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Classic restaurants revisited

While some iconic New York eateries have been lost to history, others have reinvented themselves to meet the city's ever-changing dining landscape. We checked out five survivors where the second act is worth the price of admission.

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Egg roll

Egg roll at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Eggplant

Eggplant at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Fried Dumplings

Fried Dumplings at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Pork Bun

Pork Bun at Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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Photograph: Courtesy Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Courtesy Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Lobster en Brioche

Lobster en Brioche at Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Pisco Gaudi

Pisco Gaudi at Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Poire Tonic

Poire Tonic at Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Scallop Ceviche

Scallop Ceviche at Le Bernardin

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Spiced Tuna Brochette

Spiced Tuna Brochette

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Illustration: Courtesy Al Hirschfeld / Margo Feiden Gallery

A drawing of The Monkey Barby Al Hirschfeld from Collier's Weekly, 1950

A drawing by Al Hirschfeld from Collier's Weekly, 1950

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Monkey Bar

Monkey Bar

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Monkey Bar

Monkey Bar

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Monkey Bar

Monkey Bar

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Champs Elysees

Champs Elysees at Monkey Bar

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Vieux Carre

Vieux Carre at Monkey Bar

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Sardinian Fregula

Sardinian Fregula at the Leopard at des Artistes

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Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

Spaghetti Chittara

Spaghetti Chittara at the Leopard at des Artistes

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
New York's first dim sum house opened in 1920 at a crook in Doyers Street known at the time as "the bloody angle." That Chinatown passage bore witness to the grisly havoc of the Tong gang wars—shootings and hatchet murders—but the bakery and tea shop had a sweeter reputation: Its almond cookies and moon cakes were legendary. For more than three decades, the Choy family ran Nom Wah, but in 1974, Ed and May Choy sold the operation to longtime manager Wally Tang, who started there in 1950 as a waiter when he was 16.

The revamp: In 2010, Wally Tang passed Nom Wah on to his nephew Wilson Tang, a banker at ING Direct. The 90-year-old stalwart had fallen into disrepair, so Tang gave it a remodel. He and his wife raided flea markets for vintage lamps and the restaurant's storage room for archival photographs. Tang painted the dingy green walls a mustard yellow, and cleaned decades of dust and grease off the tea tins lining the restaurant's shelves. The most important tweaks, though, were behind the scenes: Tang updated the kitchen and did away with the procedure of cooking dim sum en masse. Now, each plate is cooked to order.

The verdict: Tang's nips and tucks transformed a health department nightmare into a charming old-school institution, completely unlike the chaotic banquet halls that dominate Chinatown's dim sum scene. The dining room is transportive—checkered tablecloths cover Art Deco tables and couples huddle beneath an old poster of a glam Chinese movie star. The food, too, stands apart; the dim sum here tastes fresher than the competition. Try the ultra-fluffy oversize roasted-pork bun ($1.25), the flaky fried crpe egg roll ($3.95) and the tender stuffed eggplant ($3.50) filled with a spiced shrimp-and-squid mixture. 13 Doyers St between Bowery and Pell St (212-962-6047)


Nom Wah Tea Parlor | Le Bernardin | The Monkey Bar
The Leopard at des Artistes | '21' Club

 

Le Bernardin
New York dining mores have experienced a seismic paradigm shift in the past decade, toppling Old World restaurant titans and making conquering heroes of chefs that champion accessible food served in casual environments. But Le Bernardin—the city's original temple of haute French seafood—survived the shake-up unscathed. The restaurant's roots are in Paris where, in 1972, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze opened the first Le Bernardin on the Left Bank. The Breton siblings earned their first Michelin star in 1976, later moving to a glitzier space near the Arc de Triomphe. The Le Cozes finally brought their eatery to Gotham in 1986, launching with a then-novel commitment to sourcing local fish. Although Gilbert died in 1994, the restaurant has maintained its reputation (and its four-star rating from The New York Times) under the stewardship of Maguy and chef Eric Ripert. Last summer, the pair closed the doors for a six-week-long face-lift—a smart revision that modernized the space without renouncing its fine-dining stature.

The revamp: Le Bernardin is still a formal restaurant with white tablecloths, decorous service and a jackets-required policy in the main dining room. But its refreshing overhaul (executed by design firm Bentel & Bentel) includes the installment of leather banquettes and a 24-foot mural of a tempestuous sea by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner. The biggest shift, though, may be the lounge: Formerly a waiting area for dinner guests, the 30-seat space caters to walk-ins with low-slung tables, a dedicated la carte menu and—for the first time ever—a serious cocktail list designed by the Summit Bar's Greg Seider.

The verdict: The tweaks are effective, not only in rejuvenating the place for its moneyed regulars, but also in providing an access point for a new generation of diners. Guests who find the $190 tasting menu or $120 four-course prix fixe out of reach can still experience the kitchen's finesse via stunning bar snacks: raw kanpachi topped with beads of wasabi tobiko ($18), for example, or gorgeous scallop ceviche ($18) resting in a pool of grassy olive oil. Seider's cocktails, meanwhile, are alone worthy of a special trip: The baroque creations include a  Pisco Gaudi ($16)—a lush drink made with the Peruvian brandy, a smoked paprika and saffron tincture, and egg whites. 155 W 51st St between Sixth and Seventh Aves (212-554-1515)


Nom Wah Tea Parlor | Le Bernardin | The Monkey Bar
The Leopard at des Artistes | '21' Club

 

The Monkey Bar
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, this onetime piano bar—which first opened in 1932 off the swank Hotel Elyse's lobby—became a boozy clubhouse for glitzy artistic types, including Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Parker and Tennessee Williams. According to the hotel, in the early days patrons mimed one another in the barroom's tall mirrors. The "monkey see, monkey do" theatrics inspired the monkey murals painted in the '50s by caricaturist Charlie Wala. Over time, though, the spot fell out of fashion. It even closed for a couple of years before reopening in 1994 with a redesign by David Rockwell, but it never regained its swinging status.

The revamp: In 2009, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, owner of celebrity haunt the Waverly Inn, took over the storied space, installing a mural of the '60s jazz era by Ed Sorel in the back dining room and enforcing an impenetrable reservations policy that helped revive the place as an exclusive hot spot. But critics skewered its snobby service and subpar food. This fall Carter unveiled another reboot, bringing on savvy restaurateur Ken Friedman (the John Dory Oyster Bar) to assemble an all-star staff. Damon Wise (Craft) took over the stoves, mixology maven Julie Reiner (Clover Club) shook up the cocktail program and James Beard Award winner Belinda Chang left her post at the Modern to see to the wine list.

The verdict: Carter's new team seamlessly blends into this historic canteen, and the focus on quality has made the place a deserving destination. Reservations for the dining room, done up with brass railings and red velvet banquettes, are available for mere mortals now, and the barroom has its own lively scene. Get there early to snag a wood booth and a classic cocktail, like the boozy New Orleans tipple Vieux Carr ($18), a mix of whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth, Bndictine and bitters. Wise's menu of rotating bar snacks offers refined clubby fare, such as the lush duck liver parfait ($18) topped with sweet-and-sour shallots. 60 E 54th St between Madison and Park Aves (212-288-1010)


Nom Wah Tea Parlor | Le Bernardin | The Monkey Bar
The Leopard at des Artistes | '21' Club

 

The Leopard at des Artistes
Before boldfaced chefs like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten colonized the southern reaches of the Upper West Side, Caf des Artistes—which opened in 1917 to service the residents of the Hotel des Artistes above—was a standby for Lincoln Center stars and society types. During the boom times, they came in droves to dine amid extravagant floral arrangements and stunning murals painted by Howard Chandler Christy. The restaurant soldiered gamely into the 21st century, bullheadedly committed to its fusty Old World sensibilities, but the recession proved the final straw for an institution running on the fumes of its former glory. It finally shuttered in 2009, setting the scene for Gianfranco and Paula Sorrentino—the restaurateurs behind midtown trattoria Il Gattopardo—to resurrect the landmark space, this time with a Mediterranean twist.

The revamp: A $2 million overhaul transformed the dusty relic into a stunner once again—the youthful nudes frolicking through Christy's pastel-hued murals were liberated from decades of grime, old carpeting gave way to sparkling terrazzo floors and an intimate librarylike parlor was added for private events. In the kitchen, chef Vito Gnazzo has done away with stodgy continental fare like pot-au-feu and Weiner schnitzel, instead offering a rustic Southern Italian menu.

The verdict: The second coming of Des Artistes is the type of neighborhood trattoria you'd drop into every Sunday evening—if you could afford it. There's an easy elegance to the place, which balances its opulence with unpretentious charm. Score a table in the main dining room for a proper view of the buzzy scene: Waiters in white coats flit about pouring wine and replenishing bread baskets, and diners bask in warm lighting beneath the rejuvenated nudes adorning the walls. The crowd-pleasing food, meanwhile, is unimpeachable in its simple treatment of top-notch ingredients. Start with soul-enriching Sardinian soup of potato, mussels, clams and fregula (tiny balls of toasted semolina pasta), and a traditional spaghetti chittara—thick strands of pasta are cut using guitar strings, then sauted with cherry tomatoes, garlic, basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. 1 W 67th St between Central Park West and Columbus Ave (212-787-8767)


Nom Wah Tea Parlor | Le Bernardin | The Monkey Bar
The Leopard at des Artistes | '21' Club

 

'21' Club
The city's cocktail boom has turned Prohibition-era tippling—or some idealized version of it, at least—into a pervasive nightlife trope. But while apostles of the neospeakeasy can mix a mean Negroni, they don't have anything on the historical bona fides of this New York institution, which began life in 1922 as a Greenwich Village gin mill before moving in 1929 to its current home in midtown. Over the years, the spot became the de facto clubhouse for the town's power players, as well as a must for visiting notables—indeed, with the exception of Dubya and Obama, '21' Club has hosted every President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The revamp: While the elegant upstairs dining room and more clubby Bar Room remain untouched, a brand-new ten-seat, black-granite bar that greets patrons when they enter helps to boost the venue's casual appeal (casual being relative here—jackets are still required for men). To match the new digs, chef John Greeley has launched a menu of bar snacks, while an updated beverage program now includes beers on tap—a first in the venue's 81-year history.

The verdict: The changes don't really update '21' Club's country-club vibe, but they do make it easier to experience its anachronistic charms without committing to a pricey meal. The chummy bar scrum spills into a plush lounge, swabbed in dark tones of antique pine and leather, and hung with 15 original Remingtons depicting scenes of the Old West. It's a rarefied pleasure to sit here, sipping a rye Manhattan ($15)—mighty fine, even without Kold-Draft ice cubes or artisanal bitters—and soaking up the moneyed mise en scne. You can even sample scaled-down riffs on '21' Club classics, including excellent mini burgers ($18)—loosely packed and nicely charred on the grill, with an interior like steak tartare—that put most of the nouveau sliders in town to shame. 21 W 52nd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-582-7200)


Nom Wah Tea Parlor | Le Bernardin | The Monkey Bar
The Leopard at des Artistes | '21' Club


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