Reinventing the Classics: A Cautionary Tale

Resurrecting iconic restaurants and bars is popular sports these days, but at what cost to legacy of the originals? We take a look at the pitfalls—and rare triumphs—of nostalgic dining.

Photo: Bill's Food & Drink

Photo: Bill's Food & Drink

New York thrives on reinvention while remaining devoted to its classics. It’s a world-famous dining destination for gastronauts who track the leading edge of the culinary curve. But there’s a sense of continuity that remains the city’s backbone and helps you get your bearings, like the Empire State Building.

That’s why we return to the civilized pleasures of Bemelmans Bar, the “21” Club, and Keens—bastions of tradition that excel at what they do. They have the same menus and usually the same man at the door as they have for years, even decades. You aren’t going to be told what Chef found at the greenmarket that day. You’re going to get the same thing you got last time. And you’ll like it.

But now some old favorites are getting makeovers—whether they needed them or not. Restaurateurs stand to profit from the goodwill an institution has established over its history, and they’re happy to charge you for the privilege of indulging your nostalgia. So brace yourself when you return to the King Cole Bar, Carbone, or Bill’s, to name a few.

The times evolve and, at some standbys, lethargy kicks in—a place needs outside energy. What also kicks in? Greed and real-estate opportunism. When an old tenant can’t survive Bloomberg’s luxury New York, you can bet someone will be ready to swoop in and sell tuna tartare to tourists for $29. But a restaurant’s good name is not enough to guarantee success. When handled poorly, the remake becomes nothing more than an attractive theme park with bad food at high prices.

Too often the improvements are not improvements at all—they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of why a place became beloved in the first place.

That’s not to say it can’t be done: A few places turn an old establishment into a launching pad for something much more impressive. Carbone uses its predecessor, the near-century-old Rocco, as a counterpoint for an ambitious modern take on classic Italian-American cooking—though some have found its over-the-top approach to service guilty of caricature. Minetta Tavern, meanwhile, improved a terrific space that had been worn down, and then proceeded to serve the best steak in Manhattan. It wielded history to its advantage, then told an even better story.

Sometimes the core of an old place is so hollowed out that only the bones are worth saving. It’s time to bring in a chef who says, “Ask not what the Cobb Salad can do you for, ask what you can do for the Cobb Salad.” But too often the improvements are not improvements at all. They betray a fundamental misunderstanding of why a place became beloved over the years.

Bill’s Gay Nineties was one of the last midtown saloons. You’d see everybody from admen to Grand Central commuters to DJs Andrew and Andrew. Tom, the terrific bartender, oversaw it all with an easygoing decency (you can now find him in the tony precincts of La Grenouille). Bill’s was nobody’s idea of a culinary destination—it was the type of place where you’d hesitate to order fish—but that was beside the point. It was invariably busy before it was ejected in favor of the new, upscale Bill’s, home of the $115 porterhouse for two.

John DeLucie is the proprietor of Bill’s and a handful of other establishments that are new but look old, like the Lion. When he opened the Crown on the Upper East Side he was honest enough to tell the Times that he was serving “comfort food for millionaires.” The new Bill’s renovation has been relatively tame, but the atmosphere is fundamentally different. It’s not specific and local; it’s generic and global. That’s to say: dark, expensive, and not unlike the bar in a luxury hotel you could find from London to Chicago. The bartenders aren’t particularly friendly—they aren’t trying to cultivate regulars and don’t seem to care.

kingcole Reinventing the Classics: A Cautionary Tale

The iconic mural at King Cole Bar. (Photo: King Cole Bar)

So now we’re onto DeLucie’s latest remake, the King Cole Bar—now known as the King Cole Bar and Salon, a name nobody is ever going to use. For a famously dark bar—it was always a refuge from the madness of Fifth Avenue—they have, for some reason, decided to keep the lights painfully bright until 5pm. And the problems only snowball from there.

In case you thought you were entering a distinctive New York boîte, the first page of the menu tells you otherwise. There are half a dozen Bloody Marys named for different St. Regis properties around the world. How quaint. Oh, and they’re $25. The soundtrack is a sort of global trip-hop light that you would have been embarrassed to hear in a hair salon in 1995. The bartenders are perfectly professional, but they’re not given much to work with on a cocktail list that’s heavy on sweetness and flavored liquors like Stoli blueberry.

Yes, the mural has been restored and looks terrific. But the addition of leopard-print carpeting and a couple of cheesy standing tables and silver leather banquettes helps nothing. Every change in the King Cole Bar feels imposed from above, with no regard to the people who are going to frequent it.

The King Cole renovation makes the worst type of mistake—it forgets what made its predecessor great in the first place. Those who seek to improve on classics beware: The standards exist for a reason, and certain things haven’t been improved upon because they cannot be.

David Coggins is a writer, editor, and copywriter. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Esquire, Art in America, Interview, and theWall Street Journal. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidrCoggins.

  • Rebecca Charles

    Thanks, Mr. Coggins, for such a well-articulated piece.
    DeLucie is most certainly out of his depth at The King Cole Bar; from your description I’m afraid I’ll be giving up my annual Christmas season drink there!
    It’s unfortunate that he has adopted “revitalising” classic institutions as his MO;
    he doesn’t have the subtle touch necessary to bring it off without interfering with the intrinsic charm of the place. Moreover, it’s sad to think that he is now perceived as so expert in these takeovers that a hotel like The St Regis would hire him to make changes to such an iconic room.

  • Rebecca Charles

    I was in the neighborhood last night, so I stopped into the St Regis for a look. It was worse than I imagined.
    A jarring hybrid of the old private clubs that line Fifth Avenue and a hip hop nightclub. The irony is that the restored Parrish mural is spectacular; years of cigar smoke have been cleaned away to reveal the charming images of the nursery rhyme that appear to be lit from within. One of the most beautiful paintings to see in New York.

Newsletter

Feed your inbox.

Subscribe