The room smells of beef. A pianist taps out Billy Joel tunes perfunctorily while patrons leave half-empty glasses of beer on the worn spinet.
This all looks familiar. That’s because this used to be Bill’s Gay Nineties, a Midtown Manhattan watering hole dating from 1924, now trimmed to just Bill’s Food & Drink, where all is well as long as you’re drinking hard liquor and not eating much at all.
The new owner, John Delucie and the Crown Group Hospitality, kept a third of the name and even less of the spirit. A bartender nods upon your arrival, then looks back down at his iPhone.
The sommelier suggests a $110 bottle after she tells you a $72 Cotes du Rhone is sold out, then disappears when you balk. Your $30 Bordeaux is topped off with some $26 Barolo (oops!), but it doesn’t really matter, because the stems are too short for proper swirling or smelling. Reds and whites by the glass get the same one-size-fits-all glass. Hey, it’s just a tavern, right?
The $14 Champagne cocktail is advertised as containing “brut Champagne.” Then you watch a staffer pour your drink from a bottle of cheap sparkling wine. Not cool.
A stiff whiskey cocktail helps you forget you’re paying $110 for osso buco. Bottles of champers start at $115. Foie gras starts at $75; compare that with $40 at Per Se, where the price includes tip.
Sure, the foie at Bill’s can feed three, and it’s perfectly seared with a jiggly interior. Still. The kitchen should try an innovative technique to lower the price by 50 percent and cut the foie in half.
Got a corporate Amex? The $66 one-man ribeye is the priciest I’ve seen in New York; it involves a little bit of mineral-tinged meat and a lot of fat. You will leave hungry. And I’ve yet to find a costlier porterhouse for two than Bill’s $125 offering. The beef, purportedly USDA Prime, is slathered with a mound of whipped horseradish lardo tasting of neither ingredient and as bland as if it had come from the neighborhood supermarket.
So our hopes were never high for this revamp, which seems to be striving to replicate celebrity hangouts like Nello or Harry Cipriani, where high prices act as a cover charge to keep out the plebeians.
Shrimp cocktail ($18) should be listed on the menu as seafood jerky, for the strenuous mastication required to consume these crustaceans. Bouillabaisse was gritty and, at $36, overpriced.
Beware the seasonings here. Country sausage is overwhelmed by the flavor of star anise. Tagliatelle bolognese (with a one- note goat ragu) has too much juniper.
Worst of all is macaroni fagioli, a punishing mush of penne, overcooked beans and bland sausage.
Not everything’s awful. Tuscan kale soup ($14) warms you up. At least the “bacon chop” ($38) doesn’t taste too much like bacon -- you really don’t want an entire chop’s worth of hickory smoke. And cremini mushrooms with escargot butter is an improvement over the typical steakhouse side (though the pommes puree here are fine, too).
Then you order the $69 Dover sole. There’s no tableside deboning, no meuniere. The jet-fueled luxury is crammed onto an under-size plate with ho-hum potato chips and warm celeriac and carrot slaw. The firm filets, stacked atop each other diner- style, have a pan-fry coating more appropriate for a blue-collar flatfish like flounder. This is Dover sole a la cafeteria.
We’re inured to rising costs at New York restaurants. But there’s something particularly dispiriting about Crown Group turning a storied Midtown bar into a spot as exorbitant in its prices as it is in its mediocrity.
Rating: 1/2 *
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Easily $100 per person or more.
Sound Level: Silent upstairs when it’s justifiably empty.
Date Place: Breakup place.
Special Feature: Great foie gras, despite the $75 price.
Inside Tip: If you must have dessert, go for the Scotch pudding.
Back on My Own Dime: Nope.
Bill’s is at 57 E. 54th St. Information: +1-212-518-2727; http://www.bills54.com.
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com))
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.