December 1, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable

The Cellar: The High-Rise Hungry


          There is another nuance of haute scene at The Cellar Restaurant, just off Columbus on 95th Street in the heart of Urban Betrayal country. The ownership is black and white. Octavius Jeffery was in automobiles, Victor Balsam in perfumes. They met at Chumley’s, built The Cellar themselves out of a cinder block shell. They get the high-rise hungry, “the hippest people moving into these side street brownstones,” and, Balsam notes, “We’re the first stop for all the Beautiful People from Harlem on their way downtown…everyone stands around talking to everyone and feeling very liberal.” “Everyone” includes basketball’s Lew Alcindor and Walt Frazier, Beautiful Calvin Lockhart of Joanna, and ubiquitous Josephine Premice.


          The Cellar looks like a party in a bunker, yet somehow cozy, with posters and hard-edge abstracts (by Victor) and the golden glow of botánica candles on yellow tablecloths. There is an amateur informality. The crowd one recent workday evening was that glorious New York fusion, the middle class: less-than-swinging-singles, a sextet half a decade out of Dartmouth, two acid-addled youths in Buffalo Bill coif and beaded fringe, one definite candidate for an executive position with the Mafia, one very uptight black, possibly a dentist.


          What is good at The Cellar suggests that what is not might be improved in time. There is something pleasantly old-fashioned about butter scooped from the tub…more pleasant when the butter is not so warm. But they serve frozen artichoke hearts; “artichokes vinaigrette” (75 cents) on the menu seems to promise a whole steamed globe. Better is the paté du chef (75 cents), a smooth chicken liver loaf.


          Steak au poivre ($4.25) was a good pepper-studded sirloin, nicely sautéed, flamed in cognac and sauced with a measure of cream -- fatally over thickened, alas. The boned duck ($4.50) was beautifully tender, the orange sauce quite ordinary. At $4.25 the shrimp scampi were well-herbed and subtly garlicked, but too few. Squash and a fine crisp salad came with the entrée.


          The wines are modestly priced. “Miss Grimble” is a neighbor and her cheesecake (80 cents) is excellent. But the homemade lemon cake with hot matted blueberry sauce (75 cents) was something of a disaster. At eleven there is a supper menu, and the bar already has a reputation for good conversation…and a brilliantly integrated jukebox.


95th Street just off Columbus Avenue.