The Lion And Other Fake Old Restaurants Thrive As Real Old Restaurants Die

by BILLY GRAY · May 20, 2010

Looks like The Lion hasn't pissed off every journalist in town. Diane Cardwell profiles the Waverly Inn heir apparent in the Times today in the context of "theme park" restaurants selling a long-gone version of New York alongside pricey entrees.

Cardwell zeroes in on precious restaurants in precious Greenwich Village. Perhaps because it's the most famous of New York's bohemian neighborhoods and the first to lose any semblance of bohemianism to gentrification, the Village is clogged with eateries that "offer a vision of a lost bohemian New York — albeit with a well-heeled clientele and prices to match." She adds:

"This Lion has come roaring back to a crowded den, joining a pride of reincarnated restaurants clustered in the West Village, each taking a different era of its history for inspiration, from Strip House (the 1920s) to the Minetta Tavern (1930s) to the Waverly Inn (1950s and ’60s)."

Aside from the celebrity owners, acclaimed chefs, media connections and celeb-baiting scenes that make these joints instant successes is the sense of New Yorker nostalgia they tap into. Clark Wolf, who worked on Monkey Bar, another spiffy throwback (though this one in midtown), says:

“There’s so much that’s Vegas-y and Houston-y and random that you want a place that feels sort of timeless New York in a not-kitschy way. And of course you would want to re-create it in the current notion of what it ought to have been.”

Waverly and Monkey Bar co-owner and Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter bemoans the onslaught of "discotheques with food" that began with perennial gentrification punching bag Sex And The City despite running the galaxy's glossiest magazine. (As for Waverly, $55 mac and cheese is the ultimate ungentrified food staple, right?)

There's nothing wrong with looking back for inspiration. And there's plenty of good stuff to mine from New York's past. But in the future couldn't the city get a restaurant that dispenses with old-timey themes and glitzy HBO sets and offers a great vibe from the present?

As for the actual past, Empire Diner is gone for good--it even left some of its interiors on the sidewalk to be plucked by passersby--and Gino's shuts down next week.

Photo via Piotr Redlinski/NYT