Thirty years ago, a restaurant like the Astor Room might have sizzled like the ’21’ Club, with its live entertainment on a baby grand, a buttoned-up barman pouring stiff drinks, and tables crowded with warm Parker House rolls and complimentary bowls of crisp crudités.
As a period piece, that first impression feels right—ragtime on the stereo, tiled walls and Tiffany lamps, a stuffed and posed beaver behind an imposing oak bar. Even the crowd—mostly gray-haired on one recent visit—is of the appropriate age, at home in their seats as if they’ve been regulars going on decades.
But while New York diners are suckers for a time warp, the restaurant’s manufactured nostalgia never quite transports. Unlike more successful retro haunts—Minetta Tavern, say, or even the Monkey Bar—the Astor Room stops short of channeling a bygone age: The ceiling is particleboard, TVs flash stills of silent-film stars and the Continental cooking is solid but soulless.
You might expect more verisimilitude from a space that was once the commissary of Kaufman Astoria Studios, where Rudolph Valentino and W.C. Fields supped on cafeteria cooking. And it still feels like an industry dining room—a better working lunch certainly than the Panera Bread, Subway or Uno’s right around the corner, but not quite a new Queens destination.
There are some real talents behind the scenes: former Waldorf-Astoria chef John Doherty consulting on food, mixology team Jim Kearns and Lynnette Marrero of Freemans and Peels advising on drinks. And while the latter duo’s skill comes through in the glass, the food is drab and uneven.
Doherty’s menu, conceived with executive chef Richard Pims (Chez Josephine, RM), might be appropriate for a banquet in a deluxe hotel ballroom, but it’s an odd fit in this intimate space. A salad of baby spinach and warm bacon nuggets is exactly what it sounds like, a deft yet dull classic. The oysters Rockefeller plays it just as straight—three tasty but flat bivalves, gently baked in their shells with cheese, spinach and leeks. There’s more sparkle in a rich garlic-cream soup with flaked cod and house-cured pancetta—an elegant spin on the Scottish finnan haddie.
Our tastes have evolved in the eons gone by since lobster Thermidor reigned as a ubiquitous splurge. The version served here certainly makes a grand entrance—the broiled two-pounder nearly too big for its plate—but the tough, salty meat, in pasty cheese sauce, is a poor argument for a 21st-century comeback. Beef Stroganoff, another ponderous dinosaur, fares better, its buttery egg noodles topped with fork-tender short rib instead of the usual sautéed scraps of steak.
The vintage desserts hark back to a time when sweet, rich, excessive and French were the big-ticket norms, when crêpes suzette still passed for exotic and soufflés came topped (as they are here) with ice cream and chocolate sauce. This memory-lane cooking might be good fun if it were, in the end, more exciting to eat. But nostalgia all by itself doesn’t add up to much.—Jay Cheshes
Eat this: Parker House rolls, oysters Rockefeller, beef Stroganoff
Drink this: Among the retro cocktails, you’ll find homages to silent-film stars like the Fairbanks, a lemony mix of gin, dry vermouth, grenadine and apricot brandy, and delicious classics like the New Yorker, made with red wine and bourbon (each $9).
Sit here: When the basement dining room’s empty, as it often is, the place can feel bleak. Dine at the bar instead, and enjoy an easy rapport with the gregarious staff.
Conversation piece: The restaurant space retains the original tile walls and marble staircase from the 1920s, when the studios here were a hub for the silent-film industry.