Still can’t make it past the host stand at Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn? No luck scoring a decent table at Minetta Tavern between 5:30 and 11pm? Take heart, scenester. The Lion is much less likely to turn you away. The latest addition to the new power pantheon may be Gotham’s most democratic high-profile restaurant. While the Waverly features just a tiny lounge to accommodate gawkers and won’t take reservations by phone, the bar at the Lion is surrounded by tables for walk-ins, and the phone lines are wide open.
Though you may still have a tough time landing a prime table for dinner—we managed to snag seats pretty easily on a Sunday evening—the reception is uncharacteristically warm for a place seeking Page Six immortality. Our waiter was so genial, he could have been stolen from a Danny Meyer establishment. A bartender on another evening was just as fraternal, pouring a generous drink while gushing over the burger I’d ordered. This despite a crush of publishing minions fighting their way to the bar—necks craning to catch a glimpse of every arrival—while co-owner and Men’s Health editor Dave Zinczenko held court among them.
While the magazine honcho is a partner in the Lion with NBC’s Dan Abrams, this is first and foremost a John DeLucie establishment. The chef—still the co-owner of the Waverly—is an imposing presence, greeting friends in the dining room one minute, expediting dishes the next.
His new restaurant, inspired by the West Village landmark that thrived at this brownstone locale in the ’60s (also the gay joint where Barbra Streisand made her singing debut), offers a reimagining of that bohemian haunt. The dining room is decked out in an eclectic montage of modern masterworks, Daily News crime snaps, and portraits of bearded men.
Like the city’s other clubby spots, the food takes a backseat to the scene. Which isn’t to say that it’s not often delicious. Like the Minetta Tavern’s straightforward menu, the selections are all fairly classic, and for the most part, exceptionally well done.
DeLucie’s continental cuisine—old-fashioned with modern finesse—looks to Spain, France, Italy and the U.S. Artichoke fritters are actually crispy tapas-style croquettes oozing lemony bchamel. Green and white matchstick asparagus with optimal snap are paired, in another straight-up starter, with velvety hollandaise sauce and an egg so delicately poached, the yolk practically breaks itself.
DeLucie, whose macaroni and cheese with black truffles remains a top seller at the Waverly Inn, offers at the new spot a slightly more rustic pasta, house-made cavatelli in a Franco-Italian mix of porcini, walnuts, goat cheese and cream—comforting, rainy-day fare.
The long-gone New York the Lion aims to evoke was all about meat and potatoes. The restaurant does justice to both. Dry-aged Delmonico steak—an often-forgotten cut featuring marbled meat from the rib eye—arrives beautifully blistered, funky and thick as a book, with a pitcher of silky barnaise. Yukon Gold slices in an la carte bistro gratin are drenched in hot cream, as they should be.
DeLucie, who knows a thing or two about A-list expectations, finds inspiration in what the competition is doing, plying his audience with food typical of the other restaurant revivals. His lobster potpie—featuring hunks of the shellfish in a sauce rich with lobster stock, brandy and cream—is the sort of country-club fare you might order at the Monkey Bar (and simply too heavy for warm weather, and most modern palates). The signature burger, topped with smoked Gouda, caramelized onions, fried pork belly and a mustard sauce, is an overdressed retort to Minetta Tavern’s austere Black Label. Served with a mini jar of house-made pickles, it’s surprisingly delicious, the copious condiments complementing rather than subsuming the excellent beef underneath (from Piccinini Brothers, not Pat LaFrieda).
The chef, who runs both the sweet and savory sides of the menu, is weakest in the pastry department. His too-simple desserts—leaden apple beignets, a super-sweet banana-and-Nutella crpe—are unremarkable at best.
From the street, the Lion can be imposing behind its unmarked black facade, but offers plenty of good reasons (if not dessert) to take a chance and walk in.
Drink this: The Lion’s fine $14 drinks all have a vintage bent. Try the smooth vermouth-and-whiskey Blood & Sand.
Eat this: Asparagus with egg, artichoke fritters, burger, Delmonico steak
Sit here: The VIP table is on the balcony overlooking the dining room, this being a restaurant that values discretion.
Conversation piece: The Lion’s impressive art collection includes Basquiat paintings and glossy David LaChapelle portraits.