East Side Social Club: Wheeeeere’s Frankie?
What else would you expect from the team behind the West Village’s Employees Only but an atmospheric retro-fitted booze house complete with a Prohibition-era theme, artisan cocktail selection, on-trend menu, and an in-the-know crowd?
The East Side Social Club is meant, in their own words, as a ‘private Italian-American club – open to the public’, and that’s exactly how it seems. Every last detail from the slightly askew black-and-white cluster family photographs, ‘history’ as a family-run establishment and the mafioso-type maitre’d down to the basement-level location and ridiculously dim lighting breathes old-school private club catered to card-carrying clients. Of course, all of this is completely fabricated. Dreamt up by restauranteur Billy Gilroy, the ESSC opened at the end of 2009 and accepts reservations on Opentable – not exactly the marks of an established members-only club.
The basement space in Sutton Place is part-bar part-restaurant. The front room features an imposing rounded bar with formally-dressed bartenders, an impressive liquor selection, and a spattering of checkered-tablecloth tables for those seeking nibbles along with the beautifully-constructed cocktails made famous by Employees Only. Entering the back room (the restaurant) is like stepping back in time to when Frank Sinatra crooned and La Cosa Nostra ran this town. Large rounded burgundy-leather boothes line the walls while spacious tables cluster in the center of the room, all with plush scarlet carpeting under foot. Straight out of Little Italy red-and-white checkered tablecloths cover every table and meticulously-curated design touches bring you out of Midtown East and into a cozy lair of flappers, lounge lizards, and big Italian families. If you’ve had a few of the potent cocktails, you could even imagine seeing Frank himself, hazy through a cloud of smoke, in the back booth.
In such a spot, the only reasonable food to serve would be Italian home cookin’ – you know, the stuff out of your Sicilian grandmother’s kitchen? And that is exactly what the ESSC’s kitchen works to offer. The menu offers favorites like meatballs, prosciutto & melon, fried calamari, ravioli, grilled swordfish, veal chop, and of course such sweet treats as cannolis, affogato, and panna cotta; there’s even Grandma’s special recipe for Bucatini, a soul-satisfying savory and salty mix of sausage, cheese and creamy tomato sauce over thick strings of Bucatini pasta.
The meatballs were huge flavorful rounds of salty textural beef, absolutely slathered in chunky vibrant red tomato sauce; they were perhaps not as tasty as Andrew Carmellini’s version, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless. The stuffed eggplant was unfortunately not so crowd-pleasing with wimply slivers of eggplant meagerly stuffed with diced peppers, shaved pecorino and a light balsamic; with a name like stuffed eggplant, you’d think they’d want to overstuff hefty eggplant pieces with something tasty, right? Not the case.
While the meatballs satisfied, the mezzi rigatoni wowed with a heart-warming and immensely flavorful lamb ragu, english peas, mint leaves, and sheep’s milk yogurt; it was delicious and exactly the type of pasta you want from a restaurant advertising family-style ‘home-cooking’ -it reminded me of cozy family dinners at home in front of the blazing fireplace. The Candele Lunghe pasta was an entirely different animal – a zesty and surprising blend of salad and pasta with guancielle, ramps, pecorino, and citrus flavors all covered in a blanket of arugula. A lighter option on this generally heavy menu, it was unusual and a welcome break from the prevous gutbusting offerings.
All in all, the food is good. It’s not great, it’s not bad, and it has its moments of brilliance. If you’re looking for top-notch Italian, there are other options in the city that will provide better food. The East Side Social Club’s draw goes beyond food – it has an addictively charming atmosphere attractive not only to families and those of slower and more elegant generations but also to Manhattan’s hip young things chasing the Prohibition-era trend, businessmen looking for a sophisticated and traditional lunch or dinner spot, and the after-work drinks crowd. My only gripe with Gilroy’s new venture is the bizarre service that suits a casual brunch spot like The Smith instead of a full-service Italian ‘club’; our waiter was either stupid tired or completely drugged-out, sighing awkwardly through his long lingering monologues, drooping against the side of our banquette, disappearing for long vacant periods of time, and leaning forward over our table (and into my bubble of personal space) while reciting desserts. Take a shower, dude.
Perfect for: a hideaway date spot, big family dinner with chatter and laughter, fancy drinks, ladies night out, deal-closing dinner blowouts