The location of the new Playboy Club is not auspicious: across the street from a Travelodge Motel, west of 10th Avenue on 42nd Street, and next to a police station specializing in anti-terrorism maneuvers. As I wait outside for my dining companion, a long line of cops in black combat gear hustle out in a snaking formation, their machine guns angled downward.
Having lived through the Playboy era myself, I was curious to see how the club would adapt itself to a 21st century outlook. Would criticism by early feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem lead to a reappraisal of the advisability of treating women like bunnies? A host of younger colleagues seemed interested, too, while maybe not fully understanding the anger the club had engendered during its years of operation, 1962 to 1986.
Two guys in suits stand outside, one a bouncer poised between potted fir trees. The only identifier on the black awning of the revival, which opened last month, is a white bunny profile with ears erect. It was an insignia we were to see repeated hundreds of times in the interior. “Are you a member?” he asks. “No,” I reply, “I thought you could get a drink or dinner here without being a member.”
“You must have a reservation, then,” he says as he eyeballs me skeptically. I reply no, then ask if he wants me to make one on OpenTable via my phone. He excuses himself, goes inside as if to garner a difficult permission, and then minutes later emerges to usher us in.
The interior and the costume
Painted black, tiled black and white, and hung with photos that recalled the heyday of the New York Playboy Club, the entrance hall reminded me of a bus station bathroom. A quick turn put us in a combo barroom and dining room that was also relentlessly black, with bunny heads embossed on metal squares as wall coverings. The effect was gloomy, like an Edgar Allen Poe story.
Two human bunnies bounced cheerfully behind a podium, white tales wagging in the near darkness. They directed us to a table on the other side of the circular bar. Behind the bar, a DJ covered in tattoos spun dance beats. Behind him, a bunny head was projected on the wall like the bat signal.
My companion, once a lingerie designer at Victoria’s Secret before becoming a rock critic, enthusiastically deconstructed the iconic costume for me. “I wonder who made them?” She asked. “Some don’t quite fit.” Indeed, their chests didn’t seem quite contained by the outfits, which came in either black or very dark shades of red or blue, some with sequins. No pastel bunny suits of yore, or white outfits like Debbie Harry sometimes wore. There were tall bunnies and short bunnies, black bunnies and white bunnies, all pencil thin.
“They’re very tightly corseted,” my friend noted, “and the leg scoops go up very high on the thigh. Not to make the leg look longer, but to make the waist look slimmer.” The fluffy tails seemed to be attached in such a way that they could be lifted up, if the bunny needed to sit. Nevertheless, we never saw any of them sit. Perhaps most disturbing was the “bunny dip,” by which the bunnies, when attending a table, thrust their pressed-together knees forward in a half-crouch, then extend their hands, palms upward, in a supplicating gesture.
The menu was surprisingly short, consisting of appetizers, sushi, salads, and main courses, of which there were only six, including entirely predictable salmon filets, hamburgers, and steaks frites. The accompanying fries were repurposed as an appetizer, and there were other overlaps. Drinks were priced $18 and up, the lower price for a glass of white fizzy Albrecht Cremant. Mixed drinks were $26 and had names like careless whisper, call me, and a bunny thing.
We started out with a dish called 14th street salad. “Why is it named after 14th Street?” I asked our bunny Alexa, who was a personable woman in a carmine costume. “Well, you know, it has so many vegetables in it,” she improvised. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful fresh salad made with pristine ingredients in a delicate lemony dressing. If you’d paid $10 for it you’d be quite happy. At the Playboy Club, it goes for $21.
And so it went with our other selections, prosaic food of good quality at fantastically inflated prices. The truffle fries came in a metal cone for $16, with just the right douse of truffle oil, while the yellowtail and jalapeño roll, sided with a ponzu dipping sauce, was meager for $18. It was dull, too, and the sliver of pepper held no heat. Sad that executive chef Tabitha Yeh, who trained at Per Se and Bar Masa, and consultant and Nobu veteran Richie Notar, provide so little latitude in their sushi offerings, which are mainly rolls.
Entrees were also in a comfort food vein with no surprises. The chicken Milanese ($38) was fried to perfection and topped with a salad containing a julienne of apple — though disappointingly, the salad was otherwise identical to the one we’d just eaten. At this price point, you expect every dish to be notably different. The biggest rip-off of the evening was a lobster mac and cheese whose $45 price tag caused our jaws to drop. Though it came in a tiny black Le Creuset dutch oven, there wasn’t all that much lobster among the pasta twists.
During our meal, which started at 6 p.m. and lasted until around 8 p.m., there were only two other tables of diners, though a fair number of paunchy, middle-aged men in their shirtsleeves had filed in and taken their places at the bar. With a dearth of customers, a sense of disaster hung over the operation. Though, who knows, nearer the weekend maybe the place is mobbed.
Our tour almost reaches the Rabbit Hole
Fearing to deplete our financial resources further, we refused repeated drink offers, skipped the desserts entirely, and prepared to leave. Curious about the dining room adjacent, we crept over there and discovered our way blocked by a velvet rope. A very tall blonde bunny in stiletto heels scampered up and informed us, “That’s the members-only part of the club.”
“But I’d be glad to give you a tour,” she continued, then launched into a practiced spiel that began, “Memberships go from $1,000 a year to $250,000. The higher end includes rides on the Playboy jet and rides to the Playboy Club in the Playboy limo. And you get to sit in any areas you’d like to in the private club space.”
She let us peek into the main club room, which consisted of four red alcoves, furnished with comfy couches and decorated with nostalgic photos of Playboy’s better days. We toured the Bunny Lounge, the Grotto Lounge, the Royal Lounge, and one called the Playboy Mansion, decorated with a photo of the late Hugh Hefner with a line of bunnies in front of the Playboy jet. Between the Grotto and the Royal lounges sloshed a fish tank with a bunny head inside. “Two of the angelfish were imported from Japan, but I don’t know which ones,” our host confessed.
A further room was even more heavily fortified, with a woman in a black dress rather than a bunny costume guarding the door. “I shouldn’t really take you in here,” she noted, “it’s an invitation-only Louis XIII cognac tasting.” As double doors swept open, an oblong room appeared with colored lights shooting up its walls. On a raised platform by a bar, a knot of perhaps 30 guests turned and looked questioningly at us. Meanwhile on the main floor, a lone electric violinist danced around the room, sawing frantically at his instrument.
As we left, our host bunny delivered the coup de gras of her sales pitch: “Downstairs in the best part of being a member, the two-story Rabbit Hole.” Perhaps seeing us wince at the name, she explained, “That was the name of the space in the old Playboy Club, and we decided to keep it. It has a 10 foot chandelier, and plenty of extras for members only. But it’s not quite finished yet.”
A retrospect on bunnydom
As we emerged into the fresh air, we felt like we’d been released from a jail with exceptional food. But why is the Playboy Club re-emerging decades after its obsolescence? Certainly, it still feels like a ritualized humiliation of women, especially on the heels of the #MeToo movement, but with the modern trappings of an expensive restaurant aimed at tourists tacked on.
I couldn’t help recalling what Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, had said to Hugh Hefner when encountering him on the set of the Dick Cavett show in 1970, “The day you come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear end …”
And let’s not forget that Gloria Steinem went undercover as a bunny, producing a two-part expose in 1963 (part one, part two) in Show magazine. Especially savor her description of trying to get into her bunny costume: “The boning in the waist would have made Scarlett O’Hara blanch.” She revealed all the rules and the punishing demerit system bunnies endured, and the requirement that they date club members who fall at the top tier level. Whether or not punishments like this still apply, the article is an eye opener about the overt sexual harassment bunnies suffered in a job falsely portrayed as glamorous.
No bunnies became rich; in fact most barely scraped by. Really, you’ve got to read this article to believe it. Doubtlessly many of these practices would be illegal today, but the central kernel of the system remains: women dressed in strangling costumes forced to behave obsequiously. It’s hard to believe the Playboy Club can still exist.
Would I go again? All together, it was a cringe-worthy experience, eating expensive comfort food in a dark room, as waitresses in leporine costumes passed by like shadows in a nightmare, recreating a sad spectacle from decades ago calculated to massage the male ego.