Walker Evans reportedly ate there in the early ’40s, and so did martyred Reds Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Berenice Abbott lived in an apartment above it for 30 years, and presumably ate there too. What would they have eaten? An old Blue Mill menu lists such classic American fare as fried chicken, potted beef, and liver and onions, along with Portuguese specialties like caldo verde and frango a mamarrosa. But while Craig Claiborne praised the ambience and service in a 1960s New York Times dining guide, he found the food “undistinguished but palatable.”
In 1990 the space was reborn as Grange Hall, offering a cooking-school spin on Midwestern food, slinging organic roast chicken, smoked trout, cranberry-glazed pork chops, and succotash, in apparent emulation of a wood-paneled Wisconsin taproom. The bucolic and obscure location at the corner of Commerce and Barrow continued to attract celebrities. Liv Tyler celebrated her 15th birthday there, and this year, the final episode of Sex and the City was filmed on the premises soon after Grange Hall died. Now 50 Commerce has relaunched as the Blue Mill.
Since the ’30s, when it was a speakeasy, the charming interior has remained nearly unchanged. Mahogany booths trace a sinuous path around the floor of the mirrored dining room, where you can spy on dating couples as you eat your dinner, like flipping channels between reality TV shows. The new menu continues to evoke supper clubs past. If you thought you couldn’t get prime rib without driving 50 miles into Jersey, think again. This roadhouse favorite ($27), really just a slice of rib roast, is a hard hat’s dream—oozing red and nearly eclipsing the plate. A side of creamy spinach orbits like a planet’s tiny green moon. But who bothers to gaze at it before the beef has disappeared?
Curiously, the best selection is a holdover from Grange Hall. Succotash ($18) is the real, unreconstructed thing, a fistfight of sweet-corn kernels and tender baby lima beans refereed by big chunks of smoky bacon. The bacon juice mixes with the native moisture of the vegetables into an irresistible fluid. As if the succotash weren’t tasty enough, five large scallops—the ostensible stars of the plate—are seared to caramelization on one side and hunkered in the succotash. Other entrées are no less impressive.
A couple of dishes are borrowed from venerable restaurants of the past. There’s Coach House black-bean soup ($7), filling a large bowl with beany savor, the more so when you pour in the flagon of sherry that comes alongside, and from Los Angeles’s Brown Derby, an orderly Cobb salad that, at $14, is the perfect light meal. Nothing spectacular about the beet salad and its unassertive horseradish dressing, which trails across the plate like jism; the mussels, however, are superb. Fresh even on a Sunday evening, these beautiful bivalves arrive dotted with garlic and herbs and scattered with diced tomatoes. Speaking of seafood, there’s a cod entrée. It might have been a bit boring by itself, but chef Pitita Lago dresses it up Spanish-style with littleneck clams and chunks of chorizo, oozing odiferous red oil into the broth that lingers in the bottom of the bowl. One delicious taste and you won’t be surprised to learn that the chef hails from Puerto Rico and Italy.