Flatiron denizens and restaurant stalkers may remember the strange sight about a month ago above the brown paper lining the windows at 32 East 21st Street of what had been Gravy: pictures of America's founding fathers. In what was obviously an inside joke, there were George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and... wait, ALF? In the days to come, everyone's favorite fuzzy '80s sitcom alien was joined by other classic American characters through history: Mark Twain, Jackie O, Martin Luther King, and a mysterious number. These clues culminated in a mystery recently solved, and publicly reported in this week's Off the Menu column in The Times Dining section. No, ALF wasn't opening a president-themed restaurant as theorized. Instead, a group of passionate, young restaurateurs were reinterpreting it with vintage Americana, gobbling up ACME's former chef de cuisine Ariel Fox, and installing what has to be considered one of the coolest new bar setups in the neighborhood — set to open for business today (Thursday).
Vanished are the red booths, globe lighting, and bar against the wall that characterized the 145-seat Southern restaurant opened by Kenneth Halberg, Andrew Barnett, and Chef Michael Vignola. With the help of designer Libbey Gillette, new partners Ryan Nivakoff, Spencer Slaine, and Justin Finn completely transformed the space. In fact, the only things that echo the previous restaurant are those huge windows lining the street.
Antique lace table linens cover three tables by the window, framed by a lounge, and a recycled black walnut square bar said to seat 40 and destined to bend more than a few elbows. Newspapers from the 60s and earlier are featured prominently in the dining room and line the bathroom walls. On the wall in the dining room is a huge 45-star American flag dated to 1895 draped from the corner of the ceiling. There are two private dining options (one a mezzanine that just didn't exist at all in the former space, and a back room that looks like something straight out of the old-school New York of Stephen King's novella The Breathing Method.
The restaurant's redesign is impressive for the quick turnaround. Gravy closed on Aug. 4, the partners only got keys to the place on Sept. 25, and they worked through Hurricane Sandy to make the opening happen, "throwing some power inverters in the back of a car" to get enough light inside to make it happen.
Those images that had been lining the window? They were the idea of Ryan Nivakoff, "to create some buzz," he said, shaking off compliments from Dave Mandler of Parvus Rex PR, "I told him, he should be in publicity." Well it worked on this reporter, who twisted up a bit on it and didn't expect from the images, the "simple, classic American concept" that the partners were going for.
The bar will be all American-sourced liquor, beer, and wine, and the menu by Chef Fox (who you may also remember as a contestant on Hell's Kitchen) features "American favorites." The Thanksgiving plate (planned to be served on occasion, year-round) will likely garner the most initial press, but there are riffs on other classics like tomato soup, Waldorf salad, and steak and potatoes (8 oz. hanger steak, with yellow pepper confit, herb roasted sunchokes, and sunny-side up egg), and a playful-sounding pumpkin pie soup.
Three dishes that sound particularly intriguing are the Rockefellar oysters (pickled cabbage, wilted winter greens, and fennel sabayon), the stuffed sweet peppers (with sausage, apples, onions, and bourbon), and the stuffed onions with roasted eggplant, zucchini squash, torn bread crumbs, stewed black lentils, and parsley.
Check out the full menus above and the accompanying slideshow for a first look at the food and the space.
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