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The Writing Room’s dining area features a selection of books selected by a professional library curator.
Readers Digestby Gael Greene | Photography by Noah Fecks | Manhattan magazine | March 10, 2014
“I hope you won’t think I’m rude,” a slightly chubby millennial in a mini said to the bartender, “but what time does the young crowd get here?”
The Writing Room had just opened that week in the $4 million expanded space where Elaine Kaufman coddled her media pets and mortified the unknown. A full-page article in The New York Times doubted that it would ever be Elaine’s. And, so far, the early responders were mostly fans of Susy and Michael Glick’s Parlor Steakhouse a few blocks away. Solid citizens of the neighborhood. Senior citizens. Maybe a few denizens of Elaine’s popped in too. But they’re not exactly a passel of hot young dudes anymore.
But now that the rotisserie chicken for two has been pronounced the best in town and the prices have been celebrated as quaintly gentle, the fickle nomads of the night have found it. The bar pops after dark. As the tables turn, the faces get smoother and the cheeks naturally plumper, not fortified with Restylane. And the question could be: Where have these millennials been hanging out till now? Is it a shift from the Arlington Club? Or a diaspora from Le Bilboquet?
I was the first critic to discover The Writing Room, with its clean-cut design, 145 seats, nicely framed photographs of the old crowd, selection of books by a professional library curator and marvelous fried chicken with a very good biscuit and indifferent coleslaw. I loved the very rich New England clam chowder too, with little islands of housemade oyster crackers afloat. And I told my friends to ask for the sweet potato crisps (even though they were a little less crisp on my second tasting).
It would only amuse the ghost of Elaine if she happened to lumber in. There simply is no competition. It’s too clean, too welcoming, too inexpensive, and the food is mostly good. No way can you imagine Susy Glick tossing anyone to the sidewalk with a kick on the rump. Imagine just $11 for a half portion of very good gnocchi and $6 for a side of hash browns—two fat cakes—or fabulous roasted vegetables. And just $15 for a quarter of meaty baby back ribs, a little sweet, ever so slightly burned, but a luscious start-off for the table.
It’s not Elaine’s and it isn’t going to be. But it doesn’t have to be, because Upper East Siders don’t have many places to go where they can eat like this: food people love, not the current cliches of kale salad, octopus and halibut. The menu is just one page, starring familiars like veal meatloaf, those ribs and lobster boil with wild clams. Someone at the table must get the rotisserie chicken on roasted root vegetables—it’s full of flavor, juicy though pretty salty. I always order a whole bird so everyone can taste, and I can take the leftovers home for lunch the next day. The roasted chicken soup is full of that bird’s intoxicating flavor too, with hand-cut pasta, just $11.
There are a lot of Parker House rolls coming out of ovens around town suddenly—a trend—but these are especially good. Something to cherish if the kitchen gets slow. Recently I complained that the tossed greens and the spinach salad were nothing much next to everything else. But I like the smoked whitefish with caviar roe, housemade pickles and grilled caraway bread. Five of us had a taste or two. I asked for more heft in the meatloaf—meatloaf is very subjective, I guess. The very ordinary arctic char has been replaced by salmon. It’s not exciting like the chicken, but it’s good if you’re watching calories.
I loved the gnocchi with roasted mushrooms, lemon, pecorino cheese and pesto. A chef who throws all that at gnocchi will surely find something to beef up those salads (if I may mix up a metaphor). I still haven’t tried the 16-ounce bone-in strip steak because I find it impossible to not order the chicken.
I liked the huckleberry cheesecake better than the rather primitive apple pie for two, but it seemed awfully small last time I ordered it. Never mind, creamsicle pops is the dessert you really want: ice cream covered with a thick coat of hazelnut chocolate alongside a triangle of warm brownie under a rivulet of dark midnight chocolate. It’s the pastry chef playing with delicious excess.
I don’t look for my memoir, Insatiable, on the bookshelves at The Writing Room because I don’t want to get depressed if it’s not there. I plan to bring a copy next time I visit and sneak it into a lowish spot, as if I just discovered it there. Then I’ll sign it, admire the antique typewriter and, on my way out, check to see if author Gay Talese is there with wife Nan on a night out from Elio’s restaurant. He said they’d come once.
On my last visit, Liz Smith was sharing the rotisserie bird with two boldface friends. Joe Lhota, recovering from rejection in his bid for mayor, was holding down a table in the bar. As he’s the Bronx-born son of a cop and the grandson of a firefighter, Elaine might have given him that very seat.
The Writing Room
1703 Second Ave., between 88th and 89th streets, 212.335.0075
Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5:30-11pm; Thu.-Sat., 5:30pm-12am
Brunch: Sat. and Sun., 11am-4pm
Lunch service began on March 3