It sounds crazy, but I know people — reasonable people — who won't go back to the five-year-old Stroud's in Fairway because, well, it's not the old Stroud's on 85th Street. The fried chicken tastes the same as it did in the original location, but I've had people scream at me that it doesn't. Kansas Citians can be like that about their beloved dining spots.
In 1980, Stan Glazer bought the iconic Wishbone Restaurant on Main Street and tinkered until the regulars stopped coming. Then he turned it into a nightclub. That failed, too.
Modern Houlihan's restaurants bear no resemblance to the quirky place that Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson opened in an old Plaza haberdashery in the 1970s. That's probably a good thing because a dozen corporate chains imitated the idea. For nearly two decades, I've heard people say they wished someone would open a restaurant like the Prospect of Westport, which was, to 1980s hipsters, what chef Michael Smith's Extra Virgin is now (but with a very different menu). Every great restaurant has its day until, without warning, it becomes the culinary equivalent of Simon Le Bon or Huey Lewis. Simon who? The Prospect of what?
That brings me to the Corner Restaurant, a Westport institution for three decades, even if it had aged so badly by the time the doors locked for good in 2010 that the place looked like it had last been cleaned when the cast from Saved By the Bell was actually still in high school.
The space sat empty for three years when the unthinkable happened. Two young restaurateurs — Dawn Slaughter and Michael Pfeifer — revived the concept that Corner founder, the late Steve Friedman, had introduced in 1980: a laid-back, sexy diner serving inexpensive home-style dishes with decent lighting, good music and attractive servers. It was also very gay-friendly, which was something of a novelty in the Reagan years, and welcoming of the most eccentric clientele, from drag queens to religious fanatics.
In the Corner's heyday, customers happily stood outside for as long as an hour to get a table during the breakfast shift. In its last days, the staff would have been lucky to lure anyone into the dining room. When a restaurant has a long history filled with dramatic highs and lows, it becomes almost legendary. And legends (unless you're talking about Cher or Mick Jagger) get only so many comebacks. The good news is that this month-old Corner is, in many ways, superior to the original. There's a bar serving fancy cocktails, and a chef with real credentials (Natasha Sears' résumé includes stints at Figlio and Plaza III) behind the line. And the place has probably never been cleaner.
The old Corner crowd has also been returning. On my three visits, I noticed that the clientele leaned heavily toward baby boomers. "We've been hearing a lot of stories about the original Corner," says Slaughter, who manages the dining room during the day. "Even Steve Friedman's family came in to check us out and told us they loved it."
But the new incarnation of the Corner is also drawing the 20- and 30-somethings who consistently patronize Westport's shops and saloons.
Slaughter and Pfeifer have painted the dining room in earth tones (rust, clay, sand) and hung long burlap draperies at the picture windows. The sound system is tuned to an eclectic mix of music. (One afternoon, it was very folky, which a Birkenstock-wearing couple behind us really seemed to dig.) And in shades of the old place, at least one of the servers is in a local band.
There has been some grousing that the new Corner's prices are higher than its predecessor's. They are. But the food quality is much improved, and I don't think the prices are out of line. Still, even my nose got out of joint about forking over 10 bucks for an appetizer: five stringy stalks of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and tempura-battered and flash-fried. They were tasty enough, but you couldn't really share them.
Slaughter has a reasonable retort for the menu gripes: "We buy our produce from local farmers. Our breads come from Bloom Bakery. We use farm-fresh eggs. We're giving people really high quality, and we're not a la carting everyone. Our breakfasts include potatoes and toast, and our sandwiches come with a side dish."
The dishes served at the new Corner are probably the best in a quarter-century. Portions are generous, and the bananas Foster French toast — fluffy, egg-and-vanilla-bean-soaked brioche that tastes as light and comforting as the very best bread pudding in the city — is worth its $12 price tag. (There is, by the way, a brioche bread pudding on the dessert menu, but with cinnamon gelato instead of flambéed bananas.)
The sausage gravy on the Swoonin' Biscuits may skimp on the sausage, but the creamy gravy is seasoned with an artist's touch. And, yes, the Corner's plate of chicken and waffles isn't cheap, even by midtown standards, but the waffles' wedges are exquisitely light, and the chicken wing and thigh are satisfyingly crisp.
The eggs Benedict is offered with a choice of four toppings, but the best thing about this brunch standby is chef Sears' simple, silky hollandaise — the first I've eaten in months that doesn't taste like it started from a mix.
The 21st-century version of the Corner is also much more sensitive to vegetarian and gluten-free diets. However, Slaughter seemed surprised when I asked if the eggs were cooked on the same part of the flattop grill as, say, the ham or the salmon fillet (used in the grilled-salmon BLT, which is very good, although the bitter radicchio isn't an asset to the sandwich).
"That hasn't been an issue yet," she said, "but we'll discuss that with Natasha."
Last week, Slaughter, Pfeifer and Sears introduced dinner entrées to the menu, and Slaughter says they are "still tweaking that menu."
One dish that must never be tweaked: a first-rate burger, cooked to order and heaped with layers of boursin cheese, bacon jam and fried onion straws tucked between slices of toasted challah. It's messy to eat but delicious.
The savvy, cheery servers working here already seem to be on a first-name basis with many of the customers, including a couple of faces that I vaguely remember seeing in the 1980s — and they're eating the same dishes they did back then. It's a weird, culinary déjà vu, but the Corner was always a place where you expected the unexpected.
It was 1985 while dining at a window table at the Corner when I nearly inhaled my cigarette (you could still smoke in the dining room) after overhearing a man at the next table ask his dining companion: "Have you ever killed somebody?" Because I had a massive hangover, I didn't have the nerve — or the agility — to turn around to see who was sitting there.
The new Corner's tables don't seem to be as close together as in the old arrangement, so my eavesdropping days may be as far away as the combination of scrambled eggs and a smoke. But if the food at the improved Corner stays this rewarding, then eating will be the primary entertainment.