SPANKING THE MONKEY: WOULD-BE HOT SPOT COULD TURN INTO A VANITY ERR
WAVERLY Inn . . . Waverly Out?
That could be the Monkey Bar, the oft-reinvented Hotel Elysee dining venue reborn yet again, most glamoriciously, at the hands of Graydon Carter and partners. Lest you think it's the fated, Midtown second coming of the Vanity Fair emperor-in-chief's infamously exclusionary, hierarchically configured West Village place, be warned: There's not a bad seat in the house.
Unlike Waverly Inn, Monkey Bar has an actual telephone number that takes reservations from actual ordinary people. At least sometimes. For a whole day last week, it led me, like J. Alfred Prufrock's tedious argument of insidious intent, through a recorded maze to a final screw-you: "[Screech] is not available."
A smooth-voiced fellow answering calls the next day apologized for "terrible problems" with the phones. Whether Carter & Co. throw in such obstacles to perpetuate the Waverly mystique, or just to stay in shape, is unclear.
Carter is not only a remarkable editor who writes maybe the first "Editor's Letter" worth reading in the history of magazines, he's also an aspiring, Larger-Than-Life-New Yorker type. He's cheerily explained Waverly Inn's still "in previews" status after three years in business on the grounds that, "We're still trying to work the bugs out." He made hero Capt. Chesley Sullenberger the star of his fabled Vanity Fair Oscar party.
But whether Monkey Bar achieves and retains Waverly's mythical stature will hang on how much time he's willing to spend there -- and also on serving food better than what now makes Waverly Inn's offerings seem like Gramercy Tavern's, by comparison.
Monkey Bar is a place you hate to leave, with lighting that's flattering to a fault and a momentarily persuasive, mid-century Manhattan supper-club ambience. But it doesn't take more than a look to grasp that it's as synthetic as Waverly's design, seamlessly grafted onto the Village venue's genuine old bones, was original.
There are dark red-leather curved booths reminiscent of those in Waverly's prime midsection -- but a gazillion of them all over the place, to pamper even clueless types wondering where all the monkeys went.
There are murals -- one in color depicting famous New Yorkers of the 1940s, two of show folk in (deliberately?) unfinished black and white. The words "Lorenz Hart standing on a box" are scrawled across poor Mr. Hart's likeness, a funny valentine indeed.
Throw in glimmers of Monkey Bars past (a recessed, undulating, nightclub-style ceiling and mirrored square columns), Balthazar (brass railings) and long extinct El Morocco (zebra-striped carpet on steps down to the dining room), and you've got the picture: Waverly Inn not quite gone to the mall -- but almost.
The near-magic did not, on my visits, include the presence of Graydon, Harvey or Gwynnie (although my colleagues who were there Monday night spotted Carter, Tim and Nina Zagat and Rocco DiSpirito). At least top cop Ray Kelly was in the booth next to ours; I hope his fish 'n' chips were better than mine.
For a place supposedly trying to be more of a real restaurant than Waverly, the food shouldn't be this lousy. While Waverly Inn embraces mediocrity, Monkey sets its bar lower than at media-heaven Michael's -- or even Bill's Gay '90s across the street, where you at least get live music amidst genuine 1924 surroundings.
Things start off well with warm, Parker House-style rolls and pecan butter. But exactly three (3!) dishes of 20-odd I tried afforded pleasure: a juicy cheeseburger; a competent, tasty salad of red and golden beets and goat cheese; and "Chinatown chicken," a generous thrash of three kinds of shredded cabbage and chicken with a splash of soy.
Most everything else on the English grill/country club-fusion menu betrayed a plodding, seasoning-averse kitchen and dubious raw materials. Hanger steak, ordinarily a most flavorful cut, looked great on the plate but had no flavor whatsoever. Ditto rack of lamb.
Maladroit yellowtail tartare was a blur of avocado, onion and mysterious heat. World-weary Scottish smoked salmon must have made the trip on foot, attended by capers slightly smaller than gum balls and just as appetizing.
One of Carter's partners is an owner of London's Wolseley, where I've enjoyed several fine meals, and there's a British chef in the kitchen. But fish 'n' chips went straight to the bottom: dry haddock, limp batter and fat, flabby fries. "Don't ask, don't tell" should be the rule for carrots "Casablanca," allegedly cumin-spiced but tasting principally of the fridge.
Dishes so lame don't belong on the same block as Cellini, a power scene that wears its aura lightly, and still marvelous seafood temple Oceana.
Carter shouldn't take for granted the media-driven frenzy for seats at Monkey Bar. It's in no immediate danger of turning bridge-and-tunnel -- but this ain't the West Village, and the Midtown A-list can be even more fickle than downtown's.
Lever House around the corner, RIP, was red-hot for a while, too. Monkey Bar is a grand place to be, but I'd like something worth eating to go with the murals and mirrors.
60 E. 54th St.