Most gay dining establishments share one vital trait. You'd swear all the chefs were graduates of the Pat Robertson Cooking School: if the food doesn't scare you straight, Aesthetic Realism doesn't stand a chance. Joe Fontecchio didn't think it had to be this way. That's why he and his partners opened Food Bar in 1992. Not only did the place jettison the stereotypical New Hope kitschiness of the time for a look as sleek as a fresh body-wax, but for once, you didn't have to get plastered on seabreezes to eat the food.
In less time than it takes decadurobolin to make a muscle grow, Food Bar became gay Chelsea's ground zero. But management seemed to lose focus, the kitchen's output became as unsavory as a party boy in a K-hole, and the fickle clientele decamped. A handsome face-lift and a dumb new name (Che 2020) raised prices but not quality in 1996. Still, everyone liked the pretty new face, and the boys came back, smiling. Save one.
Fontecchio, with a resume that includes Cafe Luxembourg (where we worked together and became friends) and Chanterelle, recently bought out his partners, locked the doors, decorated yet again (guess that stereotype still holds), and reopened with the old Food Bar logo repainted on the window.
The name may be the same, but it's a new restaurant. Damned likable, too, whatever your orientation. Strategic changes in lighting, wall color, and upholstery have heightened the intimacy and shifted the emphasis onto dining, not schmoozing. And the new staff readily accepts that it wasn't invited to this party, it's just working it.
The biggest alteration comes in Fontecchio's kitchen. Roasted-apple-slathered potato pancakes can distract one from returning that all-important glance across the room; the solid country salad, bristling with frisee and chicory, is thick with Roquefort and lardons; and a Caesar with either grilled shrimp or chicken is Zone-diet perfect. There's an agreeably balanced salad of grilled eggplant, tomato, spinach, and chevre. The guacamole offers a big hello. And any Baltimorean would be delighted to serve these crab cakes.
For under $15, you can have iron-pumping calf's liver, grilled lamb leg worth its weight in floss, meatloaf dense enough to deserve a ketchup glaze, thick blush-pink salmon in a lively pool of gumbo, small but juicy bass wrapped in a golden-potato crust, or rosy sliced duck breast in braised winter fruit. Fontecchio is famous for his pies, and the blueberry, peach, pumpkin, and cherry are honeys. His apple-walnut crisp and pineapple upside-down cake ain't shabby either. Feeling more socially expansive now, are you?
Food Bar is a happy joint these days. It's nothing to do with gay pride, really. It has everything to do with feeling proud about what you do, period. If you haven't returned since its rebirth, it's time to head back. If you've never been, give it a shot -- if only to be proud of yourself for knowing a good deal, and being big enough to walk in. But if someone should ask you "just how big?" you're on your own.
Food Bar, 149 Eighth Avenue, near 17th Street (242-2020). Open daily 11 a.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $3.50 to $7.95; entrees, $9.95 to $15.95. All major credit cards.