Chef Paul Gerard is of that unique breed of born-and-bred New York City chefs who can legitimately own gritty memories of Times Square in the Seventies, the drugged-out music scene of the East Village in the Eighties, and the hardass Brooklyn kitchens at work before Brooklyn was considered cool on an international scale. And he wants you to snag a bit of that old New York in his new Upper East Side joint, Ethyl’s Alcohol & Food (1629 Second Avenue; 212-300-4132).
Gerard was a busboy in Brooklyn at the ripe age of twelve. By thirteen, he was a dishwasher, thrown into the back of house because he refused to cut his lengthening hair. “They had a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to them, but they were into it,” he tells the Voice of his first kitchen experience. “They’d be sitting with red devils, smoking some weed, with other ‘dry goods’ in front of them, reading cookbooks, and I thought it was great.”
There, he learned classic Italian-American cuisine and how to survive a kitchen: “When I was coming up, you came to work with ‘I hope I don’t get fired.’ You’d work your ass off, harder and harder. If the chef didn’t speak to you, that was a good day.” He stayed in the city until he was 21 then cooked largely in New Orleans through the Nineties before returning home to stints at Sweetwater, China Grill Management, the Soho Grand Hotel, and Soho House. He then opened his first venture as a partner, Exchange Alley, and followed up as the chef consultant to Belle Reve.
Ethyl’s is all about the 1970s. Glossy red-and-black walls are filled with framed photos of “poets, punks, movie stars, artists, rock stars, and foxy ladies.” The back corner houses a stage where DJs like Ronnie Magri, Linda Rizzo, and Cochon de Lait spin funk, soul, and disco as a ball shimmers overhead. Depending on the hour, you might walk through a door framed with floating bubbles and find go-go dancers like Velvetina Taylor or Delysia La Chatte shimmying away. There’s live music, comedy, and fun late on every weekend night.
“I wanted to go back further to my core of my nostalgia, to the things that dazzled me as a kid,” says Gerard, who came up with the majority of the “concept” for the space. “My mother would take me to a Broadway play, and I can remember her wrapping her fingers around my eyes in Times Square…me peeking through them, looking for the little circle with an X on it, at the giant billboards, the way Times Square used to be. Charlie’s Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man, the Fonz, the soundtrack from Chico and the Man, Paul Simon, disco…all of those things are the world I grew up in.”
The menu doesn’t represent a particular time or place, though; it’s bar food. Gerard pulled in chef Joel Luna, who worked with him at the Grand Hotel and Soho House, along with other cooks who’ve migrated with him from place to place and so know Gerard’s technique and style. In their hands, plates of calamari, shrimp cocktails, and chicken wings are made with a far better pedigree than a bar food menu usually implies.
“We’re making simpler food, but it doesn’t mean we approach it any differently,” Gerard promises. “The same technique to reduce a demi is going into the Valentina hot sauce for the chicken wings. There’s no half-step because it’s chips and guac: It’s still fresh herbs, perfectly pickled chiles, and limes cut a certain way with no seeds in them. The standard hasn’t changed because the format or menu has.”
It’s pretty clear on the written menu. The wheat- and gluten-free crispy calamari come salty, peppery, and bright with lemon, accompanied by chimichurri aioli. Ethyl’s play on potato chips is a mound of beet and sweet-potato chips with herb yogurt. The open-face french fry hero has serious heft. And the Fi-Dolla Burger is as compact and juicy a burger as ever there’s been.
“I know what people want to eat,” Gerard says. “So I approach it from a modest way that, ‘Yeah, it’s a bar menu…’ But bar food doesn’t negate my thirty-plus years in the kitchen and my own standards.”
There are certain things from his past that he knows wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) fly today. “The kitchens of New York welcomed me with open track-marked arms. I loved that aspect of it,” he reminisces. “The guys I grew up with partied like actual rock stars. But…those guys are either dead or in AA.”
Yet Gerard still misses that darker city. “New York was dirty, gritty, violent, sexy, and sexual. But it was also more of a neighborhood. Everyone knew each other.… New York used to be the place where you could fly your freak flag; people coming to New York were adding to it. It was more liberal. New York doesn’t have as much character now. I wanted Ethyl’s to take us back to that time.”
Ethyl’s already feels like it’s been around awhile: In the one month it’s been open, the bar already looks a bit worse for wear, and the space appears to have seen a few rough nights — in a good way. It’s clean, but not overtly sanitary. And then there’s the team: No matter how much leather or costume they’re wearing (or not), they all appear like they’re in on the fun — and they get your order right. When they ask if you’re digging the party, they seem to legitimately hope so.
“The people I have here are my crew, my family, the neighborhood,” he says. “People say this ‘feels like a downtown place uptown.’ But I say we’re nice! We’re not too cool for school.… The cool people I know are cool, they’re not dicks. Let’s not be dicks! There’s enough trauma in the world; enough bad shit is going on. A little gratitude and being nice to each other makes a world of difference.”
The newly rolled-out weekend brunch menu dishes up eats like shrimp loaf, breakfast burritos, veggie omelets, and a monte cristo with cayenne maple. Soon, more legit entrées will join the night menu. There are specialty cocktails like the Hot Pants Punch (Sailor Jerry, pineapple, lemon, grenadine, and a Meyers dark rum float) and the Bump and Grind (Bulleit rye, brandy cherries, Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liquor, and Burlesque bitters), along with straight spirits and beer on tap (hailing mostly from the Northeast).
Already, the crowd is a diverse mix: young and old, gay and straight, New York newbies and Upper East Side old-timers. When I ask Gerard how they make that mix happen, he says it goes back to the neighborhood vibe they want to build: “Even if you take everything else away from Ethyl’s — the Seventies theme, the New York theme — people want the experience we’re creating, for the most part. They want a good drink, tasty food, and spending time with people who are fun and cool and friendly. They want to listen to good music and enjoy their time. It’s like, lighten up!”