If you want to travel back in time to old New York, the kind that lives in movies and books like The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis, then pay a visit to Chumley’s, a historic speakeasy and pub on 86 Bedford St. You might miss the unmarked entrance, a detail from its Prohibition Era origins, but once you find it and open the door, you won’t need a secret password, just a reservation. The reservation is essential, as demand for a table is extremely high, given that the restaurant has finally reopened after nearly a decade-long renovation. “We don’t like breaking hearts” is how the hostess will turn you away if you attempt to do the walk-in.
I’ve never been to Chumley’s before the reboot, but apparently it used to be pretty divey. Now it’s as pretty as the Polo Bar–dark wood and classic trim with photos of American greats like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald who were reportedly regulars here. The crowd is not nearly as classic as the surroundings. It’s an interesting mix of the nostalgia crowd, curious out-of-towners and the younger generation discovering it for the first time.
What they all had in common was their dinner orders. Nearly every table had a plate of the 86’d Burger, a massive stack of meat overflowing with foie gras, cheese and sauce. The term 86 apparently originated at Chumley’s, which was used to warn customers during Prohibition that the police were coming and that they should all get out of there as quickly as possible. That might be hard with this burger, since you’d leave behind a trail of juice and grease. And with the amazing side of fries, you’re more likely going to take your time than to head for the exit.
The best moments come when the menu diverges a bit from its classically American roots. The regulars probably won’t recognize half of the things on the menu, but like the saying goes, change is good. My favorite dish of the evening was an elegant hamachi crudo that was as good as something from nearby Sushi Nakazawa, which is also owned by Alessandro Borgognone. Another standout was the foie gras terrine, which had a cleaner flavor and more textured quality than the traditionally rich and dense style. You could eat it on its own or on the toast without reeling over.
And last but not least, the cocktails. Of course a place with a speakeasy past also makes great mixed drinks. They don’t come cheap at $16 a glass. This may upset the old regulars who are used to $6 pints but the reality is that Chumley’s is not the same as it used to be. It’s back, though, and in good hands, so it’s time to reconnect.
86 Bedford St (between Barrow and Grove St)
New York, NY 10014