June 4, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable

The Newest Restaurant Trend is … Gulp… Cutting Prices!

        Call it bistro, call it trattoria. Call it café. Yes, Richard Widmaier-Picasso thinks he will name his new Spring Street beanery… “Café.” “What do you think?” he asks. “I’m collecting opinions.” Café. Hmmm. It doesn’t sing, but it’s certainly clear-cut. 

        Even the grand masters of the Feeding Universe are panicked. Rumbles of gloom have a way of making even the rich feel poor. Slump talk can become self-fulfilling. Actually, the hunger for casual dining began long ago (in the days of couturier blue jeans), and the craving by the over-nouvelled for Grandma’s cooking is not new. (What’s new is that we’ve given up saturated fat yet still dream of Mom’s pot roast.)

        But January was slow. Dazed by too much end-of-the-decade soul-vacuuming, too much premature pigeonholing in the rush to categorize the nineties (are we the pork-rind generation?), New Yorkers called up and carried out and ate at home. Even Gilbert Le Coze sounded skittish. Used to booking Le Bernardin weeks ahead and then turning folks away, he saw a few ghostly bare white tables, heard the moans coming from the Four Seasons and Aurora, and bellowed, “How can you say Le Bernardin is expensive? One hundred dollars a person? For the food and service we give – the ambience – $33 an hour to sit at Le Bernardin? It’s a real bargain. Try to eat like that at home – you can’t do it. Bistro? Everybody is opening a bistro. They don’t even know what a bistro is.” Traffic picked up again – “the same, more or less, as last year,” Le Coze says. And when he raised the dinner prix fixe by $3 (to $68), “there was not one murmur.”

        Business has never been better at the Gotham Bar and Grill, reports co-owners Jerry Kretchmer. “It’s not about how much it costs,” he says. “It’s a function of how good you are, of giving people what they want. The food is great. People like that we have no dress code. Pino [Luongo] at Le Madri is droll; it’s fun. Lola is doing 250 dinners a night, 350 on Fridays and Saturdays. I’m sure they’re getting $40 a person at Sette Mezzo, but the guys on the floor look good; the place is lively. Restaurants that have stopped caring are suffering.”

        “It’s a question of perceived value,” argues Alan Stillman, considered by his peers to be a marketing genius. Though the cholesterol-wary world has supposedly sworn off red meat, Stillman’s steakhouses (Smith & Wollensky and the Post House) are thriving – with checks an average of $48 per person – as is his Manhattan Ocean Club. “I get my money’s worth at Le Bernardin,” Stillman says. “A hundred dollars for dinner is not cheap, and it’s not expensive… It’s the perceived value.” Bruised that critics greeted his $6-million La Cité as underwhelming and overpriced (the budget includes advertising for a year – “Life should be gulped, not sipped” is the theme), Stillman has been messengering price-comparison charts across town to critics to put his $18.50 chicken in a contemporary context. But he has also prudently added half a dozen sandwiches to La Cité Grill’s menu.

         Still, hope flourishes in a ketchup bottle. Restaurants keep opening, outpacing closings. The frequency of dining out may even be higher if the hungry New Yorkers who feed their findings to Zagat are typical. But moderate is the password. Ask Le Relais owner Francois Marchand and La Goulue’s Jean de Noyer about the new bistro they’re building on East 67th Street: It will be “moderate.” The Time Café (a joint entry from Eric Goode of M.K. and Berns Fry) will be: low-fat, low prices, free-range eggs, antibiotic-free viands, and biodynamic yogurt, dinner entrées $10 to $16.” Brian McNally is talking about a café, too, if he survives the slings and lawsuits of outrageous success at 150 Wooster. A trio of New York restaurant investors paid more than $20-million for world rights to Ed Debevic’s Short Orders Deluxe (a variation on the Chicago-born fifties-diner theme). They talk about opening a branch at 661 Broadway, at 3rd Street, next August.

         “I knew this was coming three years ago,” boasts Stephen Hanson, whose new Buckaroo’s Bar and Rotisserie (opening any minute at 74th and First) will ticket entrées at $11 or under, just as his Coconut Grill does. The restaurant Prix Fixe, “an American Renaissance” with Terrance Brennan (late of the Westbury Hotel’s Polo) at the range, will move into the West 18th Street space that was once home to Seiyoken and then Il Palazzo, with a $21 dinner and a $13 lunch. Madeline Poley, who lost the Soho Charcuterie after eleven years “because we put off the neighborhood with too high prices,” plans a comeback in the fall with the Soho Common Market, at 594 Broadway, near Houston, cozy and casual.

         But it isn't all mashed potatoes and entrées under $20. It just sounds that way.

         There have always been homey little neighborhood mom-and-pop shops and islands of reason in times of excess. Nick and Eddie, at 203 Spring Street, where you can get a good meal and lovely Bordeaux without cashing in your savings account [“The Insatiable Critic,” April 2, 1990], is almost strictly a local joint except that chef-partner Eric Bromberg has an uptown touch. His mashed sweets and crisped collard greens and just-jelled fish are delivered with a sophistication that matches the subtle graphics.

         Spawned by the triumph of a scruffy bar called Live Bait, Coffee Shop was probably inevitable, not necessarily a response to the Cassandra cries. It is cleverly, maddeningly, more about how-you-dress than what-you-eat, with frenetic, lobotomized wait-folk (she looks in the mirror and sees Madonna, but she can’t remember where the kitchen is). I loved it that first night, the extraordinary parade of great faces in every color, the babies, too, the food Brazilian but not too, the good Cuban sandwich, plump, doughy conch fritters, the giant banana split, the musk of erotic possibilities. Two weeks later, the kitchen dawdles and disappoints. But the price is right, and the $12.95 lobster dinner (Sundays and Mondays) is definitely a bit with these hungry striplings.

         A rash of equally modest ventures are moving into the Flatiron district. Robbin’s, at 41 East 20th, and Café Galette, in the space that once housed Pesca (23 East 22nd Street), have suitably gentle prices – the tomato-and-herb-touched seafood galette (it tastes a bit like pizza, a lot like matzoh) would make a find lunch at $14. Neither the ambitious efforts of chef Tom Carlin at the new Gramercy Grill (239 third Avenue, near 20th Street) nor the elusive charm of the freshly painted cellar has be poised to return, but the prices are low and I’d be willing to try again.

         Humbled by a lull in the rush for his wonderful California cooking at Melrose (upscale pricing in a dowdy Village floor through), Richard Krause seems to have won the neighborhood at his new Rose Café (24 Fifth Avenue, at 9th Street), with food that everyone wants to eat, at friendly prices. Meanwhile, Melrose has been revamped into the Barrow Street Bistro. Prices are even friendlier, and the food can be fair, good, even astonishing.

         Uptown, Huberts has cut prices three times, and, dining at about half the original prix fixe of $65, its affluent Park Avenue neighbors seem happier. And so am I. The light seems softer and prices are, too (no entrée over $20), at Café Rakel, where the food is good in a soaring dramatic space I’ve always loved. And you can sit at Rakel’s grand old mahogany bar and be fussed over while you sup from the bar menu – spicy fries at $3.75, a grilled tuna burger with brioche at $12.

         The discounted bar menu is just one marketing move to lure penny-pinchers and couch potatoes. No one does it better than the Sign of the Dove. The bar menu “gives us a new dimension,” says co-owner Henny Santo. “We can be fast, casual. People come in jeans or black tie.” Another option to keep the registers ringing is the attached café: Smith & Wollensky’s Grill, the café at Shun Lee (West), the Grill at La Cité, and the adjacent canteen at Arizona 206.

         Prunelle has dropped its prix fixe from $58 to $52, which means the owners now go to the Fulton Fish Market most mornings to save money. At Aurora, there’s a new $45 prix fixe, plus a Rolls Royce to get you to Broadway after the $37.50 pre-theater dinner. The Brasserie is advertising its “1990 dinner” – three courses for $19.90. Chez Louis has an “early, late, and light” menu at $17.95 for three courses. The Hudson River Club hopes its “Farmers’, Growers’ and Fishermen’s Feast” will draw families to Sunday dinner at a “very respectable” price, says the ad – $25 to $28. Windows on the World reports success with its Sunset Supper from 5 to 6:30 p.m., at $25 to $27 for three courses. The Polo has dropped its prix fixe from $55 to $40 and added an a la carte menu. Sheldon Fireman called in Milton Glaser to redesign Fiorella. It’s La Hosteria now, with more low-priced items. David Keh has cut prices and is now bringing 70-year-old Uncle Tai up from the Sally leagues to work his old Sichuan-Hunan magic on Third Avenue.

         The new Man Ray is less expensive than it used to be. Ditto the revised Sofi with Georgine Cavaiola in the kitchen, cooking Italian at softer prices than we used to see at her Mulberry Street storefront. Jerry Joseph has split from Brian McNally and seeded his easy luncheonette feel way downtown on Second Avenue at Jerry’s 103, where the staff is already surly and the kitchen is still pretty green. And what a shock to see an almost tawdry creep blight the vast, white-wickered veranda on East 73rd Street, where fate was so unkind to Il Bianco. The neon in the window says it all: BBQ. Prices are rock bottom.

         It’s not just the baby-boomers who’ve cooled on haute cuisine and the sipping of great wines as a religious rite… it’s older fogeys, too. We’ve relaxed. As Stillman himself observes, “A few years ago, if I had important guests from out of town, I had to take them to Lutèce or the Four Seasons. Today, I can take them to Sette Mezzo.” But downscaling can be deceptive when mediocrity and the tab that still runs $100 for two make me feel exploited.

         Park Bistro is possibly the best bistro in town – bustling, cramped, and very French, with an owner in the kitchen and another on the floor. With entrées $17.50 to $23.50, it’s more costly than I’d wish, but we’re too happy tucking into Jean-Michel Diot’s zesty food, wondering what he’ll do next to elevate the lowly potato. Gerard Pangaud moved to Gerard’s Place, where his robust peasant food – made elegant at $19.50 or under per entrée – is a steep cut from Aurora. But reaction was mixed when the uneven fare plus a modest wine cost $100 for two, tax and tip included.

         It won’t be easy to keep the lid on no-frills dining. David Liederman, counting how many chicken wings his fledgling kitchen crew can barbecue for a testy pre-theater crowd at his new Broadway Grill, is loving the challenge. I’m waiting for Le Bernardin Bistro and Chez Sirio. It’s spin-off time, and the theme is cheap… oops, I mean moderate.

         What is it about Joe’s Bar & Grill that instantly has all of us ordering cocktails – a salty dog, a sidecar, martinis? I guess it just feels good in this friendly neighborhood hangout, down home with bare brick walls yet stylish with tapestried banquettes and the peppy host, Karyn Wagner, a Kansas City cheerleader gone slinky in a sleek black faille jumpsuit. Even the good-looking Broadway hopefuls in the dining-room crew seem happy to be here.

         I’m sipping my Between the Sheets, with its refill waiting in a mini-carafe as the waiter does his Caesar-salad routine on a rollaway stage: “Extra-virgin olive oil,” he chants. “Never touched by human hands. One-minute coddled egg.” And, squeezing the gauze-wrapped lemon half: “Safe lemon, with a hairnet to catch the seeds.” Good crisp Caesar. Fine spicy calamari with anchovy-garlic aioli. One night’s tasty soup – thick puree of eggplant and sweet pepper cream. A notch between grub and gourmet, sanely priced, Joe’s would be a hit in any neighborhood.

         There’s a slightly crumbly tapenade to scoop up with crackling flatbread for starters, sandwiches (grilled fish with spicy cole slaw, chicken club with ancho-chile mayonnaise on toasted peasant bread), gummy and delicious fedelini (the pasta of the day) in a cheesy pesto cream with sun-dried tomatoes, duck with a savory fruit compote and wild-rice pancake, comforting meatloaf with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. Top it off with cranberry-apple crisp or brownie a la mode and you’re back in Kansas too. Joe’s Bar and Grill, 142 West 10th Street


         “Everything will be under $20,” Restaurant Associates’ president Nick Valenti promises, announcing Tropica’s takeover of the Charlie Brown space in the Pan Am Building. Yet our ravenous duo runs up a $100 check – wine, tax, and tip included. I don’t really mind at all, parked in this mock Key West lodge with its plantation ceiling and the most beautiful open kitchen I’ve ever seen (a coup for designer Frederick Brush). Perhaps some of the gingerbread molding could go, and I’m no sure how I feel about the female wait-crew in slatternly Florida housedresses tied with a leather pouch that holds the order book.

         But the staff, the usual semi-dedicated wanna-be-something-elses, are alert and amazingly well trained – human, not robotic. Even a busboy asked to pour the wine manages the task like an apprentice sommelier. And the food emerging from chef Edward Brown’s fruit-and-flower-decked kitchen can be wonderful. Even the mini-rolls baked by Eli and the thin Parmesan-coated toast are special.

         A savvy business crowd has already discovered Tropica for lunch. Dinner is quiet, perhaps not for long, though. Once you have tasted the fragrant conch chowder with christophene (a tropical squash) and okra, thick black-bean-and-sausage soup, small clams poached in wine and flecked with herbs and peppery sausage, and soft-shell crabs in a next of vegetable strands, you may be willing to brave the near-deserted lobby after hours. The chef does sophisticated flavorings – a hint of cinnamon, lemongrass, or coriander. Crab cakes come with field greens and a mustard beurre blanc; jerked pork is exotically spiced, with old rum sauce. Piquant rice flanks tamarind-barbecued shrimp. Sea scallops voluptuously jelled with a plantain tamale in a provocatively folded banana leaf are a little too cure, but good even so. Bittersweet-chocolate torte sits in cinnamon crème anglaise. Passion fruit soplillo is a delicately creamy mousse with a spill of the fresh green fruit itself. Blissful shades of the Everglades. Tropica Bar and Seafood House, Pan Am Concourse


        Tribeca Grill was the hottest hit of the season months before it finally opened –“Grill power,” New York April 9, 1990]. I wanted to love it. I’m a fan of De Niro. Of Montrachet’s Drew Nieporent, his managing partner. Of  soaring old warehouse spaces. But that first dinner early on left me cold. The banquettes seemed too gaudy, the room unsettled and busy, unwelcoming even with the warmth of its great landmark bar rescued from Maxwell’s Plum. And except for luscious grilled chicken nested in lemony leeks – with bok choy looking like porcelain – the kitchen did not impress.

         But eight days later, chef Donald Pintabona (from the River Café via) is riding the high wire. What a pleasant surprise.

         His lobster consommé with favas and one giant perfect scallop is celestial. And the thick tomato porridge is worth ordering just for the savory sausage bread it comes with. Goat cheese arrives layered with spinach and tomato under a sprinkle of onion crisps. Squab with endive and lentils in vinaigrette could be a light supper. Choose a fish. Then decide how you want it: grilled, sautéed, roasted, or in its herbed poaching broth.

         Or try the smoky-sweet barbecued duck with apple-and-bacon-flecked cannelini beans, lobster (tonight, it’s poached in a ginger essence and served with mascarpone and polenta-stuffed wontons), or sliced calf’s-liver steak on onion marmalade in a pastry ring. Half a dozen cleverly stuffed vegetables should not be left only to vegetarians.

         Nieporent talked modest pricing last fall. But entrées now run $15 to $26, and even with the good wines at gentle prices he spontaneously produces, a couple might drop $100 here, too, by the time you’ve savored dessert: pear-and-frangipane tart, caramel rice pudding, splendid glazed lemon tart on poppy-seed crust.

         “C’est genial,” announces my fussiest food friend from France. “Does that mean ‘genius’?” I ask. She nods.

         What’s more, the floor show is free. Expect to see investors Christopher Walken, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bill Murray, and Sean Penn, Kiefer Sutherland perhaps, JFK Jr., and the usual sharks and lemmings and bodies aerobicized to perfection in bits of cloth (Ah, summer is already here.) Tribeca Grill, 375 Greenwich Street


        Red Silk Lingerie and a garter belt is my prescription to cure the romantic blahs. To that, add dinner in the Bar at the Sign of the Dove. A trio of stags hugs the bar. Two women drop in for supper after the movie, just as the music – a piano and a bass – grows sweeter and more romantic, homage to the sprinkling of lovers, pure and illicit, clinging and sighing and kissing.

         The love-crazed may not notice, but the bar food emerging from chef Andrew D’Amico’s kitchen is mostly wonderful – excellent crusty salmon with a peppery tabbouleh or bulgar and quinoa. Tendrils of rabbit with chard and lima beans on bow-tie noodles in a handsome covered dish. Rich lobster sandwich on brioche and juicy grilled pork loin on toasted sourdough with braised red cabbage and a searing swath of mustard.

         There are nibbles to share for those too lovesick to eat – spicy chorizo on sour dough ovals; crocks of eggplant caviar, hummus, and taramosalata with bruschetta; focaccia with sweet onion and tapenade; or crisped potatoes to spread with sour cream and red caviar.

         With fig strudel and fig ice cream or a gratin of ruby and white grapefruit or a chocolate – mascarpone-stuffed poached pear in a puddle of caramelized Sauternes and sabayon, even unrequited love will feel less cruel. The Bar at the Sign of the Dove, 1110 Third Avenue, at 65th Street


        Musical chairs. Musical whisks. La ronde never stops. Now that Canal Bar is shuttered, chef Matthew Tivy has joined former 150 Wooster Street manager Charles Pfeiffer and partner Joe Schurley to reinvent Man Ray. It’s an American bistro now, stripped of its brilliant Art Deco trappings. And the price is right. Sandwiches are $7 to $8, cute little pizzas $6 and $6.50, entrées $9.50 to $16.50. With wines by the glass and at least 28 bottles at $24 or less, the tab needn’t stun.

        The room is bare. Our waitress, willow-thin, moves like a dancer, in a leotard so minimal it might be stapled to her ribs. Busboys keep clearing the table every four or five minutes, removing, replacing, uncomprehending.

         Try Tivy’s wondrously delicate goat-cheese tart, with just discreet dabs of beets in vinaigrette and a ring of mache leaves, or lush lobster chowder with corn and tomato, or celery-root-and-chicken soup you’d bet was made with cream, though the waitress insists it isn't. (Alas, it is.) Homemade tagliatelle with cream and duck confit is super-rich.

         Pizzas (bitter broccoli rabe and fontina, or eggplant and bacon) come with crisp, bubbly crusts, and they’re good. As is maccherone with baby squid, olives, and tomato; grilled monkfish with mixed greens in a basil vinaigrette; and skate with olives, herbs, and tomato compote.

         I love the notion that this astonishing cultural stew is American cooking. Man Ray is back in a neighborhood that needs it. Man Ray, 169 Eighth Avenue, near 18th Street


        What’s on the menu at Huberts that draws tonight’s crowd of bourgeois swells? Humble pie at a discount. Stunned by the white glare of tables, Len Allison has slashed prices and ripped the epaulets from the waiters’ hoity-toity dress, and is suddenly cooking better than ever. Little rabbit garnishes carved from green apples have fled the hutch. What emerges from the kitchen tastes lustier, less intellectual, not so self-consciously Oriental.

         A hint of coconut in the sweet-potato-and-apple soup; a pepper aftertaste unfurled by the small lobster cake; the earthiness of wild mushrooms and bready radish pudding – Allison’s food can be original, even odd, but tonight it’s delicious. Nutty sweetbreads paired with oysters are tossed in a creamy fettuccine. The sweet-and-tart balance of beet gratin and the lightest deep-friend okra I’ve ever tasted accent splendid smothered quail. Chicken sautéed to a fine crunch and set in a splash of dark, mysterious mole, accompanied by basmati rice and papaya salad, is the buy of the week, at just $16 on the liberating a la carte menu.

         The wine list has been freshly skewed to match the downscaling. Still, with three courses – shimmering, glazed port custard, exquisite goat-cheese cake, chocolate-fudge cake, and raspberry-rhubarb tart are my favorite desserts – a dinner for two might top $100, everything included. For Huberts, that’s a bargain.

         Allison will be closing Huberts on summer weekends starting in July and moving the crew to the Chequit Inn on Shelter Island for August. Come fall, word of mouth will tell the tale. Huberts, 575 Park Avenue, enter on 63rd Street.

         Forced to vacate its prime real estate on West Broadway, Central Falls became The Falls, in the spot where J.S. Vandam once simmered. With so many investors’ hopes pinned to whether or not the Falls falls – Central Falls owner Bruce Goldstein, film director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning), Terry Quinn (Peggy Sue’s owner), Matt Dillon, and more, and more – the place could hold its own on the loyalty of friends alone.

         Right now, it’s already hot: full of leggy mannequins, artists and art dealers, downtown eccentrics, a woman in a silver garden-party hat, a man in a rose-pink pussycat bow, another with Maria Montez fingernails, and enough cigarette smoke from happily polluted French lungs that I feel as if I’m fighting a forest fire. Prices tread the line – dinner entrées $18 or under, the baby chicken just $14. But tonight, the staff is in a dither. We beg for water, plead for our bread, pour our own wine, and find the food so sad that we ask for a check and race uptown for dinner.

         Returning a few days later (none too eager), I find a bit more discipline in the dining room and more inspiration in the kitchen – deliciously glazed grouper, decent swordfish with savory black-bean-and-ginger sauce, and a rich chocolate-truffle cake that’s hard to stop eating. But good food may not be the point here. And it’s still early. I might put on a gas mask and come back to try again. The Falls, 150 Varick Street.

        Restaurant Dano, on a tight little corner of Downing and Bedford, is small – “small enough so I can touch all four walls and every dish,” says chef-owner Daniel Kobin. A ballet dancer who met Anne Rosenzweig and became her saucier’s apprentice at Vanessa and then went on to Arcadia, Kobin works with a duo recruited from Covenant House and a woman who studied baking with Peter Kump and fell in love with pastry.

         There are only 40 seats in Dano’s boldly painted dining room, with its Art Deco touches and plush banquettes (for 35 years, it was a Village bar, Dodgers, and the retired owner still sits across the street on his stoop marveling at the metamorphosis). Perhaps Kobin might have been clever to make his debut with a less ambitious scheme, less demanding prices. Yes, there are excellent wines by the glass, overseen by a savvy and good-looking sommelier, Laura Larsen, and the young art-world upstarts and neighbors who dine here pick and share, but the tab for a full dinner for two can total $100.

         Still, I understand Kobin wanting to take a splash with his fancy china, the trio of splendid house-baked breads, the little doodads he offers as lagniappes, and upscale creations like savory sherry-and-Thai-pepper-seared salmon, perfectly cooked veal loin with trompette mushrooms in a porcini essence with layered potatoes Anna, or poussin studded with roasted garlic, leek, and foie gras.

         Most salads are over-soaked, but Kobin does good oyster soup with shiitake and leek, seared rare tuna on parsley pesto croutons, fine endive-and-beet salad with almond-crusted goat cheese, lovely lemon-and-ricotta tart, bananas on a crunchy hazelnut cookie with caramel, and Mom’s old-fashioned chocolate-studded sour cream cake – not to be missed. Dano, 34 Downing Street.


        The New Crowne Plaza on Broadway is the proud flagship of the holiday Inn fleet. What does that mean? Medium grand luxe at no-frills prices. Susan and David (Cookie) Liederman, whose Chez Louis is a carnivore’s heaven at upscale prices, warmed to the challenge at their new Broadway Grill.

        On opening day, there was not enough gas to crisp the pizzas. The vast room beyond the escalator on the second floor still lacked finishing touches, and fourteen cooks had been weeded to eight. David, trimmed down by his own dedicated fat attack, has been leading the kitchen brigade, dispatching superior pizzas – garlicky clam, duck confit and tomato, caramelized onion with black olive, or grilled eggplant and zucchini with basil – with or without cheese as you command.

         One pizza or the first-rate calamari, plus a trucker’s ration of roasted chicken with sweet crunches of onion and new potatoes and the $4.50 banana split (“Hey, this cost $4.50 in the Bronx in 1952” a visitor remarks), could stuff two before or after theater, and with wine comes to less than $50. Except for veal chop or steak, entrées run from $11 to $15.50, and if you ate three courses without sharing, you’d have to be rolled out the door.

         At first, Liederman fans and hotel guests claimed the tables, but now that the word is getting around, this is becoming the theatergoers’ snack stop we’ve longed for.

         Look for the two-story shocking-pink neon screaming Broadway Grill Across from the theater where Fantasy Girls alternates with Heather on Fire and Hot Breaststrokes. Broadway Grill, 1605 Broadway near 48th Street    


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