Once burned, twice careful? How else do you explain the very good, and yet timid, restaurant that is Charlie Bird?
Let’s rewind a bit. Robert Bohr was a partner and sommelier at Cru, one of the city’s best restaurants of the mid-2000s. Frank Bruni awarded three stars right off the bat. Rumor had it Bruni was considering a fourth. I gave it three and a half stars.
In an era when most restaurants were becoming more casual, Cru actually got fancier in its first four years, 2004–08. By the peak, it had a 150,000-bottle wine cellar, with a list so hefty they presented it in two volumes, each the size of a phone directory.
Then the The Great Recession hit. Hedge fund moguls were no longer dropping in and buying the three- and four-figure trophy wines that the business model depended on. The chef left; his replacement was told to dumb down the menu.
I predicted that plan would fail, and it did. As I asked at the time, when the core of your wine list is bottles in the hundreds and thousands, what does it matter if entrée prices are slashed $5 or $10 apiece? Cru closed in 2010.
Bohr moved onto other ventures for a while before opening Charlie Bird in June. The restaurant is, of course, wine-centric: how could it not be? But neither the food nor the wine attempts anything like the ambition of Cru at any point in its six-year run.
I can understand not trying to reproduce Cru, but with the economy now on an upswing, and restaurants like Costata and Carbone pulling in the high rollers again, I think Bohr could have aimed higher than he did.
Mind you, Charlie Bird is very good for what it is, but the food itself is not destination material. It’s good “neighborhood-plus” Italianesque food, which you can get all over town. The wine list, which The Times’s Eric Asimov recently named one of the city’s twelve best, is what makes Charlie Bird a destination.
The main list is about a hundred bottles, mostly French and Italian with smatterings from elsewhere, and they’ll sell you any selection by the half-bottle (an idea that sommelier John Slover brought with him from Bar Henry and Ciano).
You can do plenty of damage here (price range from the $40s to the $200s), or ask for the reserve list, handwritten in a leather-bound notebook, where the sky’s the limit, but still only about 1/100th of what Cru had.
Half the budget must have gone into glassware, with stems as thin as a strand of linguine. The bartender said that they break with considerable frequency.
The cocktail list is short and classic: I had an Old Pal ($13), with Rye, Vermouth, and Campari. We then ordered a 2007 Chianti Classico ($55), one of the better inexpensive chiantis I’ve had in a while.
The owners told Eater.com that the cuisine would be “Italian-influenced American…based upon the concept of a neighborhood restaurant.” Practically the entire interview comes across as deflating expectations.
The chef, Grant Reynolds, has done a bang-up job with the unambitious task assigned him. Within its limits, the food is terrific. There’s a options in all of the usual categories: Raw ($12–15), Pasta ($18–24), Small Plates ($12–17), Vegetables ($8–12), and Large Plates ($27–39). Heaven forfend that the Large Plates could be called, you know, entrées. That’s what they are, of course.
It’s tempting to fill up on breadsticks, which are excellent, or the house focaccia (above right), crisp and salty, the best thing of its kind.
Escarole and Parmigiano Salad ($13; above left) was like a Cesar Salad on speed. Tripe ($14; above right), in a so-called “lovely style” (whatever that means), is served on toast; I liked it a bit better than Wendy did.
The one pasta we tried was first rate: Duck Egg Spaghetti ($24; above left) with uni, lemon, and guanciale. I’d read many an online rave for the Roasted Chicken ($28; above right), which I had to try. It’s a keeper, but I’d be surprised if a bad dish comes out of this kitchen.
The owners’ plan has clearly worked. It took me more than four months to get a reservation at Charlie Bird, and even then I had to go at 6:00pm on a Wednesday. Walk-ins are accepted, but I’m not sure how successful you’d be, unless you want to wait a while: by 7:30pm the place was jammed. Tables are close together (eat at the bar, if you can), and it gets loud. The owners even closed over the Labor Day weekend to install sound-proofing. I’m not sure it worked.
Within its self-imposed limitations, the service is warm, friendly, and professional. You’ll be well taken care of. I wish the owners had aimed higher, but I suppose they wanted this place to be recession-proof. For what it is, Charlie Bird is very good indeed.
Charlie Bird (5 King Street at Sixth Avenue, Soho)
Food: Italianesque American cuisine
Service: Warm, friendly, professional; a first-rate wine list
Ambiance: Crowded and boistrous