the chain doesn’t serve great coffee—it’s usually a bit tart, sometimes too cold and doesn’t offer the sort of jolt of energy that java ordered at other local spots provides.
In my mind, the food is the standout when it comes to its lunch menu.
Midday meals are some of the most complicated around here, after all: you don’t want to eat too much because you probably have hefty dinner plans, but you also need a respite from the seemingly endless work day. Let’s not forget the price tag: a salad will easily cost you (at least) $15, a $10 soup will not fill you up and adding a sandwich to the mix will run your tab up to $18 or $20. A dollar slice of pizza (which is now $1.25, if not more) is the only economical option—one that many New Yorkers stay away from while trying to “be healthy.”
At Le Pain Quotidien, prices aren’t necessarily lower, but you certainly get more bang for your buck—and the food tastes fresh and delicious. Order a quiche for $14, a nice black lentil salad for the same price or opt for my personal favorite, the smoked salmon tartine ($16)—a bit of carbs won’t hurt you, promise.
But it’s the atmosphere here that truly sets the space apart from fellow chains like Pret-a-Manger and Matto Espresso: it always feels like it’s just about to be Thanksgiving, arguably everyone’s favorite time of the year in America, no matter what religious denomination they fall under or where they are originally from.
You’re able to enjoy table service at the cafe without the hustle and bustle that usually defines meals at more full-fledged restaurants and, because of that, the whole experience feels a bit more sophisticated without touching on the pompous.
“Life can be just beautiful if you only slow down and take a moment to set it up nicely,” the walls seem to whisper to you.
In a weird way, it all goes back to that communal table that Coumont probably invested in without thinking much about it.
The piece of wooden furniture reminds me of the sorts of tables that pepper Meryl Streep’s character’s bakery in It’s Complicated, exuding the sort of warmth that can only be replicated by sipping on a warm cup of coffee in pajamas, snuggled up in front of the television while gazing outside your apartment window at the snow falling on New York.
To put it as simply as possible: Le Pain Quotidien is cozy, which is the exact feeling New Yorkers seem to crave the most—especially as the holidays roll around.
Time Out tip: Stay away from a classic coffee cup and opt instead for any of Le Pain Quotidien’s espresso-based offerings, which happen to be great compared to their more-traditional counterparts.