Starting a restaurant in Manhattan is notoriously brutal, so when an independent establishment has managed to stick around for decades, you know it’s good. Sel et Poivre, an Upper East Side French bistro that has been around for nearly 30 years, is a testament to the (staying) power of quality, consistency, and excellent service.

Though French food is often given the benefit of the doubt even when it might not warrant it, Sel et Poivre more than deserves the cuisine’s favorable reputation. If you have any lingering doubts that French restaurants may be overpriced, pretentious, or overrated, this is probably where you should go to restore your faith.

The space is intimate and elegant, ideal for a romantic meal or a European-style lunch. Sometimes it takes table linens, proper water glasses, and old-school cooking techniques to help you reconnect with dining as an actual experience. And just because it’s elegant doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable; Sel et Poivre is worthy of both regular meals and special occasions. Either way, it delivers high quality at reasonable prices.

The menu is not enormous–this is not a diner, after all–but that should reassure you that each dish is prepared from scratch and with care.

Executive Chef and co-owner Christian Schienle understands very well the importance of managing customers’ expectations over time. Though the menu has occasionally changed or grown–for example, for the restaurant’s Game Festival a few months ago–the staples remain as exceptional as ever.

Take the escargot. This delicacy can, if prepared to mediocre standards, be a novelty item at best, especially for those unaccustomed to it. At Sel et Poivre, however, escargot is just about as good as it gets. Buttery, garlicky, and addictive, the dish’s sauce will likely entice you to ask for more and more bread so you don’t have to waste even a drop.

Classic entrees like the Filet Mignon and the Oven Roasted Chicken are cooked to perfection, each pleasantly hearty dishes in their own right. While Sel et Poivre may not be the place to delve into experimental culinary practices, it is more than reliable when you want to be sure that anything you order is going to be very good.

Even the pommes frites, a simple but always welcome dish, are the perfect texture, and rely on little more than expert preparation and just-right cooking to satisfy even the most tenacious French Fry craving.

Desserts are freshly made and well-worth the extra calories.The dessert crepes are light, fruity without being overly sweet, and the perfect ending to an exquisite meal.

Across the board, Sel et Poivre achieves elegant simplicity by focusing on tried-and-true techniques that bring out the best flavor in every single ingredient. As this beloved UES bistro proves, French restaurants don’t have to be stuffy, but they absolutely should be great.


– Naakai Addy