22 March 2006

Authenticity Merchants

Recent news about P.J. Clarke's, the grand old tavern on Manhattan's east side, illustrates that local landmark saviors can also be cultural anti-Christs.

Clarke's, one of those old-world joints with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and huge porceline urinals, was on hard times a few years back until a group of investors (including Timothy Hutton, who is also the president of The Players Club and seems obsessed with New York history) decided to save the place. They closed it down for a while, and then reopened with a strong adherance to decor and menu traditions.

So, good, nu? Not quite. Because the lead investor, Philip Scotti, as it turns out, is just another of those soulless developers who have a chain restaurant where their sense of taste ought to be. Scotti plans to rubber stamp the Clarke model and plant a string of faux-tavern xeroxes across the nation, including one in that bete noir of American culture: Las Vegas. His first such attempt opened recently in the financial district. Its name? P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson.

Now, just a guess here, but I'm thinking that the original Clarke was probably a beefy Irishman with ruddy cheeks, a barrel chest and a meaty fist for anyone who suggested he call his watering hole P.J. Clarke's on the Anything. Such gentile suffixes are for the carriage set. But—as Scotti no doubt knows—they also work for the suspendered money merchants down on Wall Street, vulgarians who like to pretend, while downing a brew or two, that they're just like regular barflies—just ones with English-made shoes and bespoke suits.

There is some justice, however. New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, smelling a rat, branded the new Clarke's for the hollow and cynical copy it is in his blistering March 15 review. I doubt that alone will close the Clarke's manque. But we can hope. Maybe the downtown development curse known as Bloomberg, Pataki and Silverstein will do it in.

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