Sneaking Over to the Garrick for a Toast to Arthur Miller

There are few good, inexpensive places to eat in the theater district. And now that it has become a neighborhood of monolithic buildings, the idea of opening a restaurant there that seats a mere 50 instead of 500 seems like a joke. But even though it’s only a few months old, the Garrick belongs to the time when the Camel smoke rings were still puffing over Broadway and a cup of coffee cost a dime at the automat–the era, in fact, of Death of a Salesman , which is playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater next door.

The restaurant is in a small, attractive hotel called the Mayfair New York on West 49th Street. It is named after the 17th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick, who founded a club called the Garrick in London. (Among its many illustrious members was the late Kingsley Amis, who was often to be found at the bar and once remarked that the saddest words in the English language were “Shall we go straight in?”)

I first visited the Garrick on a Saturday with a friend and our two children for lunch, before a matinee of Annie Get Your Gun . We were immediately charmed by the look of the place. Both the lobby and the dining room have an intimate, clubby feel; their walls are paneled in cherrywood and hung with wonderful 1940′s photographs of old movie stars such as Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, lent by the Museum of the City of New York (including a great one in the bathroom of a soulful-looking and very young Tallulah Bankhead). Perhaps it was the setting, but the customers looked out of the 40′s, too. The dining room proper is long and narrow and feels a bit like the restaurant car on a train 50 years ago. It is rather too brightly lit (but they lowered the lights when we asked). The paneled walls are lined with brown leather banquettes and hung with plain mirrors and small lamps with frosted glass shades.

The food is an intriguing combination of Provençal cuisine and dishes from the 40′s–oysters Rockefeller, clams casino and lobster thermidor. I had tasted chef David McKenty’s cooking at Côte Sud, and before that at Pitchoune, Kokachin and Leda. I like his zesty Mediterranean touch. At lunch, despite the fact that the dining room was fairly empty, the service was excruciatingly slow. I ordered a spinach salad with pears and walnuts served with a Roquefort vinaigrette. It would have been excellent had I not come across a small foreign body lurking in it (not animal or vegetable, but mineral). The waitress brought me another salad–this time, even though I believe lightning doesn’t strike twice, I opted for mesclun with goat cheese croutons.

“There will be no charge,” she said as she set down the plate before me. “Enjoy your lunch.”

“Enjoy your last lunch,” whispered my son who was scowling into his plate. He had ordered crabcakes with wild rice salad and whatever he was doing to them, eating did not seem to be a part of it. “The wild rice tastes like a roasted Nutrigrain bar.”

He was right. It was undercooked and chewy and the crabcakes didn’t have much character, either. But my mesclun salad was beautifully seasoned and my friend’s mussels and calamari, steamed in garlic, tomato and white wine broth, were terrific. So were the lemon-pepper linguine with scallops and clams, and the brick-roasted baby chicken with green beans, mushrooms and mashed potatoes flavored with roast garlic. We wound up with a creamy crème brûlée and chocolate pot de crème, which cost a lot less than the candy we bought later at the theater.

The following week, I returned in the evening for the Garrick’s pretheater dinner, which sounded like a bargain–a three-course meal for $25–before Death of a Salesman . (It made sense to eat early since the play didn’t get out until 11 o’clock.) I walked in behind a couple of bewildered-looking tourists who were dragging suitcases into the lobby. This time, a very different scene met my eyes. At the back of the lobby, tables spilled out of the dining room and were filled with theatergoers having dinner. We hung our coats on a peg and waited to be seated.

I remembered Mr. McKenty’s delicious escargot pissaladière, one of my favorite dishes at Côte Sud, and ordered it to start. The puff pastry was a little bit gummy on this occasion, but the topping of garlicky snails, olives, caramelized onions and tomatoes was still great. The oysters Rockefeller were good, too, although rather rich, since they came under a thick layer of spinach, butter and cream.

Our main courses were also satisfying. Seared salmon fillet, served on braised red cabbage with green pea sauce, was perfectly cooked, the cabbage providing a pleasant foil for the richness of the fish. Braised lamb shank was falling off the bone, served with white bean and fennel purée, grilled vegetables and a sprightly juniper berry sauce. I also like the grilled rib eye steak which came with a mound of crisp, salted fries and béarnaise sauce. It’s a fine deal on the pretheater menu, which includes many of Mr. McKenty’s best dishes.

Service was swifter on this visit, so for dessert there was time for what one of the waiters described jocularly as “mille phooey,” adding, “That’s the extent of the French I speak.” Its layers of puff pastry were filled with ice cream. They also serve a chocolate soufflé with dark and white Valhrona chocolate, but I didn’t get to taste it because they brought the chocolate pot de crème by mistake and it was too late to wait.

A few minutes later, we sank into our seats at the theater, which was packed. As the curtain went up, a voice with a strong Brooklyn accent said: “My son should see this. Do you know he’s still got the first dollar he ever made?”

The play is three hours long, but I balked at the idea of spending the entire intermission in line for the bathroom. So I pass along this little tip to you, dear reader. Just nip next door to the Garrick, where you can not only use the bathroom immediately, you will also have time for a drink at the bar. I think Kingsley Amis would have approved.

The Garrick

* 1/2

242 West 49th Street

489-8600

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Moderate

Wine list: Small selection, quite high prices

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Three-course, prix-fixe pretheater and Sunday-night dinner $25, dinner main courses $12 to $21

Breakfast: Tuesday to Saturday 7 A.M. to 10:30 A.M.

Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Daily 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor