A decade ago twenty-eighth Street between Park South and Madison would have seemed an unlikely spot in Manhattan for an upscale bar, but not now. Twenty-somethings flush with techboom pay prowl these streets to fill the clubs and bars; Park Avenue South is a flash restaurant row that spills west across and beneath Madison Park, itself once a haven of choice for dealers of drugs.
Enter the Churchill, a cozy British bar and kitchen with good beer on draft; Fuller’s ESB, the originator of the style, at once round and malty but also sharp from hops; and Peak Organic IPA, Maine’s precocious answer to the West Coast style. They hand you dimpled jugs, an endangered species on both sides of the Atlantic. It a deft touch characteristic of the Churchill and a welcome revival.
The Churchill Tavern
45 E. 28th Street
New York, New York 10016
It is a pretty place; hardwood flooring painted as trompe l’oeil tile, lots of woodwork, tartan booths. Much is lit by steampunk bulbs, much reviled as overdone and underefficient but casting a romantic glow. The toilets take a terrific tone of irony; the wallpaper mimics library books and the heavy fittings could have been stolen from the Connaught.
That, however, is the only ironic note. The Churchill is no sendup of Anglophilia; the aesthetic in here is as deadpan as it gets. The great man’s speeches, all cadence and control, play on a continuous loop in those welcoming restrooms, the bulldogs and busts would not dream of winking at themselves or each other. It is a welcome refuge from the other conceits on offer in this wedge of town.
Those callow technical wizards are much in evidence here, along with slightly older and rumplier expats at the bar. English football on the tube, British accents all around. We found bartenders, waitresses and waiters friendly and efficient.
We did not stay for dinner; our starters warned us off. The failure here is execution rather than ingredients, which we found surprising. A venture with such stern attention to detail ought to extend its eye to into the kitchen. It is as if the owner has conflated eras; some Edwardians prized presentation and elegance as much as the quality of the food itself.
The Scotch egg is a case in point. Beautiful dark yolk encased in flavorful lean sausage, so far so good. Its creator, however, took a heavy hand to the sausage. As a result it was crisp and juicy without but red and raw within. That is a shame, because the presentation was pretty; leaf of crisp romaine, dish of Branston Pickle, Colman’s mustard, malt vinegar and HP Sauce on the side.
Devils on Horseback displayed different flaws. This time the cooking was fine but the cook too clever by half. Instead of rolling the excellent, and nicely charred, bacon around a traditional prune, creativity intervened in the form of a date stuffed with cheese. A pleasant enough mouthful but no more; the texture and flavor cloyed after that when the little savories should have kept you thirsting for more, and more beer.
So drink at the Churchill and keep hope alive; it would be easy for its kitchen to improve.