John Lockett | November 19, 2016
The legendary West Village speakeasy once frequented by Fitzgerald and Hemingway is back from the dead and better than ever.
A place like Chumley’s can’t help but live multiple lives. It was established by Leland Stanford Chumley as a prohibition-era speakeasy in 1922, a safe haven for thirsty social activists, outlaws, and misfits who flocked to the modest, signless building tucked away on Bedford Street in the West Village.
Over the years, however, it morphed into your standard dive bar. The drinks were cheap and the food forgettable. But it was still a reliable destination for a certain set, the kind that preferred charm and history over cocktail craftsmanship.
Then it all came crashing down. In 2007, a fireplace in the building next door toppled over causing substantial damage to Chumley’s interior. Of course, the immediate response was to rebuild. It took nine long, uncertain years for the new Chumley’s to get back into fighting shape.
Restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone, the guy behind Sushi Nakazawa, took the helm in December 2015, bringing his signature touch and knack for creating a remarkable dining experience to a space that was nothing but bare walls and concrete floors.
“The vision was always keeping the integrity of what Chumley’s used to be,” says Borgognone. “It’s a different version of Chumley’s. In my opinion it’s a better version. The old Chumley’s was a bar that would pour a beer, had a couple cocktails, and the food was basically pub food. We brought this restaurant to a new level.”
The food certainly lives up to Borgognone’s reputation, thanks to Victoria Blamey, former chef de cuisine at the two-Michelin starred tasting-menu mecca Atera.
Chef Blamey’s menu is deceivingly simple. There’s the standard fare you’d see at a joint like this: a burger, oysters, tartare, steak for two. Only the burger is draped in a rich, fatty layer of bone marrow, fried onions, crisp shallots, American cheese, and a tangy, spicy barbecue sauce made with mango, coffee, and jalapeño. And the steak tartare is served with crunchy, salty strips of fried beef tendon (think of the best chip ever and multiply that by ten). Then there’s the hamachi crudo perfectly dressed with a five-chile vinaigrette, and the crispy chicken served in a light cognac consommé with woodsy black trumpet mushrooms.
“I’m interested in every type of cuisine, so that can be tricky,” says Blamey. “There was one point when developing the menu where everyone was like ‘This is all really good, but you’re kinda all over the place.'”
Blamey found her stride with a concise offering of elegant speakeasy fare (just don’t call it pub food). Her mantra is simple: “The flavors have to make sense and be interesting. It’s not brain science.”
The burger is bound to be the breakout star.
“I think it’s one of the greatest burgers in New York City,” says Borgognone. “And I can say that with complete confidence.”
Pair that with the timeless ambiance Chumley’s has to offer, and you’re in for a memorable night. It might not be the same kind of evening Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald would have savored at their favorite booth (where they allegedly consummated their marriage), but no amount of renovation can rattle the foundation of a place like this. It wears its history proud: a photo of Leland Chumley still hangs above the fireplace; Hemingway stoically looks out over the dining room. Here, at least you know you’ll always be in good company.