There aren’t many places left to experience the heart and soul of the avant-garde Lower East Side as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s. Lucien on First Avenue is one of them. So it was hard to take last week when news spread that the wonderful French restaurant’s owner, Lucien Bahaj, died in Florida at the age of 74.
Lucien opened in 1998, but felt like it had been there for many decades. When we walked in the door, Lucien was often there, sitting at a table in front, with a big greeting for old and new friends alike. In recent years, Lucien’s son, Zac, took the lead but that same gracious, welcoming spirit was still very much on display.
Clayton Patterson wrote about Lucien in Document Journal:
I can only imagine what it was like to be a part of Gertrude Stein’s famous salons, but, for me, sharing a plate at Lucien Bahaj’s table had to be a comparable public experience. You never knew who you might meet or what creator—famous, infamous, or just an inspiring player—might walk through the door and join the conversation… Lucien—who passed away on July 29—saw flowing conversation as a vital ingredient, and one he could conjure simply by combining the right voices.
Lucien also owned Pink Pony, the Ludlow Street cafe that was so much a part of the early 2000s Lower East Side creative scene. Spiraling rents forced its closure in 2013. Lucien’s wife, Phyllis, has always been a major part of the restaurant’s success, handling the business side, and Zac has been a fixture at both Lucien and Pink Pony since he was a kid. As Clayton pointed out, “One of Lucien’s greatest joys in life was his son Zac—who has grown into a handsome man with the learned etiquette and special magic required to make Lucien hum along without his father.”
Lucien Bahaj will be missed. But it’s comforting to know that the restaurant he created lives on even as the Lower East Side continues to change.