It takes chutzpah to open a restaurant in an iconic space. That’s what the owners of The Writing Room have done, taking over two buildings on upper Second Avenue that, for almost fifty years, were known as Elaine’s.
They’ve invested two and a half years and $4 million, and gotten their money’s worth, a lovely modern-casual restaurant that feels immediately comfortable. It reminds me of The Smith. The decibel level is higher than I’d like, but that’s probably deliberate.
The new owners aren’t shy about reminding you what used to be here. The main dining room is festooned with photos of Elaine’s celebrity patrons, of which there were many. A back room, called the Study, is decorated with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, populated with the literary works of Elaine’s regulars. The re-building job occasioned a lengthy Glenn Collins article, “Reviving Elaine’s Without Elaine.” The place was long past its prime when Elaine Kaufman died in 2010, but no one is going to forget her anytime soon.
The Times’ online archives are full of stories about Elaine’s, but the paper never reviewed it as an actual restaurant. By most accounts, the critics weren’t missing much: the food was generally described as mediocre, at best.
That is one thing the new owners have fixed. It’s not destination cuisine, but for what it is, it’s very good. The concise, upscale pub menu (curiously lacking a burger) is inexpensive for the neighborhood, with starters $11–15, entrees mostly $19–28 (a lobster is $32, a dry-aged strip steak $52), and side dishes $5–6.
The wine list runs to 16 widely-spaced pages, organized by grape, with a short paragraph on the history of each varietal. Just like the food, it’s not a destination list, but much better than you’d expect.
“Too bad your blog can’t smell this,” Wendy said, as the server dropped off warm, pillowy rolls with soft butter in a mason jar. The house-made charcuterie board ($17; above center) is perfectly respectable: pork rillettes, pork sausage, bresciola, mustard, pickles.
Salmon ($28; above left) is just fine. Brisket ($27; above right) is brined 48 hours, and smoked an additional nine hours. It won’t put Hill Country out of business, but I’d happily order it again.
For dessert, Creamsickle pops ($11; above left) shared the plate with a chocolate brownie. The bill (above right) was delivered in a black folder with an antique typewriter pictured inside.
The restaurant was packed on a Wednesday evening; walk-in parties were quoted an hour wait. However, our 7:30pm reservation was seated right on time. Service was attentive, neither too rushed nor too slow.
The Writing Room isn’t a fancy spot. After the early curiosity-seekers are satisfied, I suspect most of the patrons will be locals—not that there is anything wrong with that—and the occasional tourist who wonders what ever happened to Elaine’s.
The Writing Room (1703 Second Avenue at 88th Street, Upper East Side)
Food: Upscale pub food, done well
Ambiance: A modern-casual space that won’t let you forget Elaine’s
Service: Smart casual