(Bloomberg) -- In the 1970s, Harry’s was the only place to go downtown. Steps from the New York Stock Exchange, the restaurant would get so packed after work that traders, no strangers to a scrum, couldn’t push their way past the door. According to legend, the action on a Friday night was like an alcohol-sodden Animal House frat party.
It took almost 40 years for most of Wall Street to forget Harry’s, but some veterans remember.
On a recent weeknight in Harry’s newly renovated dining room, I found one guy who used to be a trader on the floor of the NYSE. “Back in the day, all the traders came here. The listed equity traders would sit near the front. And the over-the-counter traders sat in the back. Because no one liked them,” he chuckled.
These days, it’s not just that there are few people left from that renegade era; there aren’t many finance people left downtown, period. Most banks have migrated to midtown. The ones that have stayed in lower Manhattan, such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have moved so far west, it takes as much time to travel the few blocks to Harry’s as it does to head uptown.
How does a restaurant that opened in 1972 and achieved cult status in such novels as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and onscreen in American Psycho—where it served as one of Patrick Bateman’s many haunts—deal with a neighborhood in which young mothers have replaced thirsty traders? If you’re Peter Poulakakos, son of the eponymous Harry, you look backward.
Earlier this month, Poulakakos unveiled a million-dollar renovation of his father’s storied dining room. It updates his last renovation in 2006, when he turned his father’s Continental restaurant into a steakhouse. Wall Street-style nostalgia is big business these days—just look at the Grill, with its emphasis on martinis and prime rib carts. The revamped Harry’s now includes a row of dark-red suede booths against the back wall and an Art Deco-style floor-to-ceiling reverse chandelier that is equal parts Rainbow Room and Mad Men.
On the other hand, a wall that separated the bar was torn down to energize the dining room and encourage the “drink and snackers” crew. The renovation includes a play to the Instagram crowd and the current necessity for quirky restaurant design. A sign will soon be installed in the floor at the entrance; it will read: “You’ve Arrived.”
The revamped menu is likewise a sometimes schizophrenic mix of old and new, a steakhouse with a prominent pasta section. Harry’s has brought back tableside service in a big way: Steak tartare is mixed in front of you, salad is presented, then portioned, and Dover sole filleted. You have to beg the waiter to let you divvy up plates yourself.
To assess how much of a steakhouse Harry’s still is, I invited Mike Puma, a director at Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. who’s also a founder of the popular Gotham Burger Social Club. Harry’s sources its steaks, such as filet mignon ($42) and bone-in New York strip ($54), from Master Purveyors, which also supplies Peter Luger Steak House. All steaks are aged in-house for 28 days. That sounds short, compared with a lot of other places that routinely tout months-long aged meats.
What’s surprising, then, is how meaty and juicy Harry’s straightforward steaks are. At dinner, Puma praises the notably aged flavor and medium-rare interior of the bone-in rib-eye we ordered; he reports that it’s better than a 60-day aged steak he’s had at a renowned spot. “I’m looking at this menu with $40 and $50 steaks of this quality; you don’t see that price for steaks anymore,” he says.
Also notable is the towering Kobe burger, served only at dinner. The meat is coarsely ground, so it tastes of steak—with melted gruyere cheese dripping down the side and a dollop of tangy bacon onion marmalade—for $26. “This is already one of the top steakhouse burgers in the city,” pronounces Puma.
Still, one of the best things we have is a pasta, the chitarra cacio e pepe. I’ve tried hundreds of versions of this dish in New York, but Puma and I agree that it’s the best in the city, with perfectly al dente noodles and a buttery, peppery sauce with a double hit of salty cheese: Pecorino and grana padano.
What to skip: The restaurant’s storied beef Wellington. Once upon a time, Harry’s made the dish with whole filets, seared and then wrapped in pastry and baked, and sliced to order. Friends of Harry would order whole filets; the restaurant would send them to the board room with a waiter to serve them. Now the menu offers individual Wellingtons, but they’re tough squares of beef with a pale, barely grilled exterior, served in an undercooked pastry shell.
Reserve Bottle Chambers
Poulakakos and his HPH hospitality group also own the Dead Rabbit, named the best bar in the world; he understands the importance of a strong cocktail program. Even if no one comes in for that pasta, they presumably will need a place to go when the Dead Rabbit is too crowded. Poulakakos drafted Ivan Mitankin, an alum of HPH’s Vintry Wine & Whiskey, as beverage director.
Along with a short and sweet list of seasonal cocktails—my Mai Tai was infused with a splash of Macallan 10-year—there’s now such shared cocktails as Harry’s Famous Martini served in a small carafe to enjoy with a friend, or for refills if it’s been a long day. (When it’s a bad day on Wall Street, Poulakakos knows quickly: There are more drinkers.)
Also new at Harry’s are reserve chambers, a grand name for caged cabinets in the back of the restaurant, which are also a modest nod to bottle service. For some of the rarer, pricier bottles on the list, such as a Macallan 25-year-old single malt scotch from Harry’s original collection, or the Hibiki 17-year Single Malt Japanese Whisky ($625) and the Yamazaki Japanese Single Malt 18-year ($1,375), Harry’s offers the chance to store leftovers, for those who want to make themselves feel more at home in the new, old Harry’s.
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