Go for the old

From Monkey Bar to Minetta Tavern, revivalist restaurants are taking over.

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La Fonda del Sol, 1961

La Fonda del Sol, 1961 Photograph: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

At 5:45 on a recent Thursday evening, Minetta Tavern was all but empty. Waitresses in short black dresses and anachronistic white aprons fiddled with their hems, while busboys swooped in to top off already full water glasses. Fifteen minutes later, it was another story. The wood-paneled dining room was packed with well-shod young things who had undoubtedly never experienced the storied 72-year-old restaurant's earlier incarnation—a low-key neighborhood place synonymous with writers, booze and middling Italian food.

Minetta's patrons weren't there for a history lesson. They'd gone to be transported into a refurbished fantasy where comfort food was served with the illusory reassurance of a simpler time, when restaurants came with murals and it was acceptable to drink Scotch throughout a three-course meal.

The Minetta Tavern may be just a demonstration of Keith McNally's genius for stagecraft, but it's in good company. Since last November, when the meticulously restored Oak Room premiered at the Plaza, revived restaurants have been popping up like crocuses: In January, the Patina Group reopened La Fonda del Sol, Joe Baum's legendary 1960s Spanish theme restaurant; and last month, Graydon Carter—who in late 2006 brought us the new, doorman-equipped version of the Waverly Inn—unveiled the latest edition of Monkey Bar, the Hotel Elysee's landmark 1930s restaurant and bar.

Old is new again. Or more specifically, what's new is an idealized vision of the old: the past, polished to a high sheen.

Should we blame the recession (who hasn't?) for this apparent craving for nostalgia? Is this merely another manifestation of the craze for affected "authenticity" that fuels the speakeasy trend and taxidermied restaurants like Freemans and its knockoffs? Or are these nods to a clubby past a middle finger pointed to the Value Meal mind-set that has gripped the city's restaurant scene and spawned a thousand sandwich shops?

For Nick Valenti, the CEO of the Patina Group, the answer does not lie in nostalgia. When his company decided to resurrect La Fonda del Sol, which, as one of the country's earliest "theme" restaurants, became a sensation when it opened in the Time-Life building in 1960, thanks to its then-novel Pan-Latin menu and exuberant Alexander Girard--designed interiors, Valenti knew better than to try to turn it into a Mad Men--and-martini theme park.

"In many ways, it's a revival in name only," Valenti says. He did want to maintain the bold lines and colors that defined the original La Fonda del Sol's design scheme, and the Spanish cuisine has found a descendant in Josh DeChellis's tapas-heavy menu. Otherwise, he "had no illusion of bringing back a storied restaurant, because it existed so long ago that the heart of today's market—22-to-45-year-olds—weren't around," reasons Valenti.

Michael Batterberry, however, has been around long enough to remember the original conceptions of many of these places. The coauthor, with his wife, Ariane, of On the Town in New York, a history of the city's eating and drinking establishments, Batterberry theorizes that the draw of a restaurant like the Minetta Tavern—whose new incarnation he likes very much—can be found less in the return of comfort food ("that's almost as boring as the hemline theory") than in historical precedent. "People look for the things that restaurateurs neglect," he says. "Romance is one of them. [Romance] offers the aura of better times, despite the fact that some of these places were originally associated with the Depression." The Minetta Tavern, Batterberry feels, "preserves the fantasy of what it was when you went to Greenwich Village and wanted to associate with kindred spirits."

For his part, Keith McNally isn't prone to self-reflection about the new Minetta. "My motive is, and has been, always the same," he e-mails: "to build the kind of restaurant that I would want to go to.... I certainly never stop to think about whether the restaurant is striking a 'chord' or whatever, and nor do I think I should. In fact, I don't think anyone should."

While the self-interest and pragmatism that McNally displays play large roles in the building of a restaurant empire, so does understanding the public's desires. And what many restaurateurs grasp is that now, especially, the public desires an escape from reality.

Graydon Carter seems to be okay with that. When asked if he wanted to evoke a particular time or place at Monkey Bar—with its lush murals and menu of somewhat archaic American classics like clams casino and lobster Newburg—he says, via e-mail, that "we hope the room, the service and the food will remind people of a New York when we smoked and drank, maybe just a little too much, and didn't take ourselves too seriously."

One of the more amusing paradoxes inherent in this love for resurrected restaurants: Tastemakers aren't really interested in the old. If they were, they'd be rushing to places like Delmonico's and Le Veau d'Or. Instead, they're responding to the noise made by people discovering a new playground with an old pedigree, particularly one that emits a whiff of exclusivity. Weeks before Monkey Bar officially opened, its dining room layout was breathlessly circulated by bloggers far more interested in how to get the best seat than in the Waldorf salad. And while plenty may argue for the virtues of the food at the Waverly Inn and Freemans, it was their clientele, not the cooking, that put them on the map.

Hard times may inspire a longing for the good old days—whatever those were. But any businessperson knows that the past doesn't pay the bills. Who does Carter want Monkey Bar to appeal to? "People with jobs," he responds. And there's nothing sepia-toned about that.


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