When you spend a year and $100 million renovating your Upper East Side Hotel, you’ve got to make it back somehow. What else explains a restaurant that charges so much, and delivers so little in return?
The Regency Bar & Grill opened in January in the 38-year-old Loews Regency Hotel on the Upper East Side. The space where the legendary “power breakfast” originated was gutted and re-built. (The old furniture went to a Coney Island Senior Center.)
At first glance, you’d say they got their money’s worth. It’s a plush white-tablecloth room, with polished aluminum fixtures, cozy banquettes, and walls adorned with historical black-and-white photos of Manhattan habituées. You’d never dream of building such a space downtown, but for the neighborhood it’s in, and the clientele it has to serve, it feels pitch-perfect.
The cocktails are $18 apiece, but the bartenders know their craft, once you get their attention. A Rob Roy was prepared with Sheep Dip Whisky (they gave a taste of that on the side) and served with a 2-inch-square ice cube, the kind the top-drawer cocktail parlors use. The tab is transferred to the table if you ask.
The Sant Ambroseus team (who run this joint) clearly wanted the Regency to be higher-profile than 540 Park, the last restaurant in this space. They lured Dan Silverman from the Standard Grill downtown, where he got one star from Pete Wells. The guy has been around, including stops at Alison on Dominick, Union Square Cafe, and Lever House. He seems to last about five years, wherever he goes.
The opening was deftly publicized, with multiple blog posts on the likes of Eater, Grub Street, and similar sites, and a photo of Silverman in The Times. I’ll admit I was played. I have nothing against the neighborhood, as regular readers well know, but I wouldn’t ordinarily go running to an Upper East Side hotel restaurant.
The last time I sampled Silverman’s cooking was in 2006, at Lever House, where the prices (adjusted for inflation) were about the same as they are here. I wasn’t wowed and had no desire to go back. I have the same impression today.
Originally described as an “Italian grill” (yawn), the concept here morphed to a “modern American grill” (yawn yawn) after Silverman was hired. Fair enough: that’s what he does. But this menu really does feel like it’s phoned in. (Even Eater.com described it as a tweak of his Standard Grill menu, with just a slightly more Italian bent.)
Prices are stratospheric, with appetizers $16–29, most of the entrées in the $40s (steaks are more, as is Dover Sole, $65), side dishes $10–12.
I do not believe that an expensive menu has to be original, but if you don’t invent, then you have to deliver superior quality, and Silverman’s kitchen fails. Although the prices may be typical of the neighborhood at its best, the execution is not.
Consider the bread service (above right), served cold and without butter or olive oil. Or maybe they just forgot the olive oil: I thought I saw it at a distant table.
At $30, pasta with oxtail ragù (above left) is practically insulting, so lazy are the plating and assembly, so pedestrian are the ingredients. We ordered it as an appetizer to share. It arrived with no serving utensil, and we could not flag down a server who might have rectified the matter.
Chatham Cod ($38; above left) was not only one of the least expensive entrées, but one of the better items we tried. The Double-Cut Lamb Chop ($48; above right) resembles the Mutton Chop at Keens Steakhouse, but with the bone and the unctuous fat trimmed away. It is tougher and less evenly cooked than the two times I’ve had it at Keens.
Dinner ended with a respectable Lemon Tart ($12; right).
The wine list is better than the food. Former L2o sommelier Chantelle Pabros has assembled a strong international list that would reward repeat visits, although you won’t find many bargains. I loved the 2012 Vin des Amis that Pabros recommended after our first choice was out of stock, although at $60 it was a 200% markup above the online retail price, probably 300% above wholesale. (Pabros made up for the glitch with a comped glass of dessert wine.)
We sat in a cossetted, luxurious booth that did not give us much of a view of the rest of the large dining room. If I had to guess, the clientele was a mix of neighborhood folk and hotel guests, but they aren’t filling the place. A spot-check on OpenTable shows reservations available just about any day, any time.
The owners did a beautiful renovation and hired the right sommelier. They hired the wrong chef.
Regency Bar & Grill (540 Park Ave. between 61st & 62nd Streets, Upper East Side)
Food: Phoned-in upscale American at stratospheric prices
Service: Excellent (but expensive) wine service; bumbling servers
Ambiance: A gorgeous hotel restaurant, appropriate for the neighborhood
Rating: Not Recommended