For a lot of people who spent the Clinton years eating in and around Midtown Manhattan, 1996 was all about the crackling pork shank.
Crispy, sweet, glistening and gigantic enough to make you wonder whether you had accidentally ordered a shinbone of brontosaurus, it embodied the bright, go-go gestalt of that late-20th-century moment when it seemed as if your 401(k) was just going to keep growing fatter and sweeter by the week. Ruth Reichl hailed it that year as “original and delicious” in her New York Times review of Maloney & Porcelli, a sprawling new chophouse and hangout on East 50th Street, where the shank was the signature dish.
“There are some things like that that can become a restaurant maker,” said Alan Stillman, the legendary New York entrepreneur who opened the place. “The next thing you know, the whole world is descending upon that item. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Nor does it last forever. The Midtown pinstripes crowd has never stopped dropping by Maloney & Porcelli for that “great ball of meat,” as Reichl described it, or for the restaurant’s other signature dish, the “angry” lobster, both of which were conceived by the now-famous chef David Burke.
But there is no denying that that buzz of newness eventually did what buzz tends to do, especially in New York. It moved on, and on – most recently to David Chang and his crispy, sweet, glistening bo ssam. To the warmly smiling emissaries of the Danny Meyer empire. To speakeasies, sushi bars and sandwich shops. Even, of course, to Brooklyn.
Alan and Michael Stillman – the father-and-son team that runs Maloney & Porcelli and other spots in their Fourth Wall Restaurants group – are savvy enough to realize this, which is why they are putting the 16-year-old Midtown joint through a head-to-tail renovation (while leaving that shank alone).
In some ways, the project would make an engrossing case study at the Harvard Business School: Can any restaurant that has passed through the heat of its adolescence – much less one born in the days before Facebook, Twitter and the vogue for artisanal pickles – adapt enough to enjoy a prosperous adulthood in the flux of the New York dining scene, where what’s seen as old and square is routinely plowed under to make way for the new and hip?
Maloney & Porcelli is working every angle. By early next week, it will have a new menu, new awnings and lighting and cocktails, new art on the walls, new music on the sound system, new uniforms for its servers, even new matchbooks and toothpicks. In essence, the restaurant seems to be upgrading its aesthetic and culinary consciousness, offering retro-clubby delights (from fried-herb tater tots to a roaming martini cart) and a tongue-in-cheek TBWA/Chiat/Day advertising campaign that will suggest it’s in sync with the way New Yorkers eat and drink now.
Plenty of spots have done the makeover mambo over the years – the Rainbow Room, the Russian Tea Room, the Waverly Inn, the Monkey Bar – sometimes repeatedly, and not always to applause. The trick of going more contemporary, of course, is that you have to start by publicly admitting that you’re not.
Scores of chefs and dining establishments have altered the conversation in the years since 1996, and the restaurant needs to adjust “to what the crowd has developed into,” said Michael Stillman, 32, a Brown University graduate who is overseeing each element of the transformation.
“We almost have to catch up with that,” he said. “We’d like the restaurant to work for another 25 years.”
But in his view, catching up and sticking around both hinge on going back: The new decor and dishes at Maloney & Porcelli are meant to reinforce the feeling that it’s the youngest member of the city’s beloved “old clubhouse” club. The idea is not to reinvent the culinary wheel, but to “re-excite our core base,” he said.
Even that will take effort, of course. If nothing else, the Maloney makeover, which borrows liberally from classic and of-the-moment trends in cooking and mixology, speaks volumes about how food consciousness has expanded and evolved in just a generation. Today, when even the mainstream diner can expound on the provenance of sea urchin and wild ramps, it takes even more attention to detail to hold on to that Midtown regular who not long ago might have settled for a plate of creamed spinach.
With that in mind, what Maloney & Porcelli is undertaking “is really logical,” said Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who shuttles between New York and the West Coast, and who is not involved in the project.
Name recognition is crucial in the restaurant world, he said, but it’s also “a double-edged sword,” because it requires constant evolution to maintain standards. “When you go back to a place you know, it has to be the way you remember it fondly – not necessarily the way it was,” Wolf said. ``So it essentially has to be better. Which requires constant small improvements, most of them invisible, but felt.
“Anybody who is lucky enough to still be around is considering an upgrade right now,” he said.
But Michael Whiteman, the president of Baum & Whiteman International Restaurant Consultants, wondered whether Maloney’s team should have overhauled the restaurant’s name, too.
“If I were the investor in meat-centric, guy-centric M&P, I wouldn’t build a new-old steakhouse in a city that’s full of them,” he said “I’d want something with broader appeal – sexual and gastronomic – in the hope of ramping up my business. Looks like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it by salvaging the name, which, to coin another cliche, strikes me as new wine in an old bottle.”
It’s safe to say that the Stillmans know more than a little about navigating the new and the old.
Alan Stillman, 75, has built a career on a sixth sense for where cultural winds are blowing. In 1965, just as the sexual revolution was starting to crest on the coasts, he hatched a casual spot on First Avenue that was meant to give single women a mellow place to hang out.
“My business plan was to meet women, which I accomplished,” he said.
Although it’s hard to imagine now, that spot, which he christened TGI Friday’s and which would eventually metastasize into a nationwide chain, quickly turned into the Age of Aquarius version of the Dutch or Roberta’s, with a line out the door and young swingers panting to get in.
“People will tell my father, ‘I remember Friday’s from back in the day’ it was such a different thing,” Michael Stillman said. “They’ll say, ‘I met my first wife at Friday’s.’ They invented the fast casual market – that business didn’t exist.”
He parted ways with the brand in 1975. But two years later lightning struck again, just as the United States was gearing up for the cigars-and-power-ties bluster of the Reagan years, when Alan Stillman and some business comrades decided that Manhattan could really use a fresh spin on a classic steakhouse. Their creation, which got its moniker after Stillman plucked two names at random from a city phone book, also went on to leave a lasting imprint on the American landscape: You can now spot the green-and-white Smith & Wollensky facade in cities like Chicago, Las Vegas and Miami Beach.
Maloney & Porcelli got its title in similarly spontaneous fashion: Stillman decided to name the place after the lawyers who had helped shepherd him through the legal brambles. But nothing else about the restaurant was random. From the start, Maloney was engineered to be an anti-steakhouse – clubby, sure, but not conventional. A steakhouse, you might say, that wasn’t afraid of its feminine side.
“We wanted to build a restaurant where you could walk in and order things other than steak,” Alan Stillman said. “At the time, as far as I remember, there were no quote, unquote, modern steakhouses. There was nothing like the current crop.”
“Now it’s developed so much over the past 15 years,” said Michael Stillman, who has proven skillful, with enterprises like Quality Meats and the Hurricane Club, at gauging what Midtown diners (and revelers) are hungry for.
But as they are the first to admit, the past three or four years have not been easy for Maloney & Porcelli.
The recession was bad enough, putting many Midtown customers out of work and shrinking budgets for expense-account feasts. Then the restaurant was confronted by an epic and messy Metropolitan Transportation Authority construction project – “basically they’ve been putting this enormous tunnel directly under the building,” Michael Stillman said that cluttered the front sidewalk and sometimes created the impression that the place was closed.
Being out of sight is one problem; being out of the spotlight is another. Lately Maloney & Porcelli has found itself in a sort of medium-well zone where it neither qualifies as one of the city’s crusty porterhouse landmarks (like Peter Luger or Keens) nor feels as sleek and vibrant as the latest meat-hawking trailblazers (like St. Anselm and Minetta Tavern.)
“It became sort of an in-between, where you weren’t sure what the sensibility of the restaurant was anymore,” Michael Stillman said.
To give that sensibility a vigorous restart, he is reaching both backward and forward for inspiration. He’s been studying old stalwarts from the “21” Club in Manhattan to Dan Tana’s in Los Angeles to the Connaught Bar in London to capture the factors that make a restaurant feel like an essential part of the local landscape.
At the same time, as a young New Yorker who is fond of restaurants that are “taking old-school, mom-and-pop ideas and then sophisticating them,” Michael Stillman is culturally aware enough to borrow and tweak a range of contemporary hits.
The new Maloney menu, which pops with sharp red-and-black lettering, was still in the works this week, but the Stillman team is considering items that Michael Stillman refers to as “mashups” – a couple of populist favorites from the comfort-food canon that are welded together for maximum impact: fried clams casino, Wellington Rossini, lobster thermidor potpie, beef short-rib stroganoff. At the bar, which will now be bathed in amber light from new fixtures, Maloney plans to offer a vast selection of whiskeys and bourbons, and fresh variations on the mint julep, the gimlet and the salty dog.
Michael Stillman is clearly scooping up inspiration from a few nongastronomic wells, too. The imagery on Maloney’s new coasters and matchbooks calls to mind the swizzle-stick vamping of “Mad Men,” which is apt, since the restaurant has long been a haunt for operatives from nearby Madison Avenue ad agencies. Stillman wants to amp up the restaurant’s old-school feel – “we’ll have all that old, classic men’s gear: cigar boxes, shoehorns, matchboxes,” he said in a way that might make both Roger Sterling and his Silicon Alley grandson feel at home.
Which is to say that a restaurant founded in 1996 is – in 2012 – going to feel a little more 1965. With a dash of 1988 thrown in for good measure.
One afternoon in early March, Michael Stillman and several members of his team convened at a round table toward the back of the restaurant to dig into a medley of dishes proposed for the new menu. The theme of the repast might have been “crowd-pleasers from a century of American food.” There would be Gruyere souffle, a braised Colorado lamb shank, those house-made tater tots with a dunking cup of malt-vinegar mayo. There would be a blinding parade of desserts: individual red velvet cakes, a four-layer creme brulee, a grasshopper pie blanketed with Bailey’s-spiked cream.
And there would be the Bronson Pinchot.
James Jermyn, Maloney’s chef for the last five years, wheeled a cart up to the table. There, armed with a beaker of Cognac and tender slabs of beef, he cooked up a distant cousin of steak au poivre that happens to be named (in that spontaneous fashion that seems to be a signature flourish for the Stillman family) after Pinchot, the star of the 1980s sitcom “Perfect Strangers.”
“I’m a big ‘Perfect Strangers’ fan,” Michael Stillman said. “On the menu at Dan Tana’s, they have a nod to Dabney Coleman, so we wanted to have a nod to one of our favorite ‘80s actors.”
The chef got the steak ready. “Then we finish it with our signature Pinchot sauce,” he said.
“It’s funny every time,” said Allison Good, a partner and marketing director with Fourth Wall.
Michael Stillman gave it a taste: “It’s definitely saucy, and if anything, Bronson Pinchot is a very saucy actor.”
Will it work? Can a demi-glace of irony get people lining up for a steak? As that crackling pork shank taught us back in 1996, you never know where the next legend will come from.