Time was when New York was awash in glamorous supper clubs whose food mattered less than their swank: the Hawaiian Room with hula girls; the Persian Room with two dance orchestras; El Morocco, with its famous zebra stripe banquettes; and Versailles, which had a rhumba band led by Desi Arnaz, a palm reader named Doris and guest stars onstage like Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis and the incomparable Edith Piaf. When the appeal of such soigné watering halls wore thin in the 1960s, the premises were either closed or recast as more serious restaurants. Versaille’s operators, Nick Prounis and Arnold Rossfield, ran into federal tax troubles and between the afternoon and evening service shuttered the place and sold the building. After several more owners Versailles has now become a first-class steakhouse with all its former trappings intact, not least a mural of Piaf herself belting out her Parisian street songs.
The Empire Steakhouse is run by the redoubtable Sinanaj brothers, Montenegrin immigrants who rose through the ranks of New York restaurants to make their dream of bankrolling their own a reality. Now, Jack, Jeff and Russ Sinanaj have two Empires in New York (and one in Japan), as well as Jack’s Steakhouse in Manhattan and Chazz Palminteri’s Ristorante in White Plains.
Empire’s East side branch has a stunning bar and lounge up front, then you enter upon a vast room ringed with tufted gray velvet banquettes above what was once the dance floor, now filled with spacious, well-set dining tables. The lighting is fine, especially on the white tablecloths that show off guests and food at their best. The wine list is extremely comprehensive for any connoisseur’s taste (though the wine glasses are thick-lipped), and the service staff, as at all the Sinanaj restaurants, is never officious, always cordial and fast-paced.
It’s a big menu in the generous American tradition of steaks and chops houses, beginning with an array of seafood appetizers that include jumbo shrimp cocktail ($27.95) and jumbo lump crab meat cocktail ($27.95), and they’re not kidding when they say “jumbo.” The “Empire’s Hot Platter” of shrimp scampi, stuffed mushrooms and baked clams is a good buy at $27.95, as is the sesame seared tuna ($27.95), which is beautifully seasoned and very, very fresh. Grilled octopus is first rate, served over creamy white bean purée with garlic and chili oil ($26.95). the Maryland crab cake with roasted pepper sauce ($27) comes as a rather flat browned patty. Perfectly crisp fried calamari ($19.95) are excellent, and, yes, they offer sizzling Canadian bacon by the slice ($8.95).
There are three soups, French onion ($13.95), lobster bisque (($19.95) and one of the day ($12.95), as well as several seafood pastas that includes a bountiful item called “A Bronx Tail” ($59.95) piled with abundant lobster tail meat, clams, shrimp and a light spicy tomato sauce over housemaid fettuccine.
The options for beef are myriad, all made from USDA Prime, from a porterhouse for two ($127.95) that will easily feed three, which is another option at $191.95 or for four at $255.95. There’s steak au poivre made with filet mignon ($62.95) , a sirloin ($60.95) and the now popular tomahawk ribeye with bone ($135.95), as well as a Cajun bone-in ribeye ($70.95). The menu also now offers American wagyu if you’re fond of that overrated beef. If you prefer lamb, there is a generous double rack with brown mint sauce ($57.95), though I wish they still bought American rather than Australian lamb.
Like most New York steakhouses the kitchen at Empire does well by seafood like broiled Chilean sea bass ($47.95). The steak fries ($13.95) and home fries ($14.95) are the best side.
Desserts, made in house, are enormous and a table of four need only order two. Of particular interest are the apple strudel, the chocolate ava cake, the pecan pie and the crème brûlée, which go with a long list of dessert wines.
Empire’s 30-page wine list is in fact rich in every category, with 22 wines by the glass of both red and white, most at a very reasonable $16.50, along with a slew of half-bottles, magnums and large format bottles that offer the best value on the list. Great to see New York State labels along with a Montenegrin red called Plantaze Vranac.
The Sinanaj brothers’ Empire Steakhouse on the West Side with the same menu and is ideal for pre-theater. But the East Side Empire presents a unique and historic venue whose swank and glamor makes women want to dress accordingly. Men: pay attention!
151 East 50th Street