Late in the evening, herds of single men and women gather at the Penrose. Their voices bounce off the white tiled floors and hardwood ceilings, churning together in a tireless, earsplitting echo—the calls of the Upper East Sider seeking a mate.
This watering hole that opened in June is a sprawl of three dim chambers that, when full, reverb like an aquarium during a school field trip. You’ll need a few drinks to enjoy yourself, and the Penrose is happy to oblige. “It won’t be a minute,” said the Irish hostess when I asked for a table. “Get a cocktail, and it’ll fly by!” I did get one—a pleasant martini spiked with pickle juice ($11)—but the minute turned into an hour and 15. The noise level rose furiously, and the bar squashed in with thirtysomethings: men in polo shirts and shorts who know how to style their hair properly, women in fitted jeans and high heels who live with their sisters and visit the bathroom in groups. Later, the suits arrived with their ties off, buttons undone, phones in hand. Still, our table wasn’t ready. There was nothing to do but drink.
The Penrose might know the truth about deep-fried sausages: They’re best when you yourself are frizzled, when you greet them with a reckless, drunken appetite. In this case, the wait prepares you to truly enjoy the wee pair of soft, sweet pork bangers from Butcher Block, pillowed in beery batter ($6). If you come early, before the crowds, a pickleback will also do the trick—a shot of Powers chased with a spicy shot of McClure’s.
The Penrose comes from the same group who brought us the Wren, Wilfie & Nell, Sweet Afton, and Bua—friendly spots across the city that know how to feed people who have been drinking. David Mawhinney is in the kitchen here, serving a small menu of cleaned-up pub standards. The food appears quickly, all at once, and much of it is fried. The fried pickles—nuggets of McClure’s in golden cushions of beignet batter—are good for a few laughs. Fried chicken ($9)—two big, crisp pieces—arrived with nothing else, but they were cooked nicely and well seasoned. A wedge salad ($9) was an icebox cold, umami-rich throwback, scattered generously with bacon. Mac and cheese ($10) in a cast-iron saucepan was cute, though not wrapped in the deep, cheese-enriched béchamel that macaroni deserves. Oyster sliders ($4 each) make for a neater cocktail snack, a single fried oyster in a bun with bacon and pickles, the pub’s motifs. The kitchen fails us in only one major way: It does not serve dessert. Not even chocolate-chip cookies, not even ice cream.
But let’s be honest, the food here is beside the point. “I need a man,” declared the blond stranger at the head of my communal table. Although small groups can find private booths, and there is a handful of tables for two, shared tables are common. She looked around, sighed, and settled for a beef sandwich ($12) instead—sliced brisket stuffed between two slices of bread with a touch of mustard. The meat is cured for more than a month, but it disappears in a matter of minutes.
Downstairs, women huddled outside the bathroom and discussed the ins and outs of “being too good for him.” Inside the bathroom, the conversation turned to men as well. “I just love it right at the beginning, when like, everything he says is interesting. You know?” “Yeah. Can you hand me some toilet paper?” One stall housed a pyramid of the stuff, but in the other there was nothing, unless you counted what was on the floor. The later it gets at the Penrose, the faster it devolves from cute gastropub to grimy singles bar.
On my way out, tunneling through the mob, my companion gently bumped into a woman coming the opposite way. “Excuse me,” my companion said. “Oh. My. God!”—the woman shouted—”That bitch just tried to start a fight with me!” But her cries were lost amid the uproar of the bar. Moments later, we were safe, back on the street. But our ears were still ringing.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.