Lucius Beebe was frowning in the afterlife. I could sense it, along with the collective disapproval of dozens of other moldered A-listers, as I sat with my party of four in Booth One at the Pump Room.
All of us were wearing blue jeans.
There was a time long ago when we, the uncelebrated and sartorially indolent, might have been denied reservations, let alone rock-star parking at the coveted high-visibility table, with its ivory rotary phone and commanding view of the room. This is, after all, the swank joint that once turned away Phil "No Jacket Required" Collins for dressing like a bum.
But at the new Pump Room, as resurrected by boutique hotel impresario Ian Schrager (he of Studio 54 fame), the servers are in denim too, along with spotless Chuck Taylors. Those are two of the more banal signals of Schrager's ballyhooed "democratization of luxury" in his transformation of the erstwhile Ambassador East into Public Chicago.
It's not that the doors have been fully thrown open to the unwashed hordes. The huge collection of celebrity photos has been carefully preserved in a street entrance and outside the bathrooms. The cobwebbed sunken dining room has been thoroughly scrubbed and warmly lit by luminescent globes, and the bar has been pushed back into the wall to make way for a lounge prowled by winsome waitresses in little black dresses.
Schrager's idea of menu democracy was to enlist Alsatian emperor-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whom townies will recognize as the superstar Lettuce Entertain You tapped for a local outpost of the late, unlamented French-Asian restaurant Vong. This time the chef brought with him another preexisting concept—much of the menu is derived from his lauded ABC Kitchen, a local-organic-affordable omnibus housed in a Manhattan home furnishings store.
His man on the ground is executive chef Bradford Phillips, a Blackbird alum of significant talent, who'd most recently been doing some fairly wonderful but largely unsung things at Lincoln Square's contemporary French LM Restaurant. While I find the prospect of his involvement far more interesting than yet another unoriginal celebrity chef import, I also worry that his gifts will be wasted on interpreting that chef's something-for-everyone menu, which includes pizzas and pastas and a scant few remnants of the original Pump Room's menu, along with more-substantial entrees and appetizers.
From it, I shared meals of such wildly divergent execution that I can't say for sure what's going on in the kitchen. The delicate balance of keeping costs low while sourcing high-quality product across the board seems to have been achieved particularly well with items such as a roast carrot salad with bean sprouts and avocado (presumably not from Illinois) and sour-cream-and-citrus vinaigrette; or sweet, fresh crab and lemon aioli toast dripping with butter; or a simple but dramatic (and sweet) oven-roasted whole split lobster. These are reasonably simple dishes whose ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, as with the gooey cheddar-blanketed burger, the diaphanous sheets of fluke ceviche bathed in lemon and sprinkled with grated horseradish, and toast blanketed with rich chicken liver topped with crispy sage leaves.
So it's hard to understand how others can be prepared so sloppily: a small plate of salt-and-pepper shrimp mined with empty broken shells, rings of crushed-pretzel-coated calamari overfried to ashlike consistency, a pizza crust sogged to the bottom with the fluid from undercooked mushrooms.
I'm a bit worried about Kady Yon too, whose unfettered creativity with the Boka Group established her as one of the city's most talented pastry chefs. One of the desserts—a salted-caramel ice cream sundae with peanuts and caramel popcorn—is one of the best I've had all year. But it's not her own, and while a pretzel-studded chocolate candy bar bears her mark, a trio of doughnuts, stale enough to choke on, doesn't seem like something she's capable of.
I don't know if the food at the Pump Room will attract the caliber of luminaries that once flocked to it. But given the number of visiting stars that show up at utterly forgettable spots such as Sunda, Hub 51, and even Gibsons and RL, it clearly doesn't need to. A trickier question is whether it's delivering enough to attract the rest of us—those who pay with our wallets, not the wattage of our star power.