One word: obsessed. That’s pretty much how I feel about this place, where I can listen to my favorite Jay-Z and Big Punn hits from 2000, drink fancy cocktails, and nosh on a wide variety of excellent and creative dishes, all at the same time. Beauty & Essex, of Chris Santos’ fame, is not quite a nightclub, not quite a fine dining establishment. It’s managed to find the middle ground that actually works, without sacrificing fun on the one hand and quality of food on the other.
The entrance to Beauty & Essex is at the back of a vintage (read: pawn) shop. Enter through the front door, pass the glass display cases stuffed full with faux jewels, leather handbags, and miscellaneous trinkets, note the wall of vintage electric and acoustic guitars that are actually for sale, nod at the large bouncer/doorman manning a nondescript door at the back, and slip into the massive nightclub/restaurant hiding beyond. With two stories and multiple dining rooms, Beauty & Essex is ambitiously large. At the front, behind the small hostess table manned by three to four fashionable young women, is a curving grand staircase, at the center of which hangs an outrageous shimmering contemporary chandelier with glittering shards of crystal extending many feet down from the ceiling.
Up the staircase is the nightclub, separated into a bar room and a lounge. Both are, inevitably, packed most nights. The lounge is striking, with textured rust-colored walls and a truly remarkable chandelier that extends its silvery tendrils like a spider-web across the entire ceiling (see image below). Over-stuffed lounge chairs cluster around cocktail tables, though most people mingle standing up. Though thebar room has army green couches and set tables, it’s bound to devolve into standing room only – watch out for the fashionista furtively checking herself out in the wall of vintage mirrors.
On the lower level, past the staircase, is another bar and two dining rooms. The dining rooms are dark, characterized by what seem to be impossibly high ceilings. Murky earth tones of grey, brown, black and burgundy dominate, with muted grey leather circular banquettes lining the walls and wooden tables with dark leather chairs running down the center of the room. Slinky chandeliers reminiscent of blooming flowers hang from slender cords and a massive curved ovular skylight hovers far above. The bar area is dominated by a cherry read Chesterfield couch packed with skinny girls in skinny heels chatting prettily.
Beauty & Essex is visually striking, and part of its allure is its inexplicable ‘cool factor.’ However, incredibly, this trend-setting hotspot also has ridiculously delicious food. The menu is extensive and made up of new American and often quite inspired small plates. The fried lobster tacos are a must-have: light and crispy in a not-too-heavy beer batter fry and served with jalapeno cream, these babys are luscious, juicy, addictive, and packed with fresh bold flavors. Also wonderful, despite the strange concept, are the grilled cheese and tomato soup dumplings. Shaped like shumai, these gooey, crispy, savory bites are baked in a rich tomato sauce, and while they look and feel nothing like the classic grilled cheese and tomato soup combo, they taste magically taste almost exactly like it. On the lighter side, the kale & apple salad is crisp and refreshing – with nuggets of tangy goat cheese, sweet and crunchy candied pecans, and salty bits of pancetta, all dribbled over heaps upon heaps of dark green kale, the salad is simultaneously light and immensely flavorful.
The more substantial ‘entree-style’ dishes are almost uniformly wonderful. The spaghettini is zesty, rich, and bright with long tendrils of zucchini mixed with nutty grated parmesan, bitter and garlicky parsley pesto, the acidic bite of fresh lemon, and the golden yellow runny yolk of a sunny-side-up egg. All at once, it is decadent and yet, somehow, almost virtuous. The pan-toasted mezze rigatoni, on the other hand, is all evil – spicy and salty merguez sausage with deep and luscious brown butter, fresh mint, and airy ricotta salata are baked with the rigatoni to form a gooey, heavy, and soul-satisfying pasta dish. The burger is top-notch – an astonishingly thick and juicy beef patty cooked to a crimson medium-rare atop an airy and buttery bun. The kick of spicy garlic aioli, the crunch of crispy herbed shoestring fries, and the tang of crumbed feta cheese make this ‘Beauty & Essex Burger’ a thing of beauty.
If all this flavor isn’t enough for you, there are also excellent ‘Accessories’ or side dishes to sample alongside the small plates. The roasted corn is delightful – hard and aromatic sweet corn kernals transformed into something haute when tossed with cilantro, chipotle, lime juice, and soft cotija cheese. The broccolini is spitfire side dish masqueraded as a wholesome veggie dish – the wilted broccolini is sauteed with powerful bits of garlic, soy sauce, and chilis. Most luxurious though is the creamy mascarpone polenta – so smooth and lush that it almost seems whipped, this polenta dish is punched up a few notches with earthy parmesan, tarragon, and just a hint of chile.
Beauty & Essex is a New York anomaly – a hotspot so hot that reservations are close to unattainable and the fashionable swarm it’s bars nightly and yet also a serious restaurant in it’s own right. It’s as though Chris Santos finally heard my pleas for a restaurant where I can really enjoy my food, have a rockin’ good time, and feel like I’m ‘making a night of it.’ And besides, how can any product of my generation not thoroughly adore a restaurant that shamelessly plays track after track of late ’90s hip-hop hits?
Perfect For: ladies night out, bachelorette parties, finally wearing those leopard print stilettos, singles looking to mingle, dance party dinners, blow-out birthdays or really any reason to celebrate