This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger, 3/31/11]
The last time I went to Isabella's was in the early 1990s. I was meeting the woman who would become my mother-in-law for brunch. The Upper West Side bastion was a big brunch place back then. I haven't been back until the other night. And it's still a big brunch place.
I can understand why, after 23 years, people still drift in this direction when a hunger for mimosas and eggs benedict grips their mind. The corner space is light and airy, has walls of french doors and chairs of wicker. It feels like it's in Sag Harbor or some such comforting, complacent weekend place. And the view can't be beat from the sidewalk seating; that's the Museum of Natural History across the street. I also understand why my mother-in-law—never an adventurous soul when it came to dining—liked Isabella's. It's anodyne. The atmosphere is familiar, the crowd very homogenous, the food perfectly inoffensive and unthreatening. It's safe.
Isabella's is owned by Stephen Hanson's big conglomerate BR Guest (Ruby Foo's, Blue Water Grill). Maybe that's why—even though there are no other Isabella's in the world—it has a bit of the feeling of a chain. There's a TV at the bar and potted trees here and there. The perfectly friendly and courteous staff sang along with the Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson piped through the speakers and joked with each other in the corner by the hostess stand, like the waiters at Applebee's might.
The Isabella's crowd skews older. I get the feeling a lot of families, and couples, and couples who like to dine together, have been relying on it as a fallback for years. A common scene: one or two diners chatting, who are then met by a third, and then joined by another. It's a gathering place. Big parties are not a problem. My waitress told me the clientele is a mix of local Upper West Siders and tourists looking for a place to eat before or after a visit to the museum or Central Park. A steady flow of tourist cash will keep even the more anonymous place in business. And, yes, people do come here for dinner. It's not all about the brunch.
—Brooks of Sheffield