Serge Raoul, Whose SoHo Bistro Glittered With Stars, Dies at 86

Serge Raoul, an Alsatian-born former filmmaker who with his brother, Guy, a classically trained chef, founded Raoul’s, a clubby French bistro and SoHo canteen in Lower Manhattan that drew generations of artists, rock stars, writers, models, machers and movie people — along with those who yearned to be near them — died on March 8 at his home in Nyack, N.Y. He was 86.

The cause was a glioblastoma, said his son, Karim Raoul.

Raoul’s opened in 1975 — it’s still operating under his son’s watch — when the SoHo neighborhood was a partial wasteland, peopled by the artists who had been slowly colonizing the derelict former warehouses there and the thriving Italian community in the tenements to the west.

Serge was on hiatus from making documentaries and Guy had been working as a chef uptown when Serge set out to find him a restaurant. A friend thought Luizzi’s, a cozy and well-worn spaghetti and meatballs joint on Prince Street between Sullivan and Thompson, might be for sale. As it turned out, the owners, Ida and Tom Luizzi, were happy to make a deal if it included the provisions that Mr. Luizzi could drop in every day and that Inky the cat could stay.

Serge Raoul, left, and his brother, Guy Raoul, the chef, in one of the banquettes at their restaurant. Courtly and reserved, Serge greeted customers while working at the front of the house, a bit reluctantly.Credit…Wolfgang Wessemer

As for the battered décor, the Raoul brothers ejected the Chianti bottles on the tables, but kept the rest: the bar, the booths, the tin ceilings and walls, and the fish tank at the back. (They’d replenish it over the years with generations of goldfish.) The fridges and freezers were still full of Italian fare, and for the first two weeks, until the food ran out, Raoul’s menu was mostly Italian.

“We had no money, so we kept it the same,” Guy Raoul said.

Mr. Luizzi appeared each morning to open the place, and then stayed in the kitchen with Guy while Serge ran the front of the house.

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