One of Ruth Reichl’s most famous restaurant reviews for The New York Times recounted her two-faced treatment at Le Cirque.
When Reichl was an unknown, she was seated at a sub-par table and treated like a commoner. But when the restaurateur figured out she was in the house, she was fawned over like royalty.
So she often wore disguises.
“One of the things I really love about restaurants is that in many ways they are the ultimate democratic institutions, where you get to walk in the door, plunk down your money, and for however long that you’re there you can be anyone you want to be,” she once told salon.com. “It’s like a contract that we have. One of the big reasons people go out to eat is to have that experience of being glamorous and wealthy. When restaurants violate that contract, it really annoys me.”
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On a recent Saturday night, I decided to leave my Groucho glasses at home, and I forgot to make a reservation under an assumed name. The cheerful young hostess at the Classic Cup smiled and explained that although the prime patio seats perfect for people-watching weren’t in play that night, coveted deck seats out back were still available. On a coolish May evening, the idea of sitting outdoors sent a shiver down my spine. Instead, we were led to a tiny table not far from the charming fireplace and facing the street windows.
A prime seat?
Well, a critic’s meal should look and feel the same as those seated around her, so throughout the evening I watched to see if I was being treated like everyone else. It appeared the prom-goers got the same care and attention as the elderly foursome, as the average-looking couples out on a date, as the tattooed artists who were seated next to me.
Opened in 1990 and last reviewed in 2002, the Classic Cup continues to combine something I find increasingly hard to find — excellent foodand
excellent service. Although the European-style bistro isn’t trendy, the food is solid, the service is casual yet polished, the wine list is fairly priced and the room is totally comfortable.
As my husband and I wedged in for a leisurely meal that Saturday night, Eric, our server, wove his way over for an initial greeting.
“Is it like this every Saturday night?” I asked.
“It’s been pretty slow for the past three months, but tonight we’re getting slammed,” he replied — with a smile.
Longtime chef Michael Turner offers a menu with something for nearly everyone, from the pizzas, club sandwiches and burgers to more fanciful lamb, duck, pork, salmon and trout dishes.
The appetizers are crowd-pleasers that complement a glass of wine. Like the brie wrapped in a square of puff pastry served with grilled radicchio, blood oranges, toasted almonds and a drizzle of honey. Or the plump and briny Prince Edward Island mussels cooked in a buttery, chardonnay herb broth. Lots of local restaurants serve mussels, but this version is my new favorite.
The only appetizer that struck me as a bit off the mark during my visits was the ever-popular Thai chicken pizza, which was slick from too much mozzarella and sweet chili sauce on an uninspired crust.
By far the best items were the new entrees just added to the menu for summer. The flat-iron steak with “Brazilian” spices and a brilliant green (Argentinean) chimmichurri served with a black bean and corn salad and roasted new potatoes was an absolutely stunning dish.
The vegetable pasta was equally eye-catching and delicious: Thin zucchini strips replace the “pasta” dressed in a sunny tomato broth studded with grape tomatoes, chickpeas, onions and feta cheese.
Other dishes worth recommending include rainbow trout, a frequent special of the day, the grilled New Zealand rack of lamb and grilled duck in a tawny port sauce.
In addition to observing the Saturday night rush, I dined at the Classic Cup on two weeknights in which the service was attentive. But, hey, when you’re slammed, you’re slammed. It took awhile for our entrees to arrive at the table. Eric, or a proxy, appeared at our table to apologize and keep in touch with progress in the kitchen.
As we finished our bottle of wine, the manager approached. He still did not know who I was, yet he insisted on sending out complimentary desserts, which meant we left with a good taste in our mouths.
The Classic Cup is known for its wine list and special wine promotions.
The list attached to the dinner menu includes 15 red and 15 white wines by the glass, ranging from $4.50 for an Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio to a $9 Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet. If you’re interested in a wider range of selections, ask to see the reserve list, which is more like a book of roughly 200 bottles. Don’t be intimidated; bottle prices start as low as $20.
I chose a 1998 Chateau Musar from the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. An odd choice? Think French Bordeaux. A delicious summer wine to sip slowly while people-watching.
Among wine enthusiasts, the markup at Classic Cup is considered more than fair. While most restaurants tend to double and even triple (or more) their prices based on retail, I found a 1998 Chateau Musar at Internet.com for $38. I paid $52 at the restaurant.
In addition, the Classic Cup’s Wine Retail program offers 4,000 wines, most priced at 10 percent over cost plus sales tax. You choose a wine. Classic Cup checks availability and orders through its distributors. You pick it up at the restaurant after you receive a confirmation e-mail.
301 W. 47th St.
5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.Entree average:
Tomato bruschetta, hummus, creamy artichoke spread, roasted goat cheese and garlic, vegetarian chili, vegetable pasta, gnocchi, goat cheese ravioli, black bean chiliSplit plate charge:
Quiet to boisterousReservations:
★★★★ ExtraordinaryPrice code:
$ Average entrée under $10; $$ Average entrée under $20; $$$ Average entrée under $30; $$$$ Average entrée over $30Code of ethics:
Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for the reviewer’s meals.
If you like the Classic Cup, you’ll probably like Café Sebastienne and Café Europa.
•Baked brie in puff pastry
•Prince Edward Island mussels
•Rack of lamb
•Peach blackberry cobbler