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Waiter, Bring Us Our Bill’s

The runner climbs a flight of stairs with a heavy load of aged rib eyes and chickens held high above his head, avoiding a disaster a second. In the dining room, there are angry waiters on his back and hostesses cutting through without a feel for the squashed space’s rhythm. A fallen cloth napkin is as dangerous here as a cartoon banana peel. But with a straight back and a steady pace, he glides through the scrum to deliver the dishes to the middle-aged double date.

Bill’s Food & Drink is in a brownstone in midtown that has been serving since Prohibition, when Bill Hardy first converted three of its floors into a retro speakeasy, nostalgic even then for the mustache cups and piano bars of the 1890s. Earlier this year, when the landlord refused to renegotiate Barbara Olmsted’s lease on Bill’s Gay Nineties, which her father had taken over from Hardy, the space changed hands. Now it’s a flashy John DeLucie joint, holding onto its predecessor’s name and a bit of its decor, but not all of its warm and crumbly charm.

On the upper floors, where the walls are cluttered with maps, Victorian portraits, and taxidermied animal heads, it can feel like the wedding reception of a wealthy, well-connected acquaintance. On a recent evening, all of the second-floor dining room patrons seemed to know one another, waving with a wiggle of two or three fingers as they walked around, drinks in hand, winking shiny, creaseless eyes.

Jason Hall’s menu is not particularly compelling. At a glance, it’s the dull, crowd-pleasing steak-pasta-salad options of a first-class club, with an expensive raw bar and $10 sides. There’s a fine, slim, 16-ounce rib eye ($48), with a cloud of horseradish-tinged lardo, on a slick of bordelaise, and a beastly, 40-ounce porterhouse for two ($125) from Kansas-based processor Creekstone Farms, served sliced. A fresh tagliatelle with peppery goat ragu ($19) is full of flavor in a meaty jus and far more exciting than the chophouse dishes. But the Manhattan chowder ($32, sometimes labeled bouillabaisse) is pumped too hard with saffron, and the pieces of fish in its grainy broth are cooked to a near paste.

Most diners don’t seem too interested in octopus or foie gras—they come to the new Bill’s for a piece of protein and to take in the scene. A table of six blond women each ordered a medium-well hamburger ($21) with various bun annotations (toasted bun, untoasted bun, half a bun, no bun). When the plates arrived, one woman scolded the dignified runner as if he were a naughty child: “Jesus Christ, I said no bun!” For dessert, there was a good, if rather simple, scotch pudding ($9), topped with crème fraîche. But the apple fritters ($9), raw and wet inside, soaked through with stale fryer oil, recalled a shop full of cinnamon-scented candles set ablaze.

The piano is still at Bill’s, but Elliot Paul, one of the charming guys who has played it for the last 15 years, isn’t leading a sing-along. “The new place looks so nice, but it’s just not a saloon anymore,” he told me on the phone. He’s right. The renovations have been smart and careful, and there is still some live music, but the mood and the prices have changed quite drastically—at the old Bill’s, the most expensive item on the menu was a $30 steak.

But visit the narrow, dimly lit bar on the ground floor in the middle of the afternoon, and you can still get a sense of what this place used to be. Sinatra croons on the speakers. There are a few tourists among the men in expensive navy suits, and loners reading books. Order a hamburger for lunch or perhaps some fried oysters ($15) and a beer, and the barman will set you a proper place at the wide, wooden bar, laying down a cloth napkin under your plate.

On a recent afternoon, I saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman in her seventies drinking a bottle of wine and eating a hamburger with her hands, discussing the work of a young playwright between mouthfuls. She wore red lipstick and an elaborate hat, and her laugh was like a wild animal yawping into the night. It was the sound of the old Bill’s.

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Crown Chef John DeLucie on Shameless Self-Promotion: Interview Part 2

Yesterday we spoke with Crown chef John Delucie about fine dining and customers who order $125 steaks for their dogs. Today we shift gears as he tells us about his favorite neighborhood haunts and how he feels about gracing the silver screen.

What do you think about chefs on television?

I don’t watch a whole lot of TV just because I don’t have time. But it does wonders for your business and fills your restaurants. I love being in the restaurant — the immediate gratification and watching your business grow and watching people; that whole experience is cool. TV takes patience and you have to be on. It’s a whole different skill set. I do the Today show once a month or so and it’s great. New York is so competitive that you need to do that stuff. It’s not an option. Hey, I was on Gossip Girl. It’s unbelievably great fun and you can’t believe how many people watch that show.

And where do you like to dine in the city?

I’m a creature of habit. I try to eat at all the new places, but I go to the same three places. I’m at Sant Ambroeus right now. I live in the West Village, so Minetta and Morandi. All the Italian spots. And I love dim sum. I like Dim Sum Go Go a lot, and then I have some more authentic places as well.

Besides New York, what are some of your favorite cities for eating?

I like to go to Miami because it’s warm in the winter. I like L.A. because the weather is perfect. And I have day-tripped to Providence to eat at Al Forno. I’ve been to Maine. I love going to Europe; Italy is my absolute favorite place to go. And San Francisco, I can’t forget that. It’s my second favorite.

What’s your drink of choice post-work?

You know, I’m a teetotaler. I’m at the gym early in the morning. A glass of wine is a big night for me.

Are you working on any new projects?

We are — several things. I can’t really speak of any of them now, but we get lots of phone calls. I’m always looking for the next right thing. Probably in a few weeks I can say more.

You published a memoir a few years ago. What was that process like?

Shameless self-promotion!

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Crown Chef John DeLucie on Catering to the Elite

John DeLucie is a chef who knows how to bring the New York elite to his restaurants. He was notably the chef at the impossible-to-get-reservations-at Waverly Inn, before replicating that magic at the Lion. His latest venture is Crown (24 East 81st Street, 646-559-4880), a decidedly fancier affair on the Upper East Side that opened a few months ago. We called him up to learn more about his opinions on fine dining and the crazy rich patrons who frequent his restaurant.

So Crown has been open for a few months now. How have things been going?

I’d say things are going beyond expectation. We are doing an upscale restaurant. I think it was the New York Post critic who said that it’s comfort food for millionaires, and I am using that to describe it. It’s a funny way of saying it.

How do you feel about fine dining?

It depends. The future is certainly the casualization of the New York City restaurant. Our Lion restaurant is fairly casual. But [at Crown] we’re on 81st between Fifth and Madison, so it changed the dynamic of our customers. It’s all about what the market will bear. We serve caviar. If you’re a restaurant on Clinton Street, you’re probably not selling caviar. You’ll always have your Le Bernardins and your Daniels, but overall, there will be more places like the Lion.

Do you eat a lot of fancy food?

Personally, I’m a simple guy. I grew up in the suburbs. I like veal parm.

Why is it that all your restaurants seem to cater to New York’s elite?

You know, hell if I know. I had an opportunity to open the Waverly Inn with Graydon [Carter] and cooked chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese. Then it just sort of went from there. I can’t say I set out to do that; you just find your niche and do what works.

What should someone who’s never been to Crown order?

Jason Hall is our executive chef, and it’s really a team effort. There’s a fantastic mushroom salad as an appetizer. We have two really great handmade pastas and a Taylor Bay scallop dish. And we have our pastry chef, Heather Bertinetti, doing a fabulous chocolate soufflé. It’s just really sublime.

Do customers ever order ridiculous things off-menu?

Not so much, but it’s funny when people do come and order stuff. We have an amazing menu at Crown and the Lion, and we had someone come in and order a mushroom omelet or a bowl of white rice. And we happily do it. We’ve also had someone order a côte de boeuf for their dog. It costs $125!

Who is your ideal customer?

If I could cook for anyone? I love cooking for my parents. They just love everything and they’re not critical or award stars.

What makes a restaurant successful in your mind?

Well, I can only speak for mine, and the thing is I don’t know what makes others successful, but in my mind, it’s ambiance, solid, consistent food, and nice people — people who are respectful and willing to bend over backwards for great service.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

Twenty years ago, I’d be trying out for Led Zeppelin. Now I’m too old for that, but I’ve always been enamored with entertainment. I write and play music, and it’s the thread that’s been going through my life. My dad is a musician, so I’d be a jazz musician or recording something. I handpicked the jazz band for the new weekend brunch at Lion.

You’ve been in the business a long time. Would you say your culinary outlook has changed?

Twenty-one years of gainful employment! Yeah, as a young cook you want to set the world on fire and want to do what you want to do and invent the next great dish and put together combinations no one’s done. Now, I want to be successful and please people and make sure they have a nice time and leave happy. From a culinary standpoint, that means creating great food and giving them what they want. If they want a mushroom omelet, hey, they paid for it.

Check back tomorrow to learn more about John’s favorite New York City restaurants.