The runner climbs a flight of stairs with a heavy load of aged rib eyes and chickens held high above his head, avoiding a disaster a second. In the dining room, there are angry waiters on his back and hostesses cutting through without a feel for the squashed space’s rhythm. A fallen cloth napkin is as dangerous here as a cartoon banana peel. But with a straight back and a steady pace, he glides through the scrum to deliver the dishes to the middle-aged double date.
Bill’s Food & Drink is in a brownstone in midtown that has been serving since Prohibition, when Bill Hardy first converted three of its floors into a retro speakeasy, nostalgic even then for the mustache cups and piano bars of the 1890s. Earlier this year, when the landlord refused to renegotiate Barbara Olmsted’s lease on Bill’s Gay Nineties, which her father had taken over from Hardy, the space changed hands. Now it’s a flashy John DeLucie joint, holding onto its predecessor’s name and a bit of its decor, but not all of its warm and crumbly charm.
On the upper floors, where the walls are cluttered with maps, Victorian portraits, and taxidermied animal heads, it can feel like the wedding reception of a wealthy, well-connected acquaintance. On a recent evening, all of the second-floor dining room patrons seemed to know one another, waving with a wiggle of two or three fingers as they walked around, drinks in hand, winking shiny, creaseless eyes.
Jason Hall’s menu is not particularly compelling. At a glance, it’s the dull, crowd-pleasing steak-pasta-salad options of a first-class club, with an expensive raw bar and $10 sides. There’s a fine, slim, 16-ounce rib eye ($48), with a cloud of horseradish-tinged lardo, on a slick of bordelaise, and a beastly, 40-ounce porterhouse for two ($125) from Kansas-based processor Creekstone Farms, served sliced. A fresh tagliatelle with peppery goat ragu ($19) is full of flavor in a meaty jus and far more exciting than the chophouse dishes. But the Manhattan chowder ($32, sometimes labeled bouillabaisse) is pumped too hard with saffron, and the pieces of fish in its grainy broth are cooked to a near paste.
Most diners don’t seem too interested in octopus or foie gras—they come to the new Bill’s for a piece of protein and to take in the scene. A table of six blond women each ordered a medium-well hamburger ($21) with various bun annotations (toasted bun, untoasted bun, half a bun, no bun). When the plates arrived, one woman scolded the dignified runner as if he were a naughty child: “Jesus Christ, I said no bun!” For dessert, there was a good, if rather simple, scotch pudding ($9), topped with crème fraîche. But the apple fritters ($9), raw and wet inside, soaked through with stale fryer oil, recalled a shop full of cinnamon-scented candles set ablaze.
The piano is still at Bill’s, but Elliot Paul, one of the charming guys who has played it for the last 15 years, isn’t leading a sing-along. “The new place looks so nice, but it’s just not a saloon anymore,” he told me on the phone. He’s right. The renovations have been smart and careful, and there is still some live music, but the mood and the prices have changed quite drastically—at the old Bill’s, the most expensive item on the menu was a $30 steak.
But visit the narrow, dimly lit bar on the ground floor in the middle of the afternoon, and you can still get a sense of what this place used to be. Sinatra croons on the speakers. There are a few tourists among the men in expensive navy suits, and loners reading books. Order a hamburger for lunch or perhaps some fried oysters ($15) and a beer, and the barman will set you a proper place at the wide, wooden bar, laying down a cloth napkin under your plate.
On a recent afternoon, I saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman in her seventies drinking a bottle of wine and eating a hamburger with her hands, discussing the work of a young playwright between mouthfuls. She wore red lipstick and an elaborate hat, and her laugh was like a wild animal yawping into the night. It was the sound of the old Bill’s.