Clubstaurant is a term bandied about in the Eater NY newsroom a lot lately, and I’ve got to admit to not knowing exactly what it meant. It is obviously a portmanteau of “club” and “restaurant,” but beyond that: Did patrons in skimpy clothes dance languidly while balancing plates of food? Did they pump their arms high while sitting at tiny tables sipping cocktails?
I was soon to find out. Unbeknownst to me, several restaurants on my To Do list are actually clubstaurants, and I found myself in several last week. I learned that they tend to occupy hulking, high-ceilinged spaces with glitzy decor — nothing subtle here. Disappointingly, there is no dance floor. Instead, dance music is played at an ear-splitting volume, so that conversation becomes impossible as the evening progresses. Sure, music can be loud in regular restaurants, too, but it often recesses into the background, while in clubstaurants, dance music is played loud enough to be recognizable: Pet Shop Boys gives way to Wizkid followed by Marcos Valle. Then Frank Sinatra bellows out “My Way” with a disco beat and the crowd goes wild.
I quickly learned that I’d been in clubstaurants before. Tao was probably the first, located in a former movie theater in Midtown. When I visited in 2000 and found the food mediocre, I proclaimed “A new circle of hell has been prepared, and Tao is its name.” These days, Tao has over 30 NYC locations and a new high-end Japanese restaurant in the Moxy on the Lower East Side, along with four other concepts within the hotel.
Much like wine bars and speakeasies, alcohol is the point. Open the menu and find page after page of elaborate cocktails in the $25 range. The wine lists are surprisingly decent, but forget about beer — nobody wants to encounter a beer drinker in a clubstaurant. Upselling alcohol is the focus of service and clearing the tables of dirty dishes is often neglected.
The latest round of clubstaurants has upped its food game. Take Reyna from Toronto near Union Square, an import that specializes in food of the Mediterranean rim. Up a ramp resides a boxcar of a room with an arched shelved bar. Dangling lampshades of pink ostrich feathers accent the space, and spindly trees tower here and there, casting shadows that recall Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man”:
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Expensive appetizers dominate the menu. Miniature Turkish manti (5 for $19) soak in spiced yogurt, while lamb baklava designates one-bite shredded-wheat bonbons with a bright yellow gravy ($8 each). The best deal was the so-called French fries — potato sticks with a choice of Greek, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian toppings. Served in a brown-paper cone and priced at $12, the Spanish version comes deliciously heaped with chorizo and cheese. Lebanese tacos were also good, one stuffed with falafel, the other with chicken. This dish may be aimed at garnering coverage in the food press and has succeeded.
But then the paella arrived. Pegged at $72, it was furnished with an impressive quantity of clams, mussels, squid, baby octopus, shrimp, and chicken, but it had a bitter aftertaste that no number of lemon squeezes could dispel. Meanwhile, my friends and I sampled showy cocktails like the fruity King Arthur’s concubine ($19) — featuring a glittering spoon of tapioca pearls and a sprig of tarragon.
The next night I found myself at Ixta. Located in the old DBGB space on the Bowery just north of Houston, its focus on Oaxacan fare attracted my attention. I went for lunch one day and had excellent chilaquiles with fried eggs — but I’d been seated in what turned out to be the lobby, not realizing that through a set of curtains was a room duded up like a royal banquet hall. Dozens of rattan lampshades hung overhead; bright paintings of tropical foliage lined the walls, and pottery in niches created a sense of museum formality.
A few nights later, the room was nearly empty at 6:30 p,m., but as our meal progressed the place filled up with diners in disco attire. My cocktail (Ixta Nixta, $17) had corn husk in it that was set aflame as it was served. I was disappointed to see the dinner menu expanded to focus less on Oaxacan fare and more on pan-Mexican food. Several of the most interesting dishes from my earlier visit (including one featuring duck) were gone.
The Baja-style aguachile ($27) had a pink hibiscus broth and plenty of fish, cukes, and purple onions. The green pozole I’d craved had disappeared, so my date and I ordered Spanish papas bravas — each crisp potato chunk coated with smoky chiles Moritas. A pair of enchiladas divorciadas ($27) sported a black mole on one and red mole on the other. In the Oaxacan style, these were really enmoladas, the tortillas loosely folded over a filling of mixed vegetables.
A pair of birria tacos ($21) rounded out our meal — made with the traditional goat rather than the ubiquitous beef. Overstuffed and fatty, they were the best birria I’d tasted outside of Los Angeles. I’m not kidding! We had a couple of great desserts, too, including some globular churros and a tres leches cake smothered in goo.
As we left, the room filled up with customers sporting gold chains and white turtlenecks. In the lobby, a cocktail party materialized in which everyone was speaking Russian. Some attendees wore tuxes, inducing a feeling of vertigo as we, in shabbier clothes, were whisked out the door like unwanted interlopers.