By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Long before Scarface inspired countless rappers' dreams of money and power, Miamiwith its balmy weather, checkered history, and touch of Mediterranean lassitudewas the destination for sun-kissed wealth and glamour. Attempting to bring some of that beachy appeal to this city is the Hudson River Café (697 West 133rd Street), which opened its doors a little more than eight weeks ago in far, far West Harlemthankfully not yet known as WeHa.
Entering the enormous bilevel bar and restaurant feels like stepping onto a yacht. The all-white ground floor houses a sleek bar and a scattering of tables. A dark wood staircase descends dramatically from the ceiling to connect to the upper-level dining room for those in search of more intimate seating. The place aims for the louche charm of a South Beach club: think Ocean Drive transported to Twelfth Avenue. Unfortunately, during a recent visit in a smothering heat wave, the place was in desperate need of some spice. The staff was immaculately turned out in white button-downs and long black aprons, but seemed seriously inexperienced. At the bar, Blue Point Ales ($6) were tasty, but a Mount Gay and tonic ($8) was suspiciously clear. When we complained, the barkeep seemed befuddled: "Oh, I thought you said Grey Goose. Do you want to drink it anyway?" Uh, no. As if in compensation, the next version was practically all rum and no tonic. No complaints this time.
The spot's real draw is the spacious front patio (also two levels), which conveniently has its own bar. There's no waiting to flag down a harried server.
Sitting at tables beneath salmon-colored umbrellas, intrepid diners braved the humidity, ordering dishes like Buffalo Shrimp ($12) from the seafood-centric menu and leaning their faces into the faint wisp of a breeze. The soundtrack of smooth jazz and r&b made it seem like Crockett and Tubbs were going to show up any minute. A waiter, asked for cocktail advice, warned against the Sweet Cotton Club ($8), a vodka-Frangelico concoction. "I'm embarrassed it's on the menu," he confessed, and then pointed to the 1921 Meat Packing District Mojito ($10), a deceptively innocent-tasting but potent alternative.
Despite being located practically in the river, the café's view was limited by the Henry Hudson Parkway and Amtrak rails, which run disconcertingly close to the upper deck. The crowd grew as the night progressed, as older couples who had lingered over dessert moved on and ceded the evening to a younger, thirstier crowd that didn't care about the muggy air and lack of private yachts or cavorting model-types. It wasn't hard to imagine a table of ladies who looked more like Mo'Nique than Beyoncé putting down their white wines, pushing their chairs aside, and clearing space for a dance floor; while, at another table, a group of middle-aged guys in their summer best-tank tops and basketball shortschatted over beers. Maybe later the two groups would converge. Given a few more weeks to smooth out the remaining kinksthe prices on the wine list shoot from reasonable to astronomical without much middle groundthe place could be the beginning of Miami-to-Harlem invasion.