On almost any given night at Peels, the two-story restaurant is as crowded as a house party after finals—a jostling, buzzy scene where you might get awkwardly chatted up by a guy brandishing a beer or take an accidental ponytail-to-the-face from a long-legged girl. Reservations aren’t taken for a party under six, so you’ve got to wedge yourself into the bar upstairs, which looks out on the corner of the Bowery and East 2nd Street, and bide your time with a Sazerac and the boppy ’80s New Wave music. Your table is unlikely to open up anytime soon, so watching the various tribes of attractive people becomes part of the fun.
Peels has been described as an upscale diner, but I don’t quite see it that way. It’s more like an of-the-moment New York bistro, one specializing in the gussied-up regional American food that’s so faddish now. It reminds me most of the Standard Grill—though Peels is smaller and less brash—in the way it seems to relish its pretty crowdedness and how the food is cooked with straightforward skill.
The restaurant is the second joint venture of Taavo Somer and William Tigertt, of the Lower East Side’s Freemans. Strangely enough, according to a representative for the restaurant, the name “Peels” has no meaning at all. But it’s such a tactile word that it feels like it should have a meaning. I kept thinking of compost: discarded citrus rind and potato skins. (Also, the name makes Googling difficult: Spas that specialize in facial peels keep popping up.) Preston Madson and Ginger Pierce are co-chefs, putting out breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The evening menu is an oddly appealing mix of trendy Southern (fried chicken, biscuits, shrimp and grits) and Southwestern/Latin American (lamb shank with mole, “Baja” salad).
During the day, that menu is transformed into one of eggs and sandwiches—many made with the same ingredients you’ll find at dinner, like fried chicken on a potato roll, or a crusty loaf filled with smoked trout spread. And the difference in the vibe of the place is like—sorry!—night and day. At breakfast and lunch, Peels seems like the Platonic ideal of a coffee shop: light, airy, and cheerful, where you can sit with a sandwich and a cup of tea or take a coffee and a sweet to go. Pastry chef Shuna Lydon ably impersonates a Midwestern grandma, concocting moist apple-walnut Bundt cake, banana muffins, and biscuits so rich and flaky they remind me of pie crust. You can skip the homemade Oreo, which has an overwhelmingly rich center of creamed butter and sugar.
The dinner experience at Peels depends on where you’re sitting—one night, we were downstairs at the long communal table around which a large number of wooden stools are clustered. We were seated next to each other, facing another couple, uncomfortably close. This really isn’t the place to linger over two courses and a bottle of wine. Try to get a table on the spacious second floor instead, where you can settle in with the generous, though uneven, plates.
The marquee fried chicken, for example, is only serviceable, boasting a rippled, crunchy crust and juicy flesh but an unfortunate lack of seasoning. The giant slice of watermelon that comes alongside makes a nice trick, but the half-ear of corn is as waterlogged and soggy as the ones you get at KFC.
For a better oil-sizzled treat, try the andouille corn dogs, the spicy pink sausages encased in puffy, sweetish corn batter, which you can hold by the stick and dip into the grainy, sharp Creole mustard. That dish comes from the appetizer section of the menu, as did many of our other favorites: Seared squid is outstanding, and much more exciting than it sounds, the tender tentacles entwined with browned onions, charred peppers de padrón, and cilantro. Shrimp and grits are pooled with a buttery shrimp stock sauce, scattered with juicy pink Gulf shrimp and hunks of bacon, crowned with a wobbly fried egg.
The trout spread is excellent, rich and briny, but it comes with only a few austere crudités and no bread—how are you meant to eat a heap of spread with only a few tiny radishes? We asked for bread, and received exactly five small scraps for a table of four. Maybe they’re used to everyone being secret Atkins devotees? (Now that I think about it, the fried chicken would have been better off sided with a biscuit or some mashed potatoes, instead of that corn.)
Meat stars in the main dishes. The requisite burger is piled with pickles and cheddar, the beef coarsely ground and juicy—so drippy, in fact, that the soft potato bun it’s served on barely holds up. But the best part about the burger is the fries. They’re perfect: skin-on and robust with crusty exteriors crunching into creamy innards. Three steaks made from grass-fed Piedmontese beef are also on offer. The T-bone is the least expensive at a whopping $40, a great slab of a thing that overhangs the platter. The flesh is marvelously mineral and complex, with a nutty, Parmesan aroma that comes from long aging.
We all took bites of that steak from my friend Miriam’s plate, chewing slowly and sniffing at it, which probably made us look pretty strange. It was a remarkable dish in a restaurant that serves lots of solid, pleasant stuff, but little that’s truly memorable. Whether or not you want to wait 30 or 40 minutes to eat this food depends on how enamored you are with the shining scene of it. Otherwise, go for lunch, when you can relax and have as many carbs from the bakery case as you like.