Back there was where all the drugs and debauchery used to be, said one of the wistful boulevardiers at my table as we craned our necks to inspect Graydon Carters new, poshed-up iteration of the Beatrice Inn. During the bright, brief time, a couple of years back, when Paul Sevigny and his friends owned the ramshackle old Village speakeasy on 12th Street and it served as a kind of semi-private dance club and coke den, the room in question was fitted with a D.J. booth, among other things. The new ownership has tucked these old party toys away, however, and redecorated the back room with potted palm fronds and a spiffy coat of white paint. The dining room where we sat is now as narrow as a train car and appointed with black-and-white feather-patterned fabric on the walls that looks like its been lifted from the set of an Agatha Christie movie. Chloë Sevigny was nowhere in evidence, but we thought we espied Diane Von Furstenberg sipping a flute of Champagne in a dark corner of the room.
First at the Waverly Inn, then at the Monkey Bar, Carter and his various partners have been masters at conjuring up this kind of stagy, raffishly exclusive neo-speakeasy, of course. Like those other restaurants, the Beatrice has a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled holding pen/bar area at the front of the house. Its populated, most evenings, with adventurers from suburbia waiting hopefully for their tables; knots of well-dressed, slightly older party girls; and groups of boisterous, hard-drinking gentlemen, many of whom seem to have honking British accents. Once seated for dinner, youll find yourself either in the prominent front dining room (with Ms. Von Furstenberg and her friends) or banished to the newly painted Siberia space in the back, where you can console yourself (as at the dreaded Garden Room in the Waverly) with a soothing view of the smudgy stars over Manhattan through a skylight.
Over the years, Carter and his partners have had much better luck replicating this carefully calibrated, much-imitated speakeasy formula than finding decent chefs. Both the Waverly and the Monkey Bar have had a high turnover in their kitchens from the beginning, and the Beatrice, which opened in November, has seen a similar fate. The first chef was a Per Se veteran whose pallid versions of standard bistro classicswet steaks; soupy helpings of codfish; a weirdly soft, horrifyingly pink baked chickentasted like theyd all been slow-cooked in the same giant sous-vide bag. After a month or two, he was mercifully replaced by an interim chef, and a month or so ago, the interim chef was in turn replaced by the new executive chef, Hillary Sterling, who took the job after stints at the great Batali-Bastianich trattoria Lupa and the upscale Italian restaurant A Voce Madison, where she served as second in command behind the talented Missy Robbins.
Sterling has expanded the original menu somewhat (there are seven appetizers, eight entrées, and five desserts), but shes banished the hamburger (although you can still order one if you ask politely) and infused the standard bistro format with all sorts of subtle Mediterranean touches. The house crudo is now a dainty serving of fresh mackerel, plated with translucent nickels of shaved radish, a pool of extra-virgin olive oil, and a speckling of sea salt. The delicious country-sausage appetizer consists of little lozenges of sausage made in the style of the Le Marche region of Italy, with two kinds of meat (pork shoulder and wild boar) set in a deliciously smoky roasted-squab broth and decked with a barely poached egg yolk. An odd-sounding dish called goat-cheese dumplings turns out to be soft, handmade gnudi, which Sterling and her cooks place in puddles of butter and top with olive oil and salty little strips of prosciutto.
The jaded party hounds at my table momentarily forgot all about Diane Von Furstenberg when these world-class gnudi arrived, and when the well-charred rib eye for two hit the table, topped with red watercress, bone marrow, and thin, melting shingles of Parmigiano, they set on it like a pack of wolves. On an early visit to the Beatrice, the lamb entrée consisted of a couple of fatty chops thrown on a plate; now the lamb of choice is tenderloin, served in little pink rounds and garnished with black olives, shallots, and drifts of frizzled artichokes. The pallid roast chicken has morphed into a generous, crispy-skinned version of pollo alla diavola (served with a scattering of golden raisins and quartered Marcona almonds), and if its fish you want, I suggest the slim, ivory-colored halibut fillet dressed with delicate shavings of parsley root, which look like plumes on a festive Easter hat.
Its not clear whether the yammering masses who now patronize the Beatrice are aware of the level of Sterlings cooking, but who cares? Theyll move on to the next hot new destination in a few months, and, a few months after that, chances are the chef will move on, too. For now, however, the Beatrice Inn is in that ephemeral, rarely achieved sweet spot for a scene restaurant, where the quality of your dinner matches (or transcends) the quality of the scene. The simple, satisfying desserts include a crackly capped crème brûlée leavened with little chunks of apple; an excellent New Age semifreddo constructed with ricotta gelato, walnuts, and sticky honey-caramel sauce; and a smooth, deliciously tart lemon curd topped with whipped cream and blood oranges. If youre feeling rash, I suggest you complement these treats with a scoop or two of espresso gelato, or the icy pink-grapefruit sorbet, which tastes like something youd encounter in a Roman café on a hot summers day.
The Beatrice Inn
285 W. 12th St., nr. W. 4th St.; 917-566-7400; thebeatriceinn.com
Hours: Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $16; entrées, $25 to $45 (rib eye for two, $105).
Ideal Meal: Country sausage or goat-cheese dumplings; pollo alla diavola, halibut, or steak for two; lemon curd.
Note: The wine selection is impressive for a speakeasy, but it isnt cheap. Thirty-one of the 80 or so reds on the list cost $100 or more.
Scratchpad: One star for Sterlings elegant bistro cooking and another for the ice creams and desserts.
*This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.