What’s wrong with Kenmare? A guide to restaurants where the food doesn’t matter

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The scene at Monkey Bar. (via themonkeybar.com)
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On Wednesday July 6th, New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton gave Kenmare, a new Nolita restaurant co-owned by Paul Sevigny, no stars. The food was "inconsequential," he wrote, and often worse than that.

When the restaurant opened for business that night at six, a group of patrons, men with big shoulders loosening their ties, wearing Lacoste polos and striped shirts, were having drinks paid for by their various firms. They didn't plan to eat.

Others, deeply tanned and wearing spikey high heels—the future “Real Housewives of New York?”—teetered around gamely.

There were a few New Yorkers, one of whom left when she decided to meet a friend elsewhere. A tall couple resembling the pair that Alvy Singer interrogates about their happiness in Annie Hall had come for dinner, both wearing head-to-toe white. Another, an interior designer, took issue with the height of the chairs: she felt like she was going to fall off her barstool and had to move. The flowers, she said, were very nice. There had been plenty of hype for the place: “The restaurant is actually a dream,” co-owner Paul Sevigny, brother of the actor Chloe and proprietor of the short-lived West Village nightclub The Beatrice Inn, told The New York Post in an interview before Kenmare opened. “I've never wanted to open a bar or a nightclub.”

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But this evening, the atmosphere was distinctly that of a nightclub in those unfortunately sober early hours where the evening was on a precipice, and could teeter into utter failure or be a great success. The review, it was clear, had little to do with it.

The crowds were undeterred by the negative reviews the restaurant had received from New York’s Adam Platt, (who noted the “competent, somewhat rudimentary cooking”), The New York Times’ Sam Sifton (who likened the Veal Milanese to a “fried and breaded laptop case”), and even the clamoring plebes on Yelp! (commenter “Bobby C.” declared that the swordfish “must’ve been a week old.”)

Kenmare is one of a certain type of restaurant opening up these days that aims to replicate the old model set down by restaurants like Elaine’s, Nello’s or Swifty’s—the conceit of creating a group of habitués among New York’s upper creative classes or boldface names—but for a junior set.

They’ve had some encouragement. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has shown with restaurants like the Waverly Inn and Monkey Bar that a “scene restaurant” doesn’t need to have been built in 1930 to be a success, nor do the reviews have to be quadruple-stellar for the restaurant to thrive.

But there seems to be something inexcusable about Kenmare’s mediocrity, and it’s not the food.

At Elaine’s 25th anniversary dinner in 1988, guests interviewed by The New York Times were forthright about the food at Elaine’s not being the main attraction. Novelist Jerzy Kosinski: “You don’t make it as long as Elaine has by serving good food,” he said. “You serve good people.”

KOSINSKI’S DICTUM IS NOT A NEW ONE IN NEW YORK RESTAURANT CULTURE, and Sevigny himself probably understands it well. No, the bad reviews aren’t about the food, really: they’re about the people, whom Sifton described as “people with incredible collections of music and sneakers and phone numbers, accompanied by the people who went to college with them who now work on Wall Street.”

“If you are really sensitive, the restaurant can be like a theater,” author Gay Talese told Capital. And as with all theater that takes place over dinner, the food should not distract.

“There are people who are foodies,” Talese said. “They spend twenty minutes looking at the menu and they ask the waiter ten questions. I don’t care that much. I could probably have better food at home.”

And so a certain breed of restaurants, capable of curating its clientele, has gotten a free pass on curating its menus.

Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time Inc., and a well-known habitué of New York’s famed old restaurants, said so in so many words.

“I still order the chicken hash at the 21 Club,” he said, which is the “least healthy” item on the menu. “I would never want to go to the 21 Club and order something out of an Alice Waters cookbook.”

When Gino, an Upper East Side red sauce restaurant that had been serving a lasagna special on Sundays since 1945, Talese wrote about the convenience of never having to consult a menu. Wherever Talese eats, he doesn’t even look at a menu. Gino had appeal beyond the Talese-Sinatra-Streisand circuit, all of whom were regulars.

Wes Anderson, a well-known seeker after timeworn eccentricities of the city, used its hallmark red wallpaper patterned with zebras to dress Margot’s walls on the third floor of the Tenenbaum brownstone in The Royal Tenenbaums, as though to telegraph the New York realness of the family by incorporating a quotation from a restaurant that just the right New Yorkers would recognize.

Talese did not like to order “too much pasta” at Gino. “They had a tomato sauce with some cheese,” a portion he would split with his wife, Nan.

And yet: the food is simple. In January of this year, critic Ron Fried wrote a tribute to Gino.

“Serving good food,” he wrote, “would be a betrayal of the basic insouciance of certain New York institutions.” The food at Gino was “good—but not distractingly good.”

THERE IS A CERTAIN SIMILARITY TO THE FOOD AT THESE places. When it’s not red-gingham, wicker-wrapped-Chianti Italian (Elaine’s, Gino), it’s Club Food.

Jolie Kerr contributes to a column on the Awl called Half Baked, which offers up the secrets of WASP cooking for the befuddled generation that was raised on no-mayo tuna and seven-grain bread. She rattled of a list of source material for the clubby restaurants people like Kelly are talking about.

“Shrimp cocktail, oysters, rubber chicken with beige-ish, vaguely mushroom-y gravy, rice pudding, also hamburgers,” she said. “My sense is that those burgers, along with chicken salad sandwiches and tuna melts, bring back fond memories of summers spent at the beach club. The WASP Madeleine, if you will.”

Of course, like the new breed of “classic cocktails” that use the Manhattan, Cuba Libre and Martini as their source material, some updating is necessary.

Restaurant impresarios like Graydon Carter, Nello Balan and Paul Sevigny seem to have taken careful notes about the Uptown crop of classic scene restaurants, and their source material.

Carter’s semi-private dining mini-empire has been the most successful. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that Monkey Bar and the Waverly Inn seek to capture an era no one can remember, anyway. Kelly, a regular at both, said that Carter “can probably capture the time,” 1930’s Manhattan, “better than the time itself.”

Monkey Bar and the Waverly, which Kelly called “black tie” and “tweed jacket” versions of each other, respectively, “create a mood and a world that you want to be part of.”

Kelly usually orders the oysters Rockefeller at Monkey Bar, which he deems “the perfect dish” for the surroundings, and the hamburger at Waverly Inn. There is at these places, as there is at Elaine’s or Michael’s, a good chance that you will see someone famous. When Adam Platt reviewed the Monkey Bar in New York last year, he saw Salman Rushdie, Mark Ronson, Richard Meier, Ivana Trump, Tom Ford, Neil Patrick Harris and Carter himself over the course of a few visits.

But unlike Elaine’s, Monkey Bar and Waverly Inn are not immune to critics. Adam Platt called the food at Monkey Bar “undistinguished.” The steak tartare was “purplish and under-seasoned,” the Chinatown Chicken Salad “didn’t seem to contain any chicken at all.”

Kelly noted that neither Monkey Bar nor the Waverly have a “five different sauces, complicated kind of food. The simplicity of the menu allows you not to get tied up. It’s very easy to order.”

Carter has imitated both the menu, the kind that you don’t really have to look at, and the Talese-ian theater of the original food-second restaurants. There is a requisite burger, oyster dish, lobster dish, a Dark and Stormy at the bar, food you don’t have to think about twice. There is also a literal sense of theater at Monkey Bar: non-VIP tables are elevated, so that non-famous people can watch famous people eat.

That theater is just a shade more obvious than the show uptown, at Michael’s or Swifty’s, “restaurants that offer patrons the chance to perform in front of a crowd, much like the opera did in the nineteenth century.”

In Bruni’s Waverly Inn review, a mock letter to Carter, he writes from the perspective of a Waverly regular watching Bruni order: “He [Bruni] actually asked if the $55 macaroni and cheese with shaved white truffles could be ordered without the truffles. He didn’t get it. The whole point is the comedy of getting—and being seen getting—something so absurdly costly. No truffles, no deal.”

The Lion, Waverly Inn chef John DeLucie’s new West Village Carter-empire imitation, has not fared much better with Sifton or Platt. The Lion’s socially ambitious cadre of investors—Dan Abrams of NBC, Men’s Health editor-in-chief Dave Zinczenko, and MTV Programming head Tony DiSanto, are known well enough in the existing food-second places. Why did they need their own?

The Lion and the Waverly each provide a $55 variation on truffled pasta: the Lion’s is cannelloni tubes, the Waverly’s is mac-n-cheese. “This is the price you tend to pay for entry,” Platt wrote in his July 25th review, “however brief, into select dining clubs like this. But at the Lion, as it’s currently constituted, I can’t say it’s worth it.”

This did not deter Lucy Liu, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz, Alex Rodriguez and Cameron Diaz, who ate together at the Lion last week.

Nello, a Madison Avenue Italian restaurant that serves a truffled tagliolini for $100, also seeks to imitate the buzz-first, food-second vibe of its neighbors.

But Sifton gave Nello no stars, and wrote in his April 14th review: “the food is not very good. Yet the restaurant’s customer base is built of the richest and most coddled people in the city, who love it for its elegance and, perhaps, simplicity.” Sifton noted that the artichokes “tasted of shirt cardboard,” and the vitello tonnato was “like a sliced shoe.”

And yet: “the theater of the place is, in any event, magnificent.”

SO WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT KENMARE AND THE LION? At Kenmare, the menu is complicated. A non-foodie might have to spend the 20 minutes Talese mentioned puzzling over a menu, if only to determine what a “truffle burst” tomato is.

The sea scallops with spinach strawberry salad, patato rosti and balsamic bernoisette is a far cry from the club food ideal, however silly the updates (truffled mac and cheese!).

A New York scene restaurant may succeed despite bad reviews, but that’s not the point.

If there’s no sense of theater (or perhaps no truffled pasta on the menu) the food isn’t an afterthought anymore, it’s the main attraction.

The secret may be something people like Talese and Kelly and Carter and Sifton and Platt understand too well to articulate themselves. Notes on visits from Leighton Meester or Lucy Liu or Barack Obama might bump up a restaurants reputation and bring in gawkers and pretenders for a while, but they don’t stick. Because at most of the unsuccessful scene restaurants, those visits are too far and few between.

What makes a restaurant last, what immunizes it from criticism, is the degree to which it becomes a nonevent for people to show up. Elaine’s may have been in a Billy Joel song, but it was as likely because the regulars, the faceless creative overclass, were there every single night of the week. These are kinds of people whose names are more likely to appear on the spine of a Random House book signaling they’ve gotten their own imprint, or who write the jokes for Tracy Morgan, buy the fabric for Diane von Furstenburg, write the articles for Graydon Carter.

Recreating a scene like that for the “younger set” seems like a laudable goal. Surely hidden among the sneaker-collectors at Kenmare are at least some of the next crop of actors, popstars, novelists, fashion designers, Wall Street bigwigs, magazine stars and adult heirs of New York. But it will always be just a bet. In the meantime, they’re just the horde, the people you see everywhere. Extras.

Still, such restaurants continue to open and to make money, despite their mediocre food and poor theater. There are always, said Frank Bruni, “people who are happy with the din.”