My first doomed attempt to gain entrance to Graydon Carter’s much-hyped, -publicized, and, in some quarters, -reviled restaurant, the Waverly Inn & Garden, ended, as it does for many, with a drink at the perpetually chaotic, rat-size bar. This bar, which adjoins two rickety dining rooms on the ground floor of a West Village townhouse on Bank Street, is so small that my architect wife, upon showing up for a book party there, refused to enter the building. “Tell everybody to get out—that floor’s going to collapse,” she said, before hurrying home. Hunched in the limbo gloom, nursing my drink, I had the impulse to yell out a similar warning, but nobody would have heard me. Madly grinning Englishmen milled around the loud little space, along with irritated-looking waiters bearing plates of $55 truffled macaroni and cheese, and lots of mid-level fashion assistants hopefully clutching their fur-trimmed coats. “Who the hell are all these people?” I asked a gentleman to my left. “They’re all people wondering who the hell you are,” he replied.
It was my plan to return to the Waverly Inn once everything had calmed down and the place had officially opened. But months later, the restaurant—which Carter and his partners, among them the nightclub impresario Eric Goode, run as a kind of private downtown version of Elaine’s—still hasn’t officially opened. The menu is still stamped with the word PREVIEW in big red letters. There is no reservationist, and no telephone number for chumps from Syosset or Teaneck to call. If anything, the buzz around this simple, innocuous-seeming neighborhood joint has grown even more insane. The rabble of fashion editors now includes smug hedge-fund types and jaded megacelebrities like Jack Nicholson and even the sainted Bono. To get beyond the Black Hole of Calcutta bar zone, you must be privy, through friends and connections, to a special private phone number and/or e-mail address. Or you must show up on the restaurant’s doorstep in the afternoon and beg.
In the end, I didn’t actually beg to get my table at the Waverly Inn. I had other people do it for me. And once inside, I must admit, I felt pretty damn good about myself. And why not? There was Graydon (for whom I once wrote briefly at the New York Observer), resplendent in his regular banquette, which is situated, like a wary gunfighter’s, in the back corner of the room. There was Richard Holbrooke next to him, and next to both of them, hidden discreetly in a little alcove, was Michael Stipe, whose owlish glasses and salt-and-pepper beard made him look bizarrely like Sigmund Freud. And who were all these other people? Who knew? Who cared? Tonight we were all members of the same select and cozy club. The rooms are even decorated like a kind of modest, Anglophile dining society, with low-wattage lighting and lots of raggedly debonair little tchotchkes (piles of tattered books, old photos of the ’49 Brooklyn Dodgers) that look like they’ve been gathered from some long-ago Vanity Fair photo shoot.
And what about the food? For a semi-private club, it’s not bad. For a public restaurant, it could be better, although if you’re Graydon Carter and a place like this opened a few doors down from your own townhouse, you wouldn’t be too upset. The first dish I sampled was a bowl of New England clam chowder, which was watery, even by New York standards, and contained one or two lonely clams. That old brasserie standby the frisée aux lardons salad (the lardons are made from designer Berkshire pork, and there’s a properly organic poached egg on top) was better, and so were the crab cakes, which are made with fresh jumbo lump crabmeat, but are also the size of very large postage stamps. If you enjoy liver products, the chicken-liver mousse is better than your average liver pâté, and if you like artichokes, you can get one steamed half to death in the old-fashioned way, like my grandmother used to do. The best appetizers, however, are two surprisingly good tartares, one made with finely mashed tuna and a layer of avocado, the other with fresh salmon and spread with horseradish and crème fraîche flavored with onions.
In accordance with the fashions of the day, it is stressed that “local and organic” ingredients are used whenever possible at the Waverly Inn, and that the restaurant’s water is filtered through “reverse osmosis,” whatever that is. But don’t let these little flourishes fool you. This connect-the-dots bistro menu isn’t designed to win any culinary awards. It’s designed to feed patrons in a familiar, semi-competent way, without distracting from the real business at hand, which is to have a drink or two and bask in the reflected glow of each other’s glorious presence. To this end, there is a nice “all natural” Berkshire-pork chop (although the short ribs were stringy, and the $34 strip steak lacked sizzle), and a pleasantly thick “Waverly Burger” ($13), which comes with fries scented vaguely with truffles. The truffled macaroni and cheese was salted to death on the evening I sampled it, but the chicken potpie was copiously large and piping hot, and if you order any of the seafood items (a well-prepared Dover sole, grilled boned trout with delicious spindly carrots), you won’t be too disappointed.
And is anyone acting too disappointed with themselves these days at the Waverly Inn & Garden? Not that I could discern. Not beyond the limbo-land bar zone, anyways. On the last evening I visited, the mini dining area buzzed with the kind of self-satisfied, cicadalike energy peculiar to smallish rooms populated by members of the city’s nattering classes. Outside, people milled around in the cold, chattering into their Treos, while exactly six limousines idled along the curb. I have a dim memory of an overly cheesy cheesecake item (made with Vermont goat cheese), an acceptable slice of flourless chocolate cake, and a pre- potted apple crisp, which could have come from the kitchens of Sara Lee. But the best dessert by far is a utilitarian version of bananas Foster made with slices of cold banana, warm caramel sauce, and a crumbling of cookies, all swirled together in a little copper pot. Is it worth fighting your way inside for a little bite? Maybe just once. When the Waverly finally opens for business, the food won’t taste half as good.
The Waverly Inn & Garden
Address: 16 Bank St., at Waverly Pl.; no phone
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 12:45 a.m., Sunday and Monday to 11:45 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $15; entrées, $13 to $55.
Ideal Meal: Salmon or tuna tartare, Dover sole or chicken potpie or “Waverly Burger,” bananas Foster.
Note: The tables toward the back of the first room are the ones the Condé Nast editors lust for. If you find yourself in the Conservatory, congratulations, you’re in Siberia.
Scratchpad: You could argue that theatrical value makes this a three-star restaurant. But we won’t. When the dust settles, this will be a solid neighborhood joint.