Graydon Carter, who has edited Vanity Fair for almost 20 years, walks around the large desk in his corner office to answer questions about the Monkey Bar.
“What do you want to know?” he asks, checking if I am OK for water and coffee and anything else an interviewer might want. He is courteous and amusing, with a disarming manner that might put you at your ease and doesn’t quite in my case.
The editor was impressed enough with the 90-year-old Midtown restaurant to take it over in 2009. He called on another New York celebrity for help. Ken Friedman -- owner of the Spotted Pig, former manager of U.K. rock band the Smiths -- brought in a new chef and a new team. At that time, tables were like gold in a crisis. Two years on, they were more like the euro in a pickle and Carter decided to plan a makeover.
(Carter got into the restaurant business five years ago when he took over the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village, where he would dine with friends. His partners at the Monkey Bar originally included Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, who own the Wolseley in London. They have since pulled out.)
“The restaurant, was doing very well but if I hadn’t met Ken Friedman we probably wouldn’t be at this stage,” he says. “Ken’s really good and we wanted to improve the food but I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t have a massive food Rolodex. We had a beautiful room, we have great clientele and I wanted to ramp the food up and wanted two more stars.
“The restaurant business in New York has changed. One-star food was acceptable five years ago. Most of the restaurants I went to were one star. But it’s become a real food town in the same way London sort of changed overnight in the late 1980s, early 1990s foodwise. We always had temples of food here but it wasn’t my thing: Fine for anniversaries or special occasions.”
Carter’s solution was to bring in the chef Damon Wise, a Baltimore native who honed his cooking skills at Taillevent and other restaurants in France before spending 12 years working for Tom Colicchio at Craft, where he was group executive chef.
I’d thought the Monkey Bar, in the Elysee Hotel, might still be a bit stuffy. Its history dates to the Great Depression. Tallulah Bankhead was a regular and Tennessee Williams choked to death in the hotel, according to the Website. As I arrive, the sound is of laughing children as they are entertained by “Curious George,” the mischievous monkey.
Wise, 40, turns out to be entertaining company, too, as we spend the afternoon trying some of the dishes on his menu, including frisee with soft egg, pickled pear, smoked bacon and vinaigrette; and sweet ricotta ravioli with field mushrooms and parmesan. He smiles as he recalls arriving at the Monkey Bar, whose menu featured dishes such as lobster thermidor.
“It was a mess,” he says. “I saw a restaurant that needed a lot of love. They were trying to do old-school New York-style food: American and French food and it really broke my heart what was going on down in the kitchen. When I took this job, I thought I’ll take these dishes and put a spin on them, but for this beautiful venue and this dining room, it needed more.
“I didn’t change the menu for about two weeks after I got here and I cooked some of that food. Oh my goodness” -- he laughs and shakes his head -- “Oh my goodness.”
“I try to keep the lunch menu simple because it’s mostly business people that come in and dine, so most of the dishes at lunch are very fast,” he says. “The dinner menu is a little more intricate. The food here’s not crazy, like abstract or anything. It’s just good cooking and that’s basically what we’re doing.”
The reviews are now in and the Monkey Bar won a second star from Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton and from Eric Asimov in the New York Times. Wise is now preparing to open his own restaurant next year with business partner Hayden Felice, with whom he worked at Craft. It will be a casual, neighborhood venue on Hudson Street, just below the Meatpacking district, he says.
Just don’t try ordering lobster thermidor.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)