Marseille’s Bouillabaisse Better Than Its Service

Flavorful bouillabaisse but indifferent service leaves an unpleasant aftertaste

A lifetime ago, when I lived in midtown Manhattan, the West Side was known for its informal French restaurants — many bistro or brasserie in style if not in name. The waiters had French accents. The menu showed tried-and-true classics from soupe à l’ognon to start to Napoléons to finish. I’m not sure, at this point, whether they were objectively good, but subjectively, I loved them and felt very sophisticated and grown up just for being in any of them.

During a recent visit to New York, I was heading for a matinee in a small off-Broadway theater (“Love Loss, and What I Wore” at Westside Theatre on 43rd between 9th and 10th Avenues) and had a choice of restaurants serving a variety of cuisines within a very few blocks along 9th Avenue. On the corner of 44th Street, Marseille promised a small bouillabaisse for $11.50 — a reasonable pre-theater lunch price for a place that looked pleasant and atmospheric.

This sign and what looked like a fair representation of a French bistro lured me into Marseille.
The dining room was not quite deserted, but there weren't a lot of guests either.

I was ceremoniously ushered in and shown to a table in the bar area. But as he sort of seated me, the maitre d’ (or whatever he was) didn’t notice that the  table had been shoved right up to the corner banquette. It had to be moved to make room for my legs, but I was the one who did the moving. No biggie. A mere oversight, I thought, with my eye still on the bouillabaisse prize.

On the other end of the line of small tables on the bar side, just one other was occupied, and a twosome or two and a few larger parties were seated in the dining area. There was an ample waitstaff that often clustered at a service area at the far end of the bar, and the bartender appeared to be unbusy. But I was ignored more than I was waited on. A waiter took my order, and that was almost the last I saw of him — except when he passed my table but looked the other way.

From my table at one end of the bar area I could see just one other occupied table at the other end.

Others poured water, brought bread and wine, and eventually my soup, but the usual pleasantry of a waiter or maitre d’ stopping by to see how everything was or whether I needed anything else was missing. The wine (a nice light rosé on a hot day) was served in a small carafe. After I poured the second half into my glass, the carafe was taken from my hand as if I might otherwise walk off with it. That was the only speedy service tendered. The bouillabaisse hit the spot, but the service deteriorated from indifferent to non-existent.

A basket of excellent bread with sweet butter and fine olive oil, both sprinkled with herbs, on a small, square dish.
A lovely light rose suited the hot, humid day. Someone -- a busboy, perhaps -- whisked away the carafe as soon as I'd poured the second half of the wine -- the only speedy service I experienced.
The rich bouillabaisse started with a flavorful base,with the addition of fresh seafood, leeks, a mass of sturdy rouille, grated cheese and chopped herbs -- but potatoes that were a tad undercooked. The paper doily under the soup bowl was a quaint touch.

After I finished, the empty bowl remained in front of me for 10 minutes. I still had plenty of time until curtain, so I just sat quietly, increasingly curious as to how long it would be before anyone paid attention to a WDA (woman dining alone). I was not in a deep conversation or engrossed in a book, but no one noticed or cared that I was even there. I looked at my watch and occasionally even tapped by fingers on the table. After 12 more minutes, I actually got up and approached the waiters’ station where I had spotted a young man managerially attired in a jacket. “Excuse me,” I said. “Am I invisible?” He seemed surprised.

When I told him that I had been ignored for over 20 minutes after I finished eating, he apologized profusely and offered me a complimentary dessert — right away. I thanked him and said I had to leave. To his credit, he did take the wine off the bill, but I left with a bitter aftertaste from the experience.

Several of the staff always congregated at the service area at the far end of the bar, but for more than 20 minutes, not one came over to me -- except to clear away my soup bowl without asking me question other than "Finished?" or making comment.

When the bill arrived, so did a promotional card for the restaurants under the Culinary Tour de France umbrella — nine restaurants with different names that feature one or another French regional cuisines. I wonder whether they are all so lackadaisical or whether I just unlucked out.

Price check: Prix fixe lunch, $24.o7 for 3 courses; also at lunch, soups, $7.25-$11.50; salads, $15.75-$18.75; entrées, $13.50-$26.50; $7-$8 plus $5 cookie plate.

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3 thoughts on “Marseille’s Bouillabaisse Better Than Its Service”

  1. That reminds me of the time I went to Le Central and got seated at the 2-top right by the kitchen doors. The staff took care of me, but I still wondered if that was part of the WDA experience.

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