Upper West Side Upswing
In the evolution of restaurants on the Upper Westside, patience and challenging are two words that come to mind. For the last two decades, cheap ethnic food has been the standard and the only viable form of dining accepted by the residents. Attempts have been made, small coups if you will, to bring downtown uptown, but alas, you can take the diner out of the neighborhood, but not the neighborhood out of the diner. The Upper Westside is saddled with bad Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Spanish, Korean, Mexican etc. There are maybe two pasta places of note, and not one passable diner around. Neighborhood bars are tired and dated, not a gastropub among them. French bistros? All faux and disingenuine. The only saving grace is brunch, but the lines are downright vicious on weekends. And don’t forget some bakeries that do deliver, like Silver Moon and Magnolia, as well as Jacques Torres sweetening the pot.
The litmus test is simple. If you had your choice, ask yourself would you rather have any of these cuisines at UWS locations or elsewhere in NYC where the cooking and atmosphere is far superior. The collective UWS palate has become so muted and complacent that undue excitement is bestowed on any establishment that remotely pretends authenticity.
Certainly strides have been made, but upscale and better dining has mostly gone up in flames. Some savvy chefs have stuck around. Just look towards the Tom Valenti empire, Ouest, Cesca, and now West Branch. If you extend the zone to the Lincoln center area, there stands a formidable group spearheaded by Picholine, Telepan, and Bar Boulud. This trend has seeped into the West eighties with Kefi, Dovetail, 81 and Mermaid Inn. Even fast food has had a face lift with the Shake Shack and Pinch S’mac.
Wine bars have arrived, and although the quality is not great, they are a definite improvement to the dreary landscape of dining uptown.
Recently, Fatty Crab opened to much press and anticipation, in the space formerly inhabited by Zen Palate, juxtaposed to West Branch, making 77th Street a destination block, filling the voids left by the closings of the overrated Ruby Foo’s and the dreadful seafood aquarium Dock’s, both of which did not belong on the UWS for different reasons. The UWS is not Sushi Samba, and the acceptance of mediocre seafood via Dock’s is inherently blasphemous, the kind of thing that is wrong with UWS dining in the first place.
All indications are good, save for the spotty service. After all UWS diners have had much to complain about in the past, and cooperation on both parts will do well to erase the terrible service reputation from all the coffee shops and restaurant that remain which still need to close. At Fatty Crab, there is an ample bar and separate rooms, enough for all that baby carriage traffic to make its inevitable way through and not annoy other diners. The food is consistent and esoteric for these parts, but welcome and time appropriate.
I can’t say the same for West Branch, whose design feels a little disjointed. It would have been better for Mr. Valenti to have spent more time in the Spotted Pig or The Redhead in the East Village, because West Branch is a restaurant pretending to be a casual bar, and the design of the space does not allow for either experience to take place. The bar is out in the open, and seems to get in the way of the dining room, whose only redeemable accents are its “smoky” mirrors. But the menu is spot on and long overdue.
For charm and elegance look towards Barbao, upscale Vietnamese fare with a beautiful artistic frame around it. The front barroom could come out of an Asian Hotel lounge, the dining room adorned with flowing features allowing for connectivity and glimpses into the other parts of the restaurant, giving the illusion of different levels of a ship – an oasis on the UWS. The wine list is a tad overpriced (a bottle of Abadia Retuerta Rivola 2005 was listed for $60.00! – it retails for $10. to $13. depending on the shop). It is better to stay with the cocktails which are well conceived. The food is clean and correct with good choices such as sweetbread and frog’s legs.
Can these places persist amidst the rising costs of rents and the refusal of UWS residents to spend for quality dining? Will landlords continue to sit on empty spaces refusing to lower the rent to small business owners who are passionate about what they do? All the mom and pop joints have been run out of town. There is one advantage. There simply can’t be any more room for banks, pharmacies, and coffee shops. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the UWS’ need for this type of fix has been long overdue.