Leon Lianides: Was a Fine Restaurateur
by John J. Vyhnanek
James Beard and I had good taste along with the thousands who once
ate at the famed Coach House Restaurant in Greenwich Village. Opened in 1949 at 110
Waverly Place near Washington Square Park by Leon Lianides, the Coach House, which closed
in 1993, was famed for its straight-forward "American Cooking". Black bean soup
with Madeira, crabcakes, rack of lamb and oh, that pecan pie. Other dishes such as steak
au poivre and veal piccata gave it a European feel. After all, Leon was of Greek heritage
and well schooled in the Arts and History at New York University. The long and narrow
dining room with its upstairs area was adorned in reds, natural woods and 19th century
paintings. Red leather banquettes, brass chandeliers and flowers made the room elegant.
The exterior brick, white window frames and entrance made it feel like you were entering a
country inn after a hunt, even though you were in the middle of New York City. There
were hitching posts and miniature castings of men holding lanterns, similar to the 21 Club
in Manhattan. The building was a carriage house and stable of the John Wanamaker estate,
as so many in the area were at one time.
The New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton gave
the Coach House the highest rating of 4 stars in 1977. James Beard, who lived in the
Village a couple of streets away, dined there often, including the ritual of dining there
on Christmas Eve. My first visit was with my wife Bess and her mother Nan who lived on
West 12th street. I was the Saucier at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston at the time, an up and
coming young chef. I was nervous when we walked in the door and were greeted by Mr.
Lianides; the room was full of elegantly dressed diners and I felt a little out of place.
He greeted us as royalty, he was so gracious. It seemed as if we were regular customers
and he was greeting us as he did many other times. As intimidated as I felt at first, I
began to loosen up and had a really wonderful time dining on black bean soup, rack of
lamb, corn sticks, English cut prime rib, a French Burgundy and pecan pie. Prior to
dessert he came over to our table to say hello; he did this with everyone. I announced to
Leon my culinary trade and position, we began to talk about the business, a few common
acquaintances we had in Boston and his love of the hospitality business. Upon asking for
the check the waiter announced, "Mr. Lianides has taken care of it." I was
floored, he picked up the check, it must have been $200 or more! Upon leaving we all
thanked him so much for his graciousness. When I asked him why he did it he merely said it
was a professional courtesy. I never have forgotten that term. Over the years we
dined there several more times when visiting Bess' mother.
Restaurants were opening with a vengeance featuring New
American Cuisine. Only blocks away was Gotham on East 12th Street, the Union Square Bistro
in Union Square and others such as Quatorze on West 14th Street. The age of warm goat
cheese, beurre blanc and grilled radichicco had begun to change the dining scene. The once
popular Coach House had lost its popularity, however not because of the quality. Fewer and
fewer people filled the room, business was simply bad.
Leon was always smartly dressed, thin and debonair, with
his silver mustache. He was involved in every aspect from menu planning and wine buying to
repairs. He would even fill in on the kitchen's cooking line when someone called in sick.
He oversaw dining room service like a mother hen, he ran one heck of a consistent
restaurant. The last visit we made was in 1990, the last meal in a room almost empty of
customers. I knew it wouldn't be long before he would close. As we ordered our meal
he approached with a bottle of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon and announced that it was on him,
nice to see you again, it's been a long time! We talked about some restaurant friends we
had in Boston and the new restaurant that Bess and I now owned in Brookline, MA. I
remarked on the fact that business seemed slow and hoped that it was just an off night.
"No", he replied, "It's like this now. People seem more interested in the
artistic cooking and smaller portions instead of food with flavor and substance". We
wholeheartedly agreed as we were served the first course of crabcakes; made with sweet
tasting, incredibly fresh lump crabmeat. They were served on a plain white plate with no
garnish of frizzy lettuce or multiple sauces to hide their taste, they were
fantastic---simply the best, as was the rest of the meal! What made it superior was Leon's
presence, his smile of satisfaction and knowing he did really care.
Leon Lianides died Monday June 1, 1998 in his home in
Riverdale, the Bronx at the age of 81. He was in declining health from a head injury he
suffered in 1991, his wife Aphrodite was quoted saying. He has a son Ronald and two
sisters living Greece and Albania. My toque off to Leon Lianides and his memory, Good
Resources: The New York Times; Obituaries, June 3, 1998, The Greenwich Village Cookbook &
Award Winners Cookbook