by James Kraus
There are very few who would immediately associate the canyons of Manhattan and its environs with sporting motoring. New Yorker’s today are largely content with ambling about in conveyances that enthusiasts of the past would rightly describe as tow vehicles, while driving is seen as little more than a distraction to be endured while telephone calls are dispatched and text messages deciphered. Manual transmissions are but a relic and spirited driving eschewed in fear of capsizing Starbucks Caffè Grande’s.
This was not always the case. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was quite fashionable among the New World cognoscenti to drive, deliberate over, and otherwise enjoy the world of sporting cars and international motorsport. This was, of course, the halcyon days of Sports Car and Grand Prix racing, when drivers were gentlemen (often of independent means) and competition cars had yet to transform themselves into mobile advertisements. The hub of such activity in the U.S. was New York City.
New York was still the unchallenged capital of U.S. business and commerce, serving as the centre of finance, advertising, fashion, publishing and broadcasting. It also happened to be home to most European automobile importers and customary point of arrival for British and Continental racing drivers travelling on to Lime Rock, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and Indianapolis.
As in any social sphere, these automotive professionals and enthusiasts tended to congregate at certain venues. Two locations in particular were well renowned: Le Chanteclaire and the Bella Vista.
Le Chanteclair was owned by René Dreyfus, the French racing driver who piloted his own personal Bugatti to victory in the 1930 Grand Prix of Monaco and defeated the mighty Mercedes Silver Arrows at Pau in 1938 to become French National Champion.
René was in the United States to race at Indianapolis when the German Wehrmacht rolled over the border and occupied his home country. He joined the U.S. armed forces and by the end of hostilities, had turned 40 years old. As there was little likelihood of any motor racing activity in war-torn Europe for the foreseeable future, he decided to turn to the other great passion of most Frenchmen; fine cuisine. Finding the post-war economic climate in Europe no more inviting than for motor racing, he decided he would remain in America and open a restaurant.
His first venture, Le Gourmet, opened on the West Side of Manhattan in 1946. It immediately became a gathering place for the international racing set while gathering favourable reviews for its food and wine. René and his brother Maurice actively ran the show and were nearly always around to greet customers and supervise the proceedings. As the restaurant gained notoriety, business slowly increased to the extent that larger premises were in order.
In 1953, René and Maurice sold Le Gourmet and opened Le Chanteclair at 18 East 49th Street in midtown, a prime location directly between Rockefeller Center and the Waldorf-Astoria. While the main room was decorated in traditional mid-century Continental restaurant style, the bar and cocktail lounge were discretely accented with subtle automobile and racing memorabilia, just enough to remind an alert enthusiast as to where he was imbibing.
Le Chanteclair was a highly regarded restaurant in its own right with a menu steeped in the classical French repertoire and a wine cellar where one could find a bottle of Romanée-Conti ’49 or a Château Latour ’53. Many patrons had little inkling of its motorsports associations or indeed, the illustrious racing history of the proprietor.
Further to the east in Centerport on Long Island Sound was the Bella Vista, owned by the Buzzetta family. In the reverse of the situation with Le Chanteclair, the Buzzettas had little to do with the sports car crowd when the Italian restaurant first opened in 1956. It turned out however, that the stately home in which the Bella Vista had been established was located at the confluence of a number of back roads frequently used by burgeoning New York sports car clubs for weekend rallies. The parking lot was routinely crowded with MG’s, Triumphs, Alfa Romeos and Porsches; still rare sites in 1950’s America.
The Buzzettas soon became swept up in the enthusiasm and camaraderie of their new customers. The elder John bought himself a Clipper Blue MG TD, and later a Sunbeam-Talbot. Meanwhile, in 1957, son Joe was sent to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army. In his spare time, he tried his hand at racing an Austin Healey 100. After a successful season, he switched allegiance to a succession of Porsches. In 1960, his tour of duty complete, Joe returned to tending bar at the Bella Vista, bringing his 1959 356A 1.6 Carrera Speedster back with him.
One of the restaurant patrons at the time was mechanic Oscar Rubio who ran a shop called Competition Engineering. Joe and Oscar teamed up to campaign the Speedster in Sports Car Club of America events.
The local Bella Vista diner, who came to enjoy nothing more than to tuck into some savoury Southern Italian cuisine and a bottle of Ruffino Ducale Oro ’55 was likely none the wiser, but the upstairs bar and adjoining cocktail lounge was now christened the Grand Prix Room and was filled with sports car and grand prix photographs and memorabilia. A bulletin board was posted where patrons could keep current on upcoming races, rallies and other motoring events. A trophy case contained the increasing amount of cups won by Joe Buzzetta. The Bella Vista even began its own annual rally, the events beginning and ending at the restaurant parking lot. Afterward, competitors would congregate in the bar and invent excuses to explain away time penalties, missed turns and mysterious body damage.
Joe’s increasing successes were enough to bring him to the attention of Porsche, where he became a works driver in 1963, a position he held for the rest of the decade. He is best remembered for his performance of 28 May 1967, behind the wheel of the Number 17 Porsche 910, when he gave Porsche their first-ever overall victory at the 1000 km of Nürburgring.
Unfortunately, both establishments are long gone as is the era that spawned them. Automobiles and motorsports are rarely discussed these days at America’s finer restaurants, watering holes and country clubs, and it would be a rare New Yorker that would recognize Jenson Button, Sébastien Loeb or David Brabham if they happened by. On the other hand, international motorsport is now big business; who has time to relax? Today, little love is lost between competing drivers and few would have an inkling to sit down together to unwind, break bread and share a bottle.
Photo Credits: Manhattan skyline: Samuel Herman, Le Chanteclair: Tom Burnside, The Bella Vista: Fred & June Rosvold, Nürburgring: Eric della Faille
Thanks To: Jacques Vaucher, Joe Buzzetta, Nancy J. Buzzetta