It's Alive? What It Takes to Re-Animate a Restaurant 🧟♂️
Three tacks restaurateurs take when reviving a classic haunt
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that there are, “no second acts in American lives.” This maxim — however misquoted and, ultimately, untrue (ask any politician) — might well apply to restaurants. Think about it: what iconic eatery has gone from shuttered to re-animated and lived to tell the tale? Sadly, few, especially here in NYC, where gravestones of once beloved institutions speckle the city. Remember Chumley’s 2.0? Or how about that $40 million sequel to The Four Seasons, which felt doomed far before a sexual harassment scandal dealt it the killer blow? Not even nightclubs like Studio 54 have been able to court the zeitgeist twice.
So…what gives? Are successful remakes only the stuff of Hollywood? Why does the revived institution rarely work? This question has been on our minds since grabbing drinks and oysters last week at Milady’s, the former seedy SoHo standby that — following an eight-year hiatus — recently reopened as a cocktail bar and small bites spot. Gone are the cheese fries and pool table, in are banquets, apple-infused martinis, and chilled lobster tail. It’s all done in loving homage to the OG, which proprietress Julie Reiner (of Clover and Pegu Clubs fame) first frequented in the ‘90s, meaning you get plenty of cheeky references in the form of gelatin shots, Jalapeño poppers, and other twists on dive bar staples. The details are rich, the vibe is strong, the location is killer, meaning Milady’s seems poised for success.
Still, seeing the revered drinking den/grease pit reincarnate got us thinking about what a tough gambit the second act is for a well-known and much-loved restaurant. Will Monkey Bar survive its latest iteration? If Belmond ever reopens ‘21’ Club will it be cool or cringey? What other Frankenstein’s monsters are in the works? Time will tell.
That’s not to say, however, that the restaurant re-animation cannot be pulled off. While the second act is hard to make work, it sometimes does — for evidence look no further than a few of the wild success stories referenced below. Which leads us to our point: if a restaurateur is hellbent on reviving a classic joint, there are three well-trodden routes they can choose from — some more perilous than others…
Reopen as itself and expand geographically
Of all the tacks a restaurateur can take when reviving a classic, maintaining the original’s overall look and feel while expanding to other cities is certainly the most robust. Just look at Pastis, which Keith McNally and Stephen Starr reopened in 2019 following a five year hiatus, and quickly won over habitués of the original by evoking its Sex and the City nostalgia and detail (right down to the same phone number) but expanded the size. In fact, the perennial hotspot will soon expand beyond the spacious three rooms it now occupies at its new Meat Packing address, with outposts planned to open in Miami and D.C.
Reopen, but make it fancier
This one’s dicey, because when you change a restaurant that people loved, you are messing with their expectations. They walk in hoping to recapture the magic, and suddenly everything from the decor to the drinks, the menu to the crowd is different. “It’s not the same,” the old regulars will gripe, and rarely will they return. Meaning rather than trade on its timeless rep, the revived restaurant now has to win over an entirely new crew of customers — no small feat. Case in point: Chumley’s. When the celebrated West Village speakeasy (a literary hangout favored by the likes of Faulkner and Steinbeck) reopened in 2016, the wooden tables were gone and the sawdust littering the floor had long been vacuumed up, replaced by leather tufted booths, a pricey menu, and a hard to come by reservation. The original survived prohibition, but its reincarnation couldn’t make it through Covid.
Reopen, but make it more exclusive
Graydon Carter, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair (and current scourge of Keith McNally) did this not once, but twice. First came The Waverly Inn, which he transformed from a low-key Greenwich Village hangout with nearly a centenary of history into a mid-aughts hotspot that exerted the same gravitational pull on celebs that Carbone does today. The food — like John DeLucie’s $55 truffle-topped mac ’n cheese — was good, but the people watching was spectacular (if you could snag a reservation at this unlisted “clubhouse”). Carter took a similar approach two years later with Monkey Bar (even commissioning another Edward Sorel mural to encircle the dining room), re-making the midtown relic into what the New York Times dubbed, “a kind of clubby crossroads for fame and power.”
Since those heady days, The Waverly has soldiered on, albeit as a more laidback and accessible version of its former self, while Monkey Bar — another Covid casualty — reopened thanks to the team behind Au Cheval and 4 Charles. A source deemed a recent Saturday night at Monkey Bar fantastic (“just like the old days”), which begs the question: if you change the menu but keep the decor intact (as they have) will that satisfy the sentimentalists?
(For examples from further afield, see LA institutions Dear John’s and Sunset Tower — both currently enjoying exclusive second lives).
So what’s the verdict? Why do some re-animations work when others fall flat? Regardless of tack, credit must be given to the restaurateur who pulls it off — the best being masters of vision and timing and execution — but the tactic they choose counts, too. Judging from the examples above, it seems that going fancy is the highest degree of difficulty play, while leaning on exclusivity is possibly somewhat easier. And yet consider Monkey Bar, which took two tries at vintage exclusivity — first under Carter, now under Hogsalt — to fully restore it to its former glory.
That said, the revival restaurant remains perhaps this industry’s toughest nut to crack — our proverbial boogeyman. Chalk that one up to human psyche, which remains forever skeptical of facsimiles. In this case, it’s another overused Fitzgerald quote that proves more prophetic — the one spoken by Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway as he observes that titular character’s romantic delusions with pity:
"'Can’t repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!'
"He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach..."
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
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Hi James, thoroughly enjoyed. I'd add Franny's, the beloved Brooklyn pizzeria, as a reference to point 1