The still point of the turning world—at least for a select handful of the men who drive racing automobiles and their associates—is the center of a round table regularly provendered with good food in midtown New York. Food, ambiance and table are the works of a race driver turned restaurateur, an urbane and gentle Frenchman named René Dreyfus, who is looking directly at you in the photograph above. In characteristic proximity to René is his brother and lifelong partner, Maurice Dreyfus, in the bar area of the Chanteclair restaurant, which the two men own and operate together.
The bright emblems of automobile clubs from all parts of the world and the signed portraits of many of the world's greatest racing drivers form an appropriate décor here. Because of René's background as a star of the international racing fraternity, other members of the piston brotherhood were drawn early to the Chanteclair, and the restaurant's French cuisine has proven so consistently rewarding that its circular board—a large table toward the back of the establishment—has become the unofficial noontime gathering place for all itinerant drivers who happen to be in town.
Food has always been something more than fuel for René Dreyfus. In 14 years as a professional driver on European race courses, he sampled the culinary wares of the Continent's best hostelries, and the resulting fastidious palate led him, without hesitation, into the equally competitive world of restaurant ownership. It may well be that his skill—and success—at competition has made the Chanteclair as thriving as it is; drawing not only auto enthusiasts, the restaurant's single large room, enclosed with murals of Paris scenes, fills up tight every lunch-and dinnertime.
Dreyfus began to feel the urge to race when he started piloting his father's Clement-Bayard at the age of 9. When he was 18 he and his brother Maurice bought a six-horsepower Mathis, and in 1924, with René at the wheel, it became the winner in its class in the Circuit des Gatti√®res. In the years that followed, René won 36 first places, including the Grands Prix of Monaco, Belgium, Rheims, Florence, Dieppe, Cork, Pau and Tripoli. His manager and principal rooter through it all was Maurice.
In 1940 René came to the U.S. to represent France at the Indianapolis Speedway and stayed to open his first restaurant, in partnership with another Frenchman. (Maurice at the time was in the French army,) "It was a country place in northern New Jersey, and we had good luck with it from the start," René recalls. Luck followed with a second restaurant, opened in Manhattan on West 55th Street after René had served with the U.S. Army. After the war, in 1946, Maurice joined him in this endeavor. But the round table of auto racing did not materialize until the Dreyfus brothers established the Chanteclair on East 49th Street in 1953. "The round table just grew," René says. "The table itself was part of the Chanteclair's original equipment, but the spirit it now represents developed as men who love to talk about cars-race drivers and observers and organizers of racing—began making a habit of having lunch here. Somehow that big round table became theirs alone."
Although its diameter never changes, the table, originally designed to seat six, has proved amazingly expandable; no matter how many aficionados are gathered in the chosen circle, there seems to be always room for a traveling guest, arriving late, to pull up another chair and wedge his knees beneath a few square inches of tablecloth. And when that guest is a top driver like Stirling Moss or Phil Hill there is a little more sizzle in the round table conversation, if not in the Chanteclair kitchen.
"To understand that racing has become truly international," Dreyfus says, "all you have to do is see the variety of food ordered at that table. Perhaps some of them acquired new tastes at Savini's in Milan during the Mille Miglia—or were at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo for the Rallye. I remember one time in Brussels—" He was interrupted when an American on his way to drive at Le Mans stopped to say goodby. When he returned to the conversation, he smiled. "One of the round table favorites is our boeuf bourguignon. For myself, I like nothing better than filets de sole Cardinal, which is a regular lunchtime dish here on Fridays. The choice does not matter. The important thing is that we racers like to eat well."
A great many people who like to eat well have discovered that in dining at the Chanteclair a high point can be reached with the very first course. Among the house specialties on the dinner menu are some appetizers not soon to be forgotten—notably the cloudlike cheese pastry prepared by Chef Jacques Jaffry which is christened feuilleté au Roquefort, and a fine version of the classic coquille Saint-Jacques. The former, a challenge to the expert pastry cook, requires several hours in the making. The latter is a comparatively simple preparation, as detailed in the following instructions by chef Jaffry.
1 pound bay scallops
5 medium-size mushrooms
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
1½ cups light cream
½ cup melted butter
½ cup flour
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons whipped cream
Salt, cayenne pepper
Slice mushrooms and cook three minutes in 2 tablespoons of butter. Add scallops, shallots and wine and braise gently for five minutes. Add cream and bring to a boil; then lower heat. Season with salt and cayenne pepper. Meanwhile prepare a beurre manié by mixing½ cup flour and½ cup melted butter into a smooth paste. Stir this into scallop mixture and simmer gently at least two minutes to cook flour thoroughly. When the sauce has thus been thickened, pour it into 6 scallop shells, reserving½ cup of sauce for glazing. Mix 2 egg yolks into this half cup of sauce, then fold in the whipped cream. Pour over filled shells and glaze in broiler a few seconds until golden.