I arrive at The Long Island Bar to meet David Lebovitz for a drink, and though I’ve made it a point to arrive five minutes early, he’s already standing out in the cold, bundled up in his scarf, waiting for me. Just as we say hello, the vintage neon marquee above us clicks on, illuminating the sidewalk in red and green. We’re the first customers of the evening and have the place to ourselves, but as we head to our favorite seats at the corner of the bar, bartender KJ Williams politely informs us that those are reserved for David Wondrich, who is coming by later “with a couple of Italians.”
If you follow Lebovitz on Instagram, you can’t help but be envious of the cascade of cookies, cakes, croissants, baguettes with French butter and outdoor markets that occupy his daily life in Paris. Even in New York, his itinerary before meeting up with me included sampling an assortment of Italian cookies at Leonelli Taberna, grabbing a spicy pepperoni square slice at Prince Street Pizza and a late-afternoon guided tasting of aromatized wine at the New York offices of Haus Alpenz.
Lebovitz, a former member of the pastry team at Chez Panisse, started writing and sharing recipes on his blog in 1999, making him one of the OG food bloggers, and he’s the author of a bookshelf’s worth of bestselling and beloved cookbooks, including The Sweet Life in Paris and My Paris Kitchen. He is back in New York for the paperback release of his memoir, L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, which chronicles the less than postcard-perfect realities of the expat life.
“It was interesting writing L’Appart because I was writing about something to me that was very traumatic. It doesn’t break the image of Paris to people but it’s another side of me and another side of Paris,” Lebovitz tells me as he places an order for fried cheese curds without even glancing at the menu. “It’s about something that happened to me in France because I didn’t understand the culture. On the other hand, everything we do we learn, and I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with France.”
Paris has been his home since 2003, but recently he’s been popping into Brooklyn a few weeks each year. “I realized I had sort of lost touch with American culture,” he says. “I was becoming one of those expats that had no idea what’s happening in America. And because I write for Americans, I thought, well, I need to see more of the U.S.”
We order a round of The Long Island Bar’s signature Boulevardiers as The Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” comes on the stereo. The first time Lebovitz visited the bar was with his partner, Romain, and when he saw the crimson-colored drink served in an elegant, slightly elevated coupe glass at the center of the bar he pointed to it and said, that’s what I want. “I’d never had a Boulevardier before. I don’t think I even knew what it was. Now it’s the drink I always order here.” It didn’t hurt that The Long Island Bar co-owner Toby Cecchini speaks fluent French. “I’m used to translating for Romain in America and he started talking to Toby in French and left me in the dust.”
Even at a bar, Lebovitz can’t help but think about food. He smiles in delight as he runs a crispy cheese curd through French onion dip and pops it into his mouth. His favorite bar snacks are the kind that contrast with the drinks, but also stand up to them. He holds deviled eggs in high regard (“they’re kind of neutral but hearty”) and considers Chex Party Mix the ultimate cocktail snack. “It’s hard not to like a classic American bar,” he says sipping his Boulevardier. “Much like a classic French café, there’s something really appealing and genuine about it. It’s not trying to be something it’s not.”
On cue, David Wondrich walks into the bar and comes by to say hello, introducing us to his traveling companions, two executives from Gruppo Campari, who he’s leading on a neighborhood bar crawl. We benefit from our proximity to this spirited crew and are invited to sample the mini-cocktails the bartender is stirring up for them, including Cecchini’s breakout modern classic, the Cosmopolitan. “When David Wondrich hands you a Cosmopolitan, you drink it,” says Lebovitz raising his glass.
The first cocktail recipe Lebovitz posted to his blog was actually for a Cosmopolitan, and since then he’s shared recipes for dozens more, including some of his personal favorites like the Black Manhattan and a Rosemary Gimlet. Cocktails have become an obsession of his, so much so that his next project will be a still-untitled book devoted to French drinking. “There’s a whole culture in France of drinks. Not just cocktails. Not just beer and wine. Not just aperitifs,” he says.
We order one last round—a kölsch for me and a Brooklyn for Lebovitz—to pair with the double cheeseburger and fries we’re splitting. Cecchini stops by to say hello, which quickly turns into an impromptu tasting of French aperitif wines, with glasses of Bonal, Byrrh, Cap Corse and St. Raphaël piling up around us. “I used to tell people if I wanted to make a lot of money I’d write a cupcake book. But you have to do what you’re excited about and hope other people will be too. I like to highlight the French as they really are. They’re not saints and neither are we,” says Lebovitz. “And I want to show that and bring France down to a level where you can make things at home and not have it be a big deal but just part of your life.”
There are few early food bloggers who remain as relevant or influential as Lebovitz. In fact, many of his dedicated readers and now 200,000 Instagram followers have gotten to know Paris through his eyes—with a “Chocolate Idiot Cake”—or three—along the way.
As I settle the bill, the woman sitting next to us at the bar, who had been observing the growing border of bottles and glassware surrounding us with great interest, leans in and smiles at Lebovitz. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to say how much I love your lemon tart recipe.”