At the Box Tree Restaurant Augustin Paege High-Handedly Keeps Old World Standards Alive

updated 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The door is always locked at the Box Tree Restaurant in New York's East 50s. Regulars never fumble with the knob. They press discreetly on the bell, near which, engraved in brass, is the name Augustin V. Paege, Restaurateur. The 33-year-old patron, an immaculately tailored Bulgarian who even has his socks ironed, presides over a tiny room with 1902 Louis Tiffany glass panels, Viennese Art Nouveau vases, 18th-century Japanese prints and French rattan chairs for only 24 diners. "Service," Paege sniffs, "is a dying art." Not, of course, at the Box Tree.

Paege personally inspects the table settings of Wedgwood china and Cristofle silverware before every meal, placing a fresh red rose beside each napkin. "I cannot stand mediocrity," he declares. "If I am going to sink, I would rather go down in the Titanic than in a barge."

It is a metaphor that wealthy sophisticates like David Rockefeller, Armand Hammer, Angela Lansbury, Jackie Onassis and Joan Sutherland seem to understand. Eudora Welty, Richard Nixon and Tennessee Williams are occasional customers at dinner. Bianca Jagger never eats anything but a special salad of violets mixed with endive and watercress. Henry Kissinger has been known to favor an interviewer with a visit to the Box Tree. The fastidious Paege looks after his famous clientele with a philosophy that seems more Masters and Johnson than Child and Beck. "Food is the most sensual experience after sex," he says, with a wink. "I am a very sensual man but I came from a good family, so there was no way I could become a pimp. I became a restaurateur instead."

That kind of genial nonsense attracts cavils, of course. One nonbeliever is New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton, who reviewed the restaurant a year ago. "If anyone wanted fully to understand the meaning of the words 'pretentious' and 'precious,' " she snapped, "all that would be necessary is one dinner at the Box Tree."

Sheraton's column did not discourage one devotee, an American businessman, who booked the restaurant's entire second sitting for himself and his date. Just before their 9:30 arrival the staff scattered white rose petals from door to table. The tab for $1,200 was presented with a rose. On regular evenings a five-course dinner—such as croustade of scallops in champagne sauce, sorrel soup, filet of beef with cognac sauce, salad and dessert of nutted meringue layers with cream and raspberries—costs $34. The wine list is long and mostly expensive.

The restaurant has a country branch, a small inn 60 miles north of Manhattan in Purdys, N.Y., where bed and breakfast for two runs $220. "This is not a resort," Paege explains. "We don't have tennis courts or swimming pools. Our guests arrive by 5 p.m. and leave by 1 the following day."

Augustin was a scion of the Bulgarian aristocracy: His late grandfather headed the royal guards before the Communist takeover in 1944. Paege escaped from Sofia when he was 16. In Paris he studied anthropology at the Sorbonne, working after class at L'Hermitage, a small Left Bank restaurant. He spent holidays in England soaking up the ambience of a restaurant friends operated in Yorkshire called the Box Tree.

Paege moved to the States in 1966 and slept for a week in Central Park. "I was not down and out," he asserts. "I was up and up." On the way he worked as a mailboy for PepsiCo, taught science at Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J. and briefly managed an importing firm. In 1973 he opened the Box Tree inn with a $5,000 bank loan. That prospered, and two years later he launched his Manhattan restaurant.

These days Paege, a bachelor, dreams of opening "the perfect small hotel" in New York. In the meantime he concocts new summer recipes, like bisque of salmon with saffron and roast quail with grapes. Does his allegiance to haute cuisine never falter? "I am not always civilized," he confesses. "I love meat loaf. I adore Swiss cheese in plastic wrap. It's easy to open after I've been out late alley-catting around town."

From Our Partners