Hidden away on a shady corner of the West Village, at 16 Bank Street and Waverly Place, the Waverly Inn is a historic tavern dating to 1844, when it served as both bar and bordello. But it didn’t become a sit-down restaurant until the 1920s, when it began serving tavern-style food. Later it become more of a literary tea house, visited by Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, known as Vincent, who was the Taylor Swift of her age — beautiful, talented, and seemingly everywhere.
It had settled into being a tavern again by the 1960s, with a classic menu of pot roast, lamb, and lobster — standard tavern fare back then; funny how diners have come to expect hamburgers and chicken wings in the interim. But by the time I visited around 2000, the place seemed rundown and the food wasn’t very good. Enter Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, who bought it in 2006 and turned it into what felt like a semi-private club. It gradually became the celebrity hangout it is today, catering to regulars like Toni Morrison, Harvey Weinstein, Fran Lebowitz, and what the New York Times described as “ leggy model types and junior investment bankers.”
The place seems to look about the same as it would have nearly 200 years ago: a brick townhouse with a wood-framed front porch and mullioned windows, and an interior consisting of a barroom, a pair of dining rooms, and a back porch visible from the sidewalk through a vine-covered iron fence. Fireplaces, murals from Edward Sorel, and bric-a-brac grace the interior. The place continues to entertain celebrities, and before Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce walked out together on a recent evening, Meg Ryan, Robert DeNiro, and Gwyneth Paltrow were spotted there. Part of the appeal for A-listers is the Waverly Inn’s discretion: “Photography prohibited inside the restaurant,” reads an italicized note at the bottom of the menu.
Being non-celebrities, our party of three was seated in an outdoor shed, even though the place was half-empty every time we went inside to go to the bathroom, to check out the murals, or look for Taylor Swift. But first we had a drink at the bar before being sent into exile. The service was impeccable, both at the bar and on the Bank Street pavement.
We started out with a wonderful basket of three biscuits (free), and proceeded to a heap of onion rings ($12) with a thick beer batter and peppery pink aioli — so good we downed them immediately and scooped up the crumbs. While I won’t say the local burrata ($28) was a complete disaster, the bruleed figs, pomegranate syrup, red radicchio slaw, basil oil, etc., served with a single piece of burned toast tasted like the ingredients were strangers that found themselves in the same cab.
Things picked up considerably, though, with the entrees. The Amish chicken ($38) was the perfect tavern main course. With its almost-crisp skin and deeply flavored flesh, it would go with any drink you might choose, be it beer, ale, wine, mixed drinks, or even shots of scotch. The spaetzle underneath was oddly tossed with shredded, mustard-slicked cabbage, but somehow it worked.
There were huzzahs at our table for the tavern’s namesake cheeseburger ($29), one of the best ever. White cheddar mantled the patty, and the medium-rare mince displayed minerality without being greasy or sloppy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a gourmet burger costing $30 or so, and the fat dribbled out and spattered on the plate (and on my shirt) as I lifted it up. Restaurateurs take note: Fat control is an important part of expensive burgers. The fries tasted of chervil, but not in a bad way.
But the best thing of the evening was a dish that might have been served in the same spot 100 years ago. Chicken pot pie descends from the ancient English tradition of meat pies: peas, carrots, and potatoes in a pale gravy with plenty of poultry. The menu describes the dish quite hilariously by using French words like mirepoix and velouté. Trust me, it’s just a plain pot pie with a perfect flaky crust. And it’s the one dish not to be missed at Waverly Inn, one that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a rustic tavern in the outskirts of colonial New York. Expect to see George Washington riding by on a horse, maybe with Taylor Swift side-saddle on the back.