Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dining at Swifty's

Swifty's, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is a restaurant that excites a passionate response from most New Yorkers who've eaten there, and from many who have not.  While the average Joe may never have heard of it, in certain of the better zip codes of Manhattan one comes across people who either love Swifty's or dismiss it, with surprisingly few in the middle ground.  Even though Swifty's has legions of admirers—Reggie among them—for some reason it also has numerous detractors, and in some circles it is considered a bit of a parlor game to disparage it.  "Oh," you hear people say, "it's too stuffy," or the clientele is "too old," or the food is "too boring."  A frequent complaint heard is that it is "too clubby," or "too WASPy," and that it is exorbitantly overpriced, at least for the quality of its food.

Reggie doesn't agree with these naysayers one bit.  Because Reggie adores Swifty's.

Swifty's, looking up Lexington Avenue
Image courtesy of ZagatBuzz

Reggie believes the people who complain about Swifty's are being disingenuous.  He thinks it has more to do with their own self-images than it does with the restaurant, the food it serves, or its clientele.  For  Reggie suspects that many of Swifty's detractors feel deep down inside that they don't "belong" there and are uncomfortable in its rooms because they don't feel they measure up to their conception of it, or to its press for that matter.  In short, they're intimidated.

Looking in to Swifty's from Lexington Avenue
Image courtesy of ZagatBuzz

But they would never admit it, Reggie thinks, except perhaps in the privacy of their therapists' offices at $250 an hour.  So they bluster away, disparaging the restaurant, and—in so doing—imply that they are much too cool and far too au courant to go there, relegating it to the ancient, time-locked fogeys that it is supposedly known for.

Reggie thinks the lady doth protest too much.  In fact, he knows she does.  Because how could anyone of taste and appreciation not like Swifty's?

The charming cover of Swifty's menu
Courtesy of same

I've been going to Swifty's on and off since shortly after it opened in 1998.  But I first went to its predecessor, Mortimer's, which was located only several blocks north on Lexington Avenue, on the site of what is now Orsay.  I didn't go to Mortimer's all that much, though, as I still lived downtown when it was in full throttle, and I would mainly go there later in the evening, and only infrequently, to meet up with some of my louche prep-school and college friends who hung out at the restaurant's bar smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails after its more mature dinner patrons had left for the evening.  Reggie would occasionally meet UES friends there for brunch on weekends, too, since it was a delicious and effective place to nurse the hangover he could be assured of sporting from his previous late night's doings, wherever they took place.  It was always so reassuring to go to Mortimer's for brunch in the next morning's light of day, since it was familiar (unlike some of the dives that Reggie likely had found himself in the night before) and people like one's parents and friends ate there.  In fact, Reggie now realizes that he is around the same age his father was the last time he dined at Mortimer's with him, in the mid-1980s, when FD took Reggie and his brother, Frecky, there for brunch on a visit to New York.

A Swifty's postcard, showing its trademark wallpaper
Courtesy of same

More recently, since Reggie moved back to the Upper East Side more than a decade ago (Home again, at last!), he's become a sometime regular at Swifty's.  No, he's not in the restaurant's inner circle of patrons who eat there all the time, but rather he is someone who goes there often enough—maybe once a month or so—that he is not altogether unknown to the waitstaff and those in charge of the room—usually either Robert Caravaggi, a co-owner, or Romana.  We enjoy eating dinner there on Sunday nights, after returning to the city from Darlington House, and occasionally during the week, too.  Boy eats there more regularly than Reggie does, since it is easier for him to get away for a lunch at Swifty's during the week than it is for Reggie, who is more often than not chained to his desk at the Investment Bank where he works.  Having lunch at Swifty's is a treat for Reggie, as it only happens when he is (infrequently) off from work and finds himself in the city on a weekday instead of in the country, a rarity indeed.

The Swifty's dessert menu cover
Courtesy of same

Swifty's serves classic, deliciously prepared American food, of the sort that would have sent MD into dreamy reveries of memorable meals out in New York when she and my father would visit the city in the 1960s for weekends of theater, shopping, and eating in swell restaurants.  The menu is a mix of stalwarts from that era that MD would recognize, updated for today's palates and preferences, and more recent offerings that will be among the classics of tomorrow.

There are so many wonderful choices on Swifty's menu that it's hard to decide what to order, since everything is so appealing.  Some of Reggie's favorite appetizers include Swifty's divine corn fritters with salmon roe and crème fraiche, a perfectly made iceberg lettuce and blue cheese salad, and a tuna carpaccio that bring tears of joy to this grown man's eyes.  Entrees worthy of repeat visits include a transcendent goat cheese and truffle soufflé, Bill Blass's legitimately famous baked meatloaf (he was a regular there), and some of the tastiest lump crab cakes I've eaten.  One can't go wrong, either, with Swifty's Twinburgers—a house signature dish—or its excellent Angus strip steak.  Some might call this all glorified nursery food, since much of it is "light, fluffy, and easy to eat"—to quote Ruth Draper's The Italian Lesson.  If so, then this is a nursery that Reggie is quite happy to find himself returning to again and again, long after he has given up his childish ways.

The front room at Swifty's
Image courtesy of New York Magazine

But one doesn't go to Swifty's just for the food.  Part of the fun of going there is to see who else is there, too, for it is a favorite gathering place of a well-heeled, well-connected, and well-cared-for crowd.  One regularly sees faces there that are recognizable from photographs that appear (or that once appeared) in society pages and in places like New York Social Diary, whose author, David Patrick Columbia, is a Swifty's regular.

Depending on when one is there, Swifty's can be rather a scene and packed to the gills with patrons who at any one time might include an international playboy dining with an aging society gal, a contender to a middle-European throne supping with a well-known fashion designer, an author or two, a hedge fund wizard deep in intimate conversation with his heiress girlfriend, what's left of the ladies who lunch, and a high-toned interior decorator entertaining an oscar-winning actress client.  How about that!

Many of Swifty's more frequent regulars are what MD used to refer to as "of a certain age."  But it is a well-preserved and very well-kept crowd, beautifully dressed and expensively turned out, often accompanied by a sprinkling of younger offspring and friends.  At night, most men dining at Swifty's wear jackets and ties.  Women who eat there dress like ladies, for the most part.  Although somewhat more casual during the day, this is most definitely not a restaurant for the cargo-short-and-tee-shirt crowd.

The back room at Swifty's
Image courtesy of ZagatBuzz

Swifty's is a cosy place and is attractively decorated in a traditional, upper-class style by Mario Buatta and Anne Eisenhower—a decor reminiscent of a well-appointed country house in Litchfield County, Connecticut.  It seats only around sixty people when full, with a long, narrow room in the front and a modestly sized square room at the back that is sometimes used for private parties.  Not surprisingly, there is a seating hierarchy.  During the day the plum table is the one in the window, right next to the entrance, and at night many of the restaurant's regulars are seated in the room at the back, a sort of inner sanctum.  Although Reggie is occasionally seated in the back room, he is happiest sitting in the front room, day or night, on one of the banquettes, because it gives him a front-row seat to take in the scene, much aided by the large bistro mirrors that line the room's prettily papered walls.

But one needn't be a media darling, tycoon, or society swell to be treated well at Swifty's, for the restaurant also welcomes mere mortals such as Reggie and Boy, too.  Swifty's reputation for being a bit frosty to newcomers is unmerited, at least from Reggie's observation, but he advises those who are dining there for the first time to arrive appropriately dressed—this is a grown-up place after all—and to behave discretely (and don't stare at the other patrons).  It is true that one cannot always procure a last-minute reservation at Swifty's, as the restaurant's tables often fill with appreciative regulars.  But that's not surprising, on two counts: first, there aren't all that many tables in the place to begin with, and, second, restaurants such as Swifty's depend on repeat customers and need to take care of them, as they should.  I've only rarely been turned away, and that's only when I've attempted to get in on the spur of a moment on a busy night, without a reservation.

Swifty's is one of Reggie's favorite restaurants in Manhattan and one of only a handful that he looks forward to returning to regularly for as long as he is able.  That's because he knows that when dining at Swifty's he will be assured of delicious food, attentive service, attractive surroundings, and interesting people watching—the four attributes that Reggie looks for when he dines in a swell restaurant.  Should you find yourself in New York, Dear Reader, Reggie recommends that you find your way there for a meal or two.  You won't regret it.

Oh, and tell them that Reggie sent you.
1007 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10021
(212) 535-6000

Please note, Reggie has received nothing in return for this review, nor does he expect to.  He has written it solely for the pleasure of his readers—and the fun he has had in writing it.


  1. Dear Reggie, it was very Truman Capote style and I enjoyed the story. I know what you are talking about because I read DPC's stories about old and new NY and I love Jeff's photos.
    It is hard to think of you as a banker as you are so discreet paying homage to Elaine.
    It's nearly an year since I read your blog enjoying every post.
    Merry Christmas ! Do you celebrate St. Nikolaus in America ?

  2. My goodness, that is one of the loveliest menu covers I've ever seen. Thank you for such an interesting post Reggie. I can't wait to show this to my husband, the foodie of the family. He works in Manhattan and loves trying new restaurants. I am sure Swifty's will now be on his list if it's not already!


  3. Reggie I nominate you to replace Dominick Dunne.
    Love the post, the ambience and the wallpaper.

  4. Dearest R, Yes, I am certain that Swifty's would seduce me. Traditional with a touch of the contemporary, an absolutely perfect combination. It reminds me greatly of Sunday lunches spent many years ago now at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair. Then privately owned [now in some ghastly Forte chain]the service was consistently impeccable and the food classically English. Now no more and if only Manhattan was nearer Swiftty's could, I am sure, take its place!!

  5. Love Swifty's! Just read your post aloud together and we loved it!

    E + J

  6. I love Swifty's. My first time there was a few years ago, after a lecture by David Garrard Lowe at the Beaux Arts Alliance a few bocks north, when one of the BAA's members asked me to dinner & I accepted. If I had thought about it a minute or so longer, I might have declined, because I had just arrived in town after a twenty-hour train ride from Chicago and was still dressed in the country bumpkin tweeds I wear on Amtrak, which are great for overnight travel but not so great at 6:30 on Wednesday night on the Upper East Side, but it was too late to back out. Oh, well.

    Anyway, he suggested Swifty's--where I'd never been before, although I knew the place from NYSD--but my unease over my dress went away as soon as we walked in and I saw that wallpaper. I took it as a sign that everything would be all right. I told my host "I know this paper! It's my all-time favorite--Gallier Diamond!" to which he replied "Oh, really? Mario chose it."

    I should add here that Mario's beautiful 1980s showhouse rooms were what prompted me to ditch my career at the Phone Company & go back to school for a design degree. Mario was my hero.
    I was still thinking about Mario & the paper when Host said "Yes, Mario did the whole place. In fact..."--he started looking toward the back room--"he might be here. Do you want to meet him?"

    All my nervousness & the shame over my rustic getup came zooming back as Host started walking towards the back, but, fortunately--for me--MB wasn't there. It turned out my host had known Mario since the glory days at the Antiques Show, when MB was the Main Man. He still is, in my book.

    Anyway, once the potential humiliation of meeting MB & being struck instantly mute was averted--think Ralphie in front of Santa in "A Christmas Story", same glasses & all--I relaxed. And although we didn't have reservations and the place was completely full, Swifty's knew Host, so they did what they could: they put us at the tiny table on the other side of the door, which is probably kept for rubes like me who show up in rough tweeds. Certainly, Host had never sat at that table before, a fact noted by several friends who stopped at our table on their way to or from the back. But he acted like it was perfectly normal to get bumped & jostled by fur-clad elderly women brushing past. And when his friends came by, Host introduced us. Unfortunately, my being on the banquette, and hemmed in besides, with only a foot between us and the next table, meant that I couldn't stand up when he introduced me to several people whose names I knew, which, I'm sure made it even more obvious than my jacket did that I was a hick from the sticks. All my shame came back, over & over, throughout the meal. Oh, well. Host was smart, connected & very cordial, and he didn't act a bit as though, by eating with me rather than with his regular pals, he were slumming.

    But as a far as Swifty's itself went, it was swell. The place was good-looking, it was humming with good feelings, everyone--everyone but me--was well-dressed and the food was very good. The next time I was in town, I went properly attired and it was even better, although for their part, I have to say Swifty's treated me exactly the same, as if I were an old friend they were happy to see again. Still no MB sighting, though. Maybe next time.


  7. The only thing more dispiriting than dining in a restaurant is disputing the character of the food. (I refer your memory to PGT's remarks on La Grenouille, a model of how to endure a restaurant - by accepting the food, and letting it go at that). The restaurant you describe is too numerous to count: it's everyone's default restaurant of feeling at home. In San Francisco, you'd say the late Jack's; in New York, the late La Caravelle for me. There's nothing wrong (or, for that matter, right) with this. So, fritters and crabcakes aside, you put it to us to decide whether we'd enjoy dining with you. The fact that it's a restaurant, notwithstanding, I shouldn't see why not. :)

  8. Love Swiftys - haven't been there in years - you remind me that I need to revisit. And I had the wallpaper in one of the powder rooms in my former house - still love it!!

  9. I have always loved that wallpaper.

  10. To people who live in New York, restaurants like Swifty's or Mortimers are like Cheers. And let's face it, that's the luxury of the place. You don't necessarily go there for the food, you go there for the ambiance and the familiar, and the comfort of feeling "at home" in a place where yes, most everybody knows your name. If truth be told, places like Swifty's, and the "old" 21, where famous for that, nothing more nothing less.

    I only had lunch there once, in the front room, and Kirk Douglas was there with his wife and someone else I didn't know. He looked terrible, but they had him by the window near the door which made him look even worse. It was Spring and the doors were open. Poor man every person who walked by on the sidewalk stopped to look.

    From my limited experience at Swifty's I can tell you it's an easier nut to crack than Mortimers where you pratically had to show your birth certificate to be seated. Better food too!

  11. We have highly recommended Swifty's on and I hope you enjoy drinking The Peachy Deegan there! Robert spells his name Caravaggi. Cheers

  12. My mother uses 'women of a certain age' all the time. Sometimes followed by 'who should know better.'

  13. Since you love Swifty's--and we all do--have you tried the catering. It's simply the best. Great food, great service, great style.

  14. Who is Anne Slater lunching with in picture #7 ?

  15. I have always loved eating at Swifty's, especially when shod in Belgian loafers :) It truly has a marvelous atmosphere, the crabcakes are heaven, but so is the cheese soufflé!

  16. Back when I was obliged to be in Manhattan more than four times a year, I would occasionally get dragged to Mortimer's -- or Crones & Drones, as I called it. My regular act of resistance was to force my companions to play a little game: Was there even one woman in the room who had ever married for love? (You can imagine how that went.)

    I suppose it wasn't as bad as Michael's is now, or Elaine's twenty years ago, but all in all, I'd rather be forced to eat at The Colony Club every day of my life than walk into one of those places ever again. Life is just too short.

    P.S. Reggie, maybe you could find a someone to write something about getting hammered at The Mine Shaft with Nureyev and Jackie Onassis back in the Seventies. That would be a horse of a very different color!

  17. Oh Swifty's! {sigh} this was located right in the heart of my old stomping grounds, and while I only dined there once or twice, I am very much a fan! My memory is playing tricks on me though, as I would have sworn that Swifty's opened in the exact spot as the old Mortimers...anyway, you were more likely to find my husband and I at Sette Mezzo...I miss NYC restaurants so really have the best of both worlds with your T and C lifestyle!

  18. Nursery food? I just wish we ate that well growing up! I adore that kind of comfort food from chefs who let the food speak for itself rather than trying to impress with novelty.

    Your loving sister,

  19. When I first came back from college (1980, Mortimer's quickly became a favored haunt of my friends and mine. Its proprietor, Glenn Birnbaum, was a frosty, mecurial character if ever there was one, and you were never quite certain, no matter how often you frequented the place, whether your greeting would be warm and welcoming, utterly indifferent or downright icy and unpleasant. Similarly, the "best" tables were those to the right and left of the front door: for several visits running, you would be ushered to one of these sought after tables and then, for no apparent reason, banished to the deepest, darket Siberia of the back room. And then as suddenly as your "punishment" had begun, it would end- for a time. I had been a regular diner there for about a year when, for the first time, I made a reservation in my own name (they only accepted reservations for parties of five or more, and I guess that I had not dined there with a larger group). As we sat down, Glenn marched up to the table and barked in the most peremtory manner "Which one of you is Magnus?". With visions of being frog marched out of the place for some unknown offense, I meekly identified myself. Glenn's facial expression melted into a wholly unexpected munificence as he proceeded to tell me that many years previously, when he managed the Custom Shirt Shop (owned by Mortimer Levitt for whom the restaurant was named), he had purchased the first ad that my father ever sold as an advertising sales rep for the then brand new Sports Illustrated. Alas, my dreams of being inducted as the newest and youngest member of the inner sanctum were dashed on my next visit a few days later, when my cheery "hello" to Glenn was greeted with an icy stare and baishment to the back room. And thus it went for as long as Mortimer's survived: generally a smile and a good table, but just often enough to keep me on my toes, a frown and a slink to the back room. Swifty's is far less unpredictable and far more democratic. And be sure to visit over the next few weeks when Bay Scallops are still in season- Swifty's has the best in New York.


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