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Wimpy Lion Teases With Brilliant Burger, Warhols: Ryan Sutton

A "Special Blend" burger at The Lion restaurant in New York. The dish includes tomato, caramelized onion, crisp pork belly, provolone and smoked cheddar. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

In my book, any restaurant guarded by a doorman clutching a list of names is suspect. Is The Lion, a newly revived Manhattan restaurant, posing as a club? Or is it vice versa? Whatever the case, I wasn’t getting in.

I wanted the Lion’s burger. Ever since I’d tried one a month before, I hadn’t been able to get it out of my head.

The “special blend” fell apart so gently it was like a beefy mound of cottage cheese. A musky, chewy slab of pork belly added depth to the flavor and heft to the feel. Caramelized onions and oozing cheddar made it practically a religious experience costing $18. Add basil-scented fries and it would’ve been $26.

That burger alone was enough to lure me back, but as I said, I wasn’t getting in. It was 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday. The high-heeled scrum out front was so dense it was impossible to see down West 9th St.

Some entered. Some tried to enter. “They told me not to let anyone else in,” the doorman said. He couldn’t give a wait time. He didn’t invite me to come back.

Chef John DeLucie hasn’t quite given us another Waverly Inn, that buzzing social club where he used to dish crispy chicken to the bold-faced hangers-on of Graydon Carter. Common folk looking for a reservation were lucky to get through to voice mail.

Baby Food

The Lion will take your calls and serve you expensive American fare that’s generally better and cheaper elsewhere. How’s a 10:45 p.m. reservation sound? Avoid mushy, bland tuna tartare. Go for the chicken, which is just as good here as at Waverly. A poultry jus begs to be mopped up by (undersalted) biscuits.

Walk down into the Tavern Room. Watch Dan Abrams (an owner) hang out by the host stand. Was that Regis Philbin fleeing into the back room -- the Lion’s Den? That’s where the noise settles down and if you’re famous like him, or happen to be lucky like me, you might be taken up a staircase to the terrace, a balcony overlooking a room filled with Basquiats, Warhols and the plebes below.

I enjoyed watching the host relegate a young finance executive to a table in the Tavern. He ordered the pork chop. I can’t print the expletive he used to describe the $39 hunk of meat.

Dry Chop

The dry, overcooked carnage bears no relation to the juicy, medium rare cut offered at Waverly, where no doorman was paid to keep me out.

Martinis arrive not quite lukewarm, but not quite cold either. Oysters might lounge atop slushy, melted ice. A companion scowled when I ordered her a piping hot lobster pie in the dead of summer. The concoction involves a flaky crust with chewy shellfish in bisque, which is to say it’s a $29 soup.

The menu doesn’t say what’s in the shellfish cassoulet. Servers don’t say what’s in it, either. It’s too dark to tell what’s on the plate. Anyway, skip it.

Apparently there was braised octopus flanking my rings of pasta but you could’ve fooled me. The dish, sprinkled with guanciale and lacking any unifying sauce, did its best impression of a buffet salad.

Oregano Overload

The waiters also neglect to warn you about all the oregano in the cavatelli, which gives the otherwise tasty dish the unmistakable aroma of a Pizza Hut pie. Was the cote de boeuf for two medium rare, as requested, or medium? Hard to tell given such textureless meat and the low lighting. That’s a $98 mistake.

A lamb porterhouse ($43) arrived medium-rare as ordered but lacked the curried, pan-sauced depth of flavor of the version at Litte Owl, which charges $33.

In its heyday, The Lion was a cabaret hosting the likes of Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. The desserts, perhaps a throwback to those times, involve jarred cheesecake (that would be watery cheesecake served, yes, in a jar), lemon meringue (cloying) and a chocolate souffle (pedestrian).

I’m happy to let a new generation of scenesters blow their cash here. It means more room for me at Waverly.

Rating: 1/2 star.

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost: Easily over $100 per person.

Sound Level: Loud, 75-80 decibels.

Date Place: No.

Inside tip: Try the striped bass with artichokes barigoule.

Special feature: A working reservations line.

Will I be back: For that burger.

The Lion is at 62 W. 9th St. Information: +1-212-353-8400;

What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
No stars     Poor.

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):

51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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