Freeman’s, the beloved alleyway scenester spot just off Rivington, has a sexy little sister and her name is Peels. Situated on a hot strip of the Bowery, at the corner of Bond Street, Peels blends New York design sensibility with pure Southern American cooking dressed up a smidgeon to suit the Manhattan palette.
Though Peels has lost quite a bit of the je ne sais quoi that made Freeman’s so unusual and beloved by Manhattan’s trendiest, it still manages to charm in its simplicity. Where Freeman’s is stuffed to the gills with knick-knacks, photographs, and artfully-distressed kitsch, the bi-level space at Peels is stripped-down and spare. The first level looks like it operates sort of like a cafe – with a coffee bar, windowed counters populated with truly magnificent baked goods during the day, and small bistro tables awkwardly crowded together. In the back is a large and imposing communal table, wonderful for large groups, not so-wonderful for intimate dates. The second level looks more like a main dining room with white wooden booths, a long communal table down the center, and a small bar for people to mingle at. The whole look is squeaky clean and white-washed with white paneled walls, white wooden tables and chairs, and large bright white industrial light fixtures. In fact, it looks much like a simple Southern bakery all-spruced up for Manhattan’s scenesters.
The down-home American food served at Peels is generally good. It’s not mind-blowing, revolutionary, or particularly artful, but it tends to taste good in the way that well-executed comfort food always tastes good. Peels serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, unusual for a full-service non-hotel restaurant on the Bowery. Breakfast is traditional: buttermilk pancakes, eggs benedict, shrimp & grits, eggs on a biscuit with gravy, and so forth. The pastry basket is out of this world – stuffed with truly marvelous muffins and sticky buns and the like. Other than that, all is what you would expect a hearty breakfast to be – filling, flavorful, but not reinventing the wheel. Lunch or weekend brunch at Peels is a much more extensive dining experience. The kitchen offers everything from its signature Build-a-Biscuit program where you get to top a flaky buttermilk biscuit with choice goodies like avocado, red-eye gravy, and fried chicken to salami sandwiches, greasy beer-battered fried fish tacos, andouille corn dogs, and skillet eggs. In fact, you could argue that lunch and brunch, where the kitchen keeps things simple, fresh, and classic, are where Peels really shines.
Dinner at Peels can be a frustrating experience. On the few occasions I’ve been over the past 6 months, service is consistently bad. While the waiters can be friendly, not always a guarantee, it’s inevitably difficult to find one when you need one, to succeed in hailing one down when you find one, and to actually get what you need once you hail one. You get the sense that there just aren’t enough servers to adequately attend to the bi-level space; there’s an irritating disorganization. On my most recent visit, someone, whether the kitchen or the server, forgot our rather substantial order – and my friend and I had to wait close to an hour for our entree without almost no apology. That’s whack.
That being said, the food was pleasant. To start, the golden tomato gazpacho is a refreshing antidote to muggy New York summers; whereas, the creamy spicy salty spreadable pimento cheese dip, served with crusty bread, is pure sin. It’s heavy and truly luxurious. The fried chicken entree is delicious – the chicken is juicy, the breading is crispy, and the ranch dressing is the ideal coolant. The cheeseburger is similarly well-done – cooked appropriately, flavorful, and drenched in cheese. The shrimp & grits is … nice; the grits are just begging for some more texture and salt, but the shrimp is complemented beautifully by a fried egg and bacon (how do you say no to that?). None of the dishes are the best in New York by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re good, hearty, and satisfying.
Peels is good, and perhaps most importantly for the restaurant, it’s cool. It’s popular with those New Yorkers who ‘know where to go;’ it’s got a hoppin’ bar scene, great people-watching on the patio, and some wonderful cocktails to complement the down-home cuisine. It had enough buzz at open to generate a crowd of regulars and fans, and now it sustains itself on a pretty hip clientele. And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Perfect For: coffee and pastries, large groups, singles ready to mingle, bourbon cocktails and biscuits, decadent Sunday brunch