When the executive chef job opened up at the Beatrice Inn in the fall of 2013, Angie Mar wanted nothing to do with it. The West Village chophouse, then owned in part by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, had had a rough few years: It had just received one of the most punishing New York Times restaurant reviews ever published (sample: “squishy goat-cheese gnudi that were bursting with the flavor of warm New York City tap water”), and had a reputation as being both pretentious and boring. This was after it had been shut down by the city in 2009 for building code violations and overcrowding, much to the chagrin of the downtown celebs and their hangers-on who partied there when Paul Sevigny owned the place. Prior to that, it had been a long-running Italian red-sauce joint; before that, a speakeasy and rumored haunt of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The place had history in spades; the problem was that not all of it was good.
“I didn’t want the job,” says Mar. “I called my good friend [famed meat distributor] Pat LaFrieda and said, ‘No one wants this restaurant, and they keep calling me. If I do this, it’s career suicide.’ He told me I’d be crazy if I did and crazy if I didn’t — his point was that if I could come in and turn the place around, it would make my career.”
LaFrieda, as it turns out, was right. Mar, a former commercial real estate agent turned chef, made quick work of revamping the menu and making the vibe at “the Bea,” as she calls it, feel more inviting and less stuffy than in its previous incarnation. That meant mining the classic steakhouses of yore for inspiration, but combining those masculine tropes with her own vision of a more composed, romantic approach to meat.
“New York chophouses in general were founded on the rites of male bonding. That can be traced to the late 1800s, when political elections were won on the backs of beefsteak dinners, where women weren’t allowed,” Mar says. “But this restaurant is my home. I’m there every single night, and everything is personal — I think you can feel the feminine twists.” Her sensibilities are perhaps best illustrated with dishes like a hulking dry-aged côte de bœuf topped with blackberries, cooked in bone marrow with charred prawn butter, or a whole duck for two with cherry jus and fingerling potatoes Lyonnaise, flambéed tableside for maximum dramatic effect. Dishes here are artfully composed and beautifully presented, not just slabs of meat.
Mar spent two years working the new menu, until the opportunity to truly make it her own arrived. Although an ownership stake hadn’t necessarily been Mar’s long game, an opportunity arose last summer to buy out Carter and his partners. “I called Pat again,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You have to buy it. Everyone thought you were crazy to take the job, and everyone will think you’re crazy for buying the restaurant, so you might as well double down and prove them all wrong.’ ” Doubts assuaged, she started working on the deal the next day, and since then, her reputation has skyrocketed. The New York Times re-reviewed the restaurant a scant two months after Mar took over and granted it a respectable two stars, and earlier this year she was named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs,” a prestigious annual award that jump-started Thomas Keller’s and Éric Ripert’s careers. “I don’t sleep anymore,” says Mar. “That’s the trick.”
“One thing I love about Angie is that she has cojones,” says Ken Oringer, the Boston-based chef-owner of several restaurants, who has been known to take his family to the Beatrice Inn when he’s in town. “It’s not an easy endeavor to buy a restaurant in the West Village, especially a place with that kind of history — there’s a lot of pressure. But she turned it into something totally unique and personal to her. It’s like you’re going to a big dinner party at your stylish friend’s cool-ass apartment in the city, and the food she comes up with is what you’d see in London or Paris, but in her own style.”
Mar grew up in Seattle. Her Chinese-American father was an avid home cook with a carnivorous appetite; her mother grew up in Taipei and England, and is largely responsible for Mar’s distaste for vegetables. (“They were always overcooked into gray mush,” she recalls.) The legendary Seattle restaurateur and politician Ruby Chow was her aunt, though Mar’s family, like many Chinese immigrants, entered the food industry less through passion and more as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all immigration of Chinese laborers and kept Chinese workers already in the U.S. trapped in low-wage jobs. “As immigrants, they wanted something better for their kids,” says Mar, so when she announced that she was leaving her corporate career in Los Angeles to go into restaurants, they were hesitant. “They thought I was nuts,” says Mar. “But after I talked to my dad about the passion I had for the food we grew up with, he came back to me and gave his blessing.”
Mar spent a few months traveling and eating through East Africa and Western Europe before arriving in New York in 2011, with no job and no apartment. She poured her savings into culinary school, then got kitchen jobs at Marlow & Sons and the Spotted Pig, and apprenticed under a French butcher who taught her to age meat in alcohol-soaked cloths. Meat has always been her focus: “It’s what I grew up with,” she says.
It’s been a hectic year for Mar, with no signs of slowing. “I’m always looking for the next thing,” she says. “But I’ll never be the person who keeps expanding, because it’s important for me to actually be in the kitchen, touching and tasting the food. Right now I’m just focused on the Beatrice.” Her goal, as she puts it, is to steer the Bea in the right direction, so that it can eventually become “one of New York’s standards.” And with that, Mar ends the chitchat, heading back to the kitchen to get to work.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 17, 2017