One of the bakeries and coffee shops that are still open for take out amidst the pandemic is Patisserie Claude, or shortly Claude’s, located in the West Village. The patisserie’s website describes the place as “a small, unassuming pastry shop specializing in Parisian-style pastries, plus savory treats & coffee”. However, this tiny authentic French spot with three little round marble-topped tables and European style cafe chairs that first opened its door in 1982 had something special to offer. Besides the outstanding croissants — the best in Manhattan — it was Claude himself.
Who actually was Claude? Claude Le Brenne, the owner, was one of the best bakers downtown as well as one of the true New York City characters. Someone labeled him “a capricious old Frenchman”, while someone else called him “a real artist.” Both labels were pretty accurate. Back in 1982 Claude arrived from Brittany, France and started to create the most delicious culinary undertakings in the heart of West Village: flaky, buttery croissants, delicious tarts, puffy brioches, tiny savory quiches, fairy-like meringues, classic chocolate and coffee éclairs, fluffy mousses…you name it. Some customers swear that the croissants were the best they have had outside of Paris.
Long time Claude’s parton, Pat De Marco in front of Claude’s
Pat DeMarco, a Villager and Claude’s patron, a long-time resident of Jones Street, shared with Untapped New York some of her memories of Claude’s and Claude himself. “Claude’s was the perfect spot to sit for hours and read, eat and observe the parade of people on West 4th street rushing by and share a table with a stranger who within minutes was your new best friend — all connected by the culinary pleasures of French deliciousness. I would leave for work early and would notice Claude, who had the breadth of a stereotypical baker, scrubbing the sidewalk in front of his store each morning before he opened for business. This was usually at 7 a.m. Claude started his day early and when that amazing smell wafted from the store, you knew the magic was already in the oven.”
Pablo Valdez, the current owner of Patisserie Claude
Claude did not bake alone. He was assisted by Pablo Valdez, who came from the Dominican Republic. “They were exact opposites. Claude, large in size and Pablo, still to this day, thin. The body types were not the only way they differed. While Pablo was pleasant and would greet you and smile, Claude, depending upon the day, hour, person or situation was inconsistent. Sometimes he would smile and other times he displayed a very angry face.”
Claude’s infamous behavior was well-known all over the Village. Everyone seemed to have a “Claude story.” Pat, a loyal customer for many years, was no exception: “I had heard Claude stories over the years but until he was rude to me, I had not experienced his dramatic changes in mood first hand. If you spoke French he seemed to be friendlier and would even come out of the kitchen to converse. There were stories of his yelling at people to leave his store if they mistook the apricot tart for a different fruit. He had been known to throw chairs out the door and ask people to leave even if they were steady customers.”
It seems that regulars had this kind of love-hate relationship with this place and its owner. However, love for divine croissants usually won: the patisserie had the line out of door even on early Sunday mornings. “Eventually the customers would return. No one could resist this place.” Pat appreciated Claude’s hard work, dedication and wonderful talents as a baker, but also shared her disappointment and surprise when he once insulted her and spoke to her in a rude thoughtless way. She would not return to the patisserie again until she heard that Claude retired and that Pablo would be taking over the business.
New Yorker Florence Mazzone tells Untapped New York, “I discovered Claude just by strolling around when I first moved to NY in 1985… I guess speaking French with him worked since he never threw a chair at me! Instead, after I told him I loved chestnuts in pastries, he baked an amazing chestnut cake for one of my birthday. He was always gracious, saying hello or nodding from behind the glass partition. I’m glad the store is still around.”
Claude announced his retirement in fall 2008 and went to North Carolina, yet his patisserie remained a West Village mainstay thanks to Claude’s assistant Pablo. Pablo started to work there in 1984 and after 24 years took the place over. He quickly learned Claude’s mastery, and thus the recipes that Claude perfected remained the same up until these days. The two of them had a special bond, a sort of father-son relationship, and even now are still in a daily contact over phone.
“I did see Claude a few times when he would return to visit the store and sit on one of the chairs the thousands of customers he has had over the years had sat in. He seemed more pleasant and calm. I was glad of that. I will always be grateful when he first opened, cleaned the sidewalk and brought such treats to the Village”, says Pat who is after all those years at peace with Monsieur Claude.
Patisserie Claude remains authentic and simple, with glass counters, no music, and Pablo’s huge welcoming smile. It is the best place in the West Village to go for a classic, truly French treat and warm, old-time atmosphere. Claude’s is a real gem in this neighborhood, and now it needs our support more than ever. Pat DeMarco adds: “I am happy to say that even with this pandemic there is Pablo in the kitchen doing what his master teacher Claude did best — baking some of the most amazing croissants I have ever tasted.” Patisserie Claude is located at 187 West 4th Street, New York NY 10014, (212) 255-5911.
Next, check out 23 of NYC’s old-world bakeries.