Last month, news broke that Graydon Carter pulled the trigger on some big changes at his clubby and historic Midtown restaurant The Monkey Bar. He brought in downtown restaurateur Ken Friedman as a managing partner, former beverage director at The Modern Belinda Chang as GM, cocktail maven Julie Reiner to revamp the bar, and ex-Craft man Damon Wise to run the kitchen. Wise's new menu launched just last week, and Eater had the chance to sit down with him (at the restaurant) and owners Friedman and Carter (at Carter's massive Vanity Fair office) just as the new transitions were taking place. First, our chat with the owners. Check in later for a talk with Wise.
Graydon, at what point did you realize you wanted to revamp The Monkey Bar? Graydon Carter: It was when Ken called. We met up in Los Angeles and Ken was a great catalyst for making the changes we needed to at the restaurant. We were doing well but we weren't doing as well as we wanted to be doing. And Ken has a great Rolodex and watching the way he put this new team together, for somebody who's a novice in the restaurant business, it was really instructive.
You say business was good, but did you want a new vibe, better food? Business changed, I'll be honest with you. When we took over the Waverly Inn we went for one star food and we got it. And the same thing with The Monkey Bar. But the food business in New York over the last five years has changed dramatically and one star food doesn't cut it anymore. You have to aim higher and deliver more. We had good one star food but I think we're aiming higher now.
And Ken, why did you broach the question with Graydon? Did you see the restaurant and realize there was potential there? Ken Friedman: It was more selfish than that. When I heard that he bought the Waverly Inn and saw what he did with it, I felt envious and jealous and excited that there was somebody that has a day job and this was his hobby and he nailed it on his first one. He took a great place and didn't change it for the worse. And then when I heard he bought Monkey Bar I thought, 'Whoa another great one.' And I saw with Monkey Bar they got it right except...except for the food. Like what he said about the last five years...GC: I could be wrong but that's just my theory that it really has changed. You wouldn't have had these websites seven years ago. Elaine's was considered a good restaurant seven years ago. KF: I wouldn't go that far. GC: No. KF: It used to be food is great in fancy restaurants and food in bars was bar food and there was nothing in between. So you're right, things have changed in the last six, seven years. I reached out to Graydon to see if my hunch was right that he's into buying great old places and trying to bring them back to their past glory.
So at that point you were ready to bring in a new team in? GC: The aspirations for the food at The Monkey Bar were to do high-end club food, like iceberg lettuce with blue cheese. It wasn't Per Se we were doing. We wanted to do food that went with the history of the room...but Ken knew food and I didn't really know food. I rarely knowingly ate at 3-star restaurants in New York. And Ken, why Damon? KF: He was available. What happened was, when we started talking seriously about my involvement, I thought we needed to bring the right chef here. There was Laurent Gras, who is a great French chef, he was available. But we thought, 'Should we bring a fancy French in here?' And were like, 'Naw, it's The Monkey Bar. It's American.' Basically I thought, who is a great American chef [in the vein of] Gramercy Tavern or Craft GC: Had you known him before?KF Yeah. I knew Damon. One late night in the Breslin he came in and spilled the beans that he was ready to do his own thing. And I heard right around that time that he had given notice and left Tom to do his own restaurant. And then I heard where the restaurant was and it turns out we used to have our office in that building down on Hudson St. and we knew how bad a shape that building was in. So I texted him and we got together and I said I was going to do this thing The Monkey Bar, and it would be great if he came on board. He said well, you are right the building is falling apart and we've raised some money but we don't have enough. There was an opening for us to make a deal with the guy who is the most qualified to do this. He is an American chef. We had to make a deal with him where he was allowed to do his own thing when and if that place ever becomes available.
Graydon, how do you feel about ceding some of your American Classic dishes to his vision? GC: He wants to do some of his greatest hits, create some new greatest hits, and I'm sure through word of mouth he'll hear 'the chicken paillard needs to come back on the menu, etc.' He is clever and inventive enough to figure it out. We ate there last night with all my kids and it was the kind of thing where it is really hard to make a decision on what to eat, which is a good thing and one of the first times it's happened in a while there. And more importantly, my kids were really excited to eat there and they are real foodies the way I never ever was.
Are you keeping some of your favorite items on the menu? GC: I'm willing to let him do everything. We had a little dialogue about our bread, because we liked our bread, the monkey bread, and I'm sure he'll come up with a better version along those same lines. KF: He is going to hear, 'Oh where is that monkey bread?' He will figure out himself to put the monkey bread back on, just make it better. He is going to figure out himself what needs to be on there. GC: I bumped into Nick Mason, the old drummer from Pink Floyd, at the races in England about two weeks ago and the thing he said was 'Graydon, please don't take the meatloaf off the menu!' So any time Nick comes, we will have the meatloaf for him. And when Nora Ephron comes, because it's her meatloaf. I should probably tell Damon that. There is a pocket of meatloaf lovers and I am not one of them.
KF: The point is he is going to start getting real feedback, and once he gets a real kitchen staff, if he starts getting word from people, he will put the chicken paillard, or the chopped salad, or the lobster thermidor back on the menu. It seems like it would be fun for a chef to give it a go, you know, make lobster thermidor great. He was Colicchio's secret chef. Tom's last two restaurant got three stars and that was Damon, you know?
What do you envision for the front of house? I know that the exclusivity factor has evolved over the last few years... GC: Well, we have a listed phone number now. KF: The Monkey Bar got a bad rap because it was just hard to get in; it was a hot restaurant. People always say, 'Will I be able to get in now?' And I say, 'I hope not!' It wasn't on OpenTable before and maybe that is where people took issue. Waverly was different...GC: That was different because I was protective of Waverly because Sex and the City was still on and my favorite restaurant that I went to 500 times over 20 years—I saw my favorite restaurant get ruined. So I thought, if we do this little restaurant, let's not have those people and that reputation erroneously carried on to this.
So what is next for you guys? You were talking about doing more iconic restaurants perhaps? GC: I'd love to. It's the idea of having partners that want to do the same thing and being able to do something if Fanelli or Peter Luger or '21' or a great iconic place was going to close and be turned into a Shake Shack. KF: We are looking at a place now but can't say yet. GC: I like helping with the design of things, but I can't even make a sandwich. I have the education of a man who has been on an expense account and I know what it's like at the other side of the table and what makes an experience pleasant. For me, going to dinner is partially about food and drink, but really it's more about the people you go with. I don't like hallowed halls of dining where you have to talk in a whisper and are served on porcelain made over 100 years ago. KF: His attention to detail is amazing. He thinks about things like who should sit where, things that are important. I thought I was good at this but he walks into a room...GC: You want roughly the same experience you had the last time each time you go to a restaurant. Most people like to sit around the same three or four tables they sat in last time and I have a pretty good memory for that. There is always anxiety coming in so the more you can do to remove that anxiety is better.
Has the business changed already because of the revamp announcement? GC: Not really. Lunch is good. We saw a line at lunch which we haven't seen before. Dinner is good. Word of mouth is very powerful and people will start talking. KF: The great thing about Graydon and Jeff and Anna is that they were proactive. They didn't wait until the place lost money. GC: Proactive without knowing what to do. KF: You didn't wait until you were losing money. You know when the stench of death gets on a restaurant, you never want something to end up on the Deathwatch.
· Ken Friedman, Damon Wise, Julie Reiner Join Monkey Bar [~ENY~}
· All Coverage of The Monkey Bar [~ENY~]