The House That Earl Built

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

Earl Monroe, the incomparable Pearl, who in his heyday bounced a basketball with the sort of idiosyncratic rhythm Thelonious Monk applied to the piano, leans his still-supple body back in his chair and says, yes, the game has changed. “Once it was a veterans’ thing; now the rookies are in charge.”

The Pearl is something of a rookie again himself, with his new restaurant, Earl Monroe’s in Riverbank State Park, set to open this week at the extreme west end of 145th Street. In a down-home Winston-Salem accent not quite vanished 35 years after joining Clyde Frazier in the Knicks’ backcourt, Monroe even admits he has “a few butterflies.”

It’s not that Monroe, 60, hasn’t run anything before: He’s been in the record business for years. But a haute Harlem restaurant, especially this one, with its sleek, football-field-length glassed-in front affording a Hudson Valley view Alfred Bierstadt would kill for (with the George Washington Bridge thrown in for good measure), isn’t simply a business venture. “I’m not going to stick my name on it and never think about it again,” the Pearl says. “We looked for the right location uptown for five years. To me this will be the crown jewel of Harlem.”

Athlete food has never been known for its culinary grandeur. Years ago, Jack Dempsey’s “joint” on Broadway may have been Ed Sullivan’s favorite watering hole, where matzo-ball soup was served in a “tureen,” but the Manassa Mauler’s kitchen served more grease than glory. In the eighties, the robust former Met Rusty Staub was known for his ribs, but no one who’d ever been to Memphis’s famed Cozy Corner would have been fooled. I seem to remember hoisting some serious boilermakers in Tommie Agee’s Queens bar, but for the most part, outside of branding opportunities like Michael Jordan’s in Grand Central station, jock food has been more along the lines of gag burgers slapped onto memorabilia-encased Formica tabletops at places like Bobby Valentine’s string of sports bars.

Earl Monroe’s will be different, says John Lowy, the Pearl’s partner, who formerly worked at the overpriced Ur–jock joint Mickey Mantle’s. “This will be a serious restaurant, with serious but friendly food,” says Lowy. To justify the not-so-uptown $22 entrée prices, Lowy and Monroe have hired Christopher Faulkner, who understudied with Geoffrey Zakarian at Town and the Royalton’s 44. “Chris is smoking,” says Monroe, who’s partial to Faulkner’s extra-succulent crab and lobster cakes as well as his cornmeal-encrusted grouper, which comes with slivered okra and bean stew. The menu will be mostly seafood, with a few exceptions. “I’m being seduced by duck,” Monroe says.

The Pearl expects some “adjustments” at the beginning, like the adjustment he made back in 1967 after he was held scoreless by the Pistons’ Eddie Miles and then dropped 42 on him the very next night. “What I’m hoping for is a place where people come to have a good time. You know, I watch the games and even now I never see anyone who reminds me of me, the way I played. You have to be unique. Earl Monroe’s will be unique.”

The House That Earl Built