Last June, La Grenouille, one of the last remaining old-school French restaurants left in midtown (where an abundance of La and Le restaurants once flourished), shut down because of a gas leak. The restaurant was scheduled to reopen in September, but remained closed until November. Now the building, a three-story carriage house at 3 East 52nd Street, has been listed for sale with Cushman & Wakefield, asking $15 million.
The restaurant, opened by Charles Masson Sr. and his wife, Gisèle, has been operating since the early 1960s, but it housed a French restaurant even before then, starting in 1942. Built as a stable in 1871, the 5,500-square-foot property, located between Madison and Fifth, was later used as an interior-design studio and then as an artists’ studio (and hangout — Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry were visitors) before its decadeslong run as a restaurant. Red-carpeted, with a double-height second floor and enormous floral displays, the restaurant has hosted socialites and celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Yves Saint Laurent. But in recent years, it mostly made headlines because of the bitter feud between the two Masson brothers, Charles and Philippe, who have been publicly fighting for control of the space since shortly before their mother died in 2014. Charles, the longtime manager of the restaurant, was ousted that year; Philippe, the majority owner, has run it ever since.
In a lawsuit filed in 2018, Charles claimed that Philippe used the property as “a personal piggy bank,” according to the New York Post, taking out a mortgage on it and filing frivolous personal charges to their mother’s estate, including a New York Athletic Club membership. Philippe, meanwhile, alleged in legal filings that Charles was a hated bully during his decades in charge and had once stopped Saturday dinner service to discourage Jewish customers from eating there. The restaurant survived COVID but struggled with finances, the brothers’ ongoing lawsuits, and Philippe’s weekly jazz performances, which involved him “perching on diners’ tables” and “growling like a cat” while belting out jazz standards in “a voice that combined the boom of a sportscaster with the swagger of an Elvis impersonator,” according to a 2021 story in the New York Times.
The listing broker, William Conrad, declined to comment. La Grenouille does not plan to close, according to a representative, but may relocate depending on the outcome of the sale. The property is being marketed as a restaurant or commercial space rather than a development site: “This is a unique opportunity for restaurant owners and aspiring chefs to own a piece of history and forge a new path into the culinary future,” the listing reads. While Philippe claimed in lawsuits that Charles just wanted to gain control of the restaurant again so he could sell the property for $40 million, the number was clearly inflated — for a commercial property, it’s not large, and after 60 years, it would likely need a considerable renovation to be used for anything besides La Grenouille. A call to the restaurant’s phone number yielded a prerecorded message that said it was closed for winter vacation but would reopen on January 24 and looked forward to celebrating its 61st anniversary with “live jazz, Champagne, and blooms.”
Updated January 17 to reflect that La Grenouille does not plan to close, according to a representative, but may relocate depending on the outcome of the sale.