I was among those who were not thrilled when the landlord of the midtown Manhattan building that held the old bar Bill's Gay Nineties decided to end the owner's lease, cutting down the former speakeasy's 88-year life at a New York watering hole. Bill's Food and Drink, the much tonier replacement, opened for business this week, following an extensive renovation of the old townhouse. It's not Bill's Gay Nineties, but is does retain some aspects of the old joint, as I found in this New York Times "Starter" column:
Starter: Bill’s Food & Drink Channels the Old Place
By ROBERT SIMONSON
It’s a testimony to the rock-hard architectural integrity of the 19th-century Midtown town house that used to hold Bill’s Gay Nineties that — even though the decades-old former speakeasy decamped last spring, taking with it all of the storied bric-a-brac from the tavern’s walls — the address’ successor restaurant, Bill’s Food & Drink, retains a certain amount of the old atmosphere.
One still traces a circuitous path, past some glass doors and an old inset phone booth, to get to the downstairs bar. And that room remains as cramped, cozy and midnight-dark as it ever was. Yes, the new bar is set further back, and the ceiling has been stripped to expose the building’s original beams. But this narrow watering hole will always be a place where, from 7 p.m. on, barflies, diners and waiters jockey for space. Taking up some of the precious square-footage is a piano; Bill’s will keep up its predecessor’s tradition of live entertainment.
The clientele on Monday, the new Bill’s first official night, didn’t seem so different from the businessmen who patronized Bill’s Gay Nineties. Dark blue suits with pints in hand toasted the end of the workday next to gray suits hoisting martinis. Not a pair of jeans in sight.
These patrons perhaps have thicker wallets that did the space’s previous regulars — all the better to cover the tabs at this new venture from Crown Group Hospitality, the same outfit that operates the well-heeled enclaves The Lion and Crown. Cocktails, patterned after classics by pre-Prohibition bartenders like Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, are competitively priced at $14. So are the $8 drafts. (The bar now has beer lines for the first time in its history.)
But wines by the glass, though starting at $12, leave that neighborhood good and fast for fancier environs. As for the food (by the chef Jason Hall), the fish, meat & poultry, and beef columns all include entrees that would give a 50 a good shake. In that way, the new Bill’s is a tonal bookend to its equally high-priced neighbor across the street, the Monkey Bar.
All three floors of the redesigned restaurant would lend comfort and succor to any chesterfield-loving club man. At every turn, there’s something redolent of a more masculine, older New York. Old photos of sporting types (tennis pros, footballers, swimmers, boxers) crowd the walls; fireplaces abound; the soundtrack varies from Sinatra to Armstrong to Nat King Cole. The second-floor dining hall, all white tablecloths, dark wood chairs and waiters at the ready, is polished and posh. The third floor contains a private dining room of baronial splendor.
Visible outside the the third-floor windows is the old “Bill’s Gay ’90s” sign, missing a few letters but still in place. “We took it down,” said Ben Scorah, Crown Group’s head mixologist. “It was in really bad condition. It was in danger of falling down. So we took it down and fixed it, and put it back up last week.”