Royalton serves sequel to lunch at Algonquin

December 28, 1992|By New York Times News Service

In some ways, it is nothing like lunch at the Algonquin Round Table with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and company back in the '20s and early '30s.

Lunch in those Prohibition days was booze disguised in tea cups, plus club sandwiches and maybe half a pack of Camels. The New Yorker magazine was born at the Algonquin Hotel's round table, they say, and it was there that Miss Parker, on hearing of Calvin Coolidge's death, asked, "How can they tell?"

In other ways the lunch scene at the Royalton Hotel, diagonally across from the Algonquin on West 44th Street, near Fifth Avenue, is every bit as clubby as the old round table. Of course, wits like Heywood Broun, the original unmade bed, would be out of place in this stylish company. The Royalton has become the beanery of choice, the nexus for the elegant editors of the high-profile magazines and Seventh Avenue designers and others in the fields of fashion, beauty, design and celebrity journalism.

"It's a little younger, cheaper and groovier than Grenouille," said Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's senior vice president for fashion direction. "It's fun to see who's eating with whom and speculate about who's getting what job. I'd rather watch that than Park Avenue ladies of a certain age."

Mr. Ruttenstein was not seated on one of the curvy lime-green banquettes reserved for the powerful. His back has rebelled. But Graydon Carter, whose name tops the masthead at Vanity Fair, had a banquette and -- could it be? -- yes, a bottle of Beck's beer. That's something you don't see a lot at lunch at the Royalton. Most of the regulars pass up the stuff the Algonquin crowd lapped up.

"I wish they'd drink more liquor," said Brian McNally, the British-born impresario of short-lived scene restaurants who is at it again at the Royalton. "There's a huge profit margin on liquor. I encourage them to drink more wine, but they won't have it."

Back in the banquette, Mr. Carter was talking about the Round Table. "If there is a modern incarnation of Frank Case, who presided over the Algonquin for many years, it's Brian McNally," he was saying. "The food is great and the place is stylish. You feel like you're on an ocean liner."

That ship is flying the Conde Nast flag. While the restaurant is called 44, the magazine editors -- many of whom work for Conde Nast publications -- have any number of pet names for the lunchtime hangout, which is within a couple of blocks of their offices: Club Conde, Conde Nast Canteen, Conde Nast Commissary and Conde Nast Cafeteria.

"Meet you in the Conde Nast Mess," Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair tells lunch dates. He has been bunking at the Royalton for the last three months and bumping into Sandra Bernhard, celebrity in residence, along with the parade of models, stylists and photographers that Conde Nast routinely puts up at the hotel. It's one big slumber party.

The Royalton, one of several hotels owned by Ian Schrager and partners, was a Seventh Avenue hangout, though not a lunch scene, long before the invasion of the magazine editors. Fashion designers have been walking the narrow blue-carpeted runway of Philippe Starck's fin de siecle lobby since the refurbished Royalton opened in 1988. But when Mr. McNally and his partner, the chef Geoffrey Zakarian, took over the restaurant last February, the magazine editors began pouring in and the lunch scene came alive.

The air is filled with British accents. Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Conde Nast Traveler, the New Yorker, Details, all have British editors at the top and British editors under them. They must feel at home with Brian McNally.

"Believe me," said Mr. McNally, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood, "they're from a different part of London than I am." Perhaps, but he was a roommate of Anna Wintour in the early '80s when they were both newcomers to New York. And his wife, Anne McNally, is a contributing editor at Vogue, where Ms. Wintour is now editor in chief.

Ms. Wintour wastes no time checking her coat. The minute she flings it onto one of the banquettes, a waiter in black appears with a cup of espresso. A minute later another waiter follows with her meal -- usually mashed potatoes and grilled fish or a hamburger.

"Red meat -- that's her secret!" a Mademoiselle editor was saying the other day as Ms. Wintour bit into her burger. The tasseled mirrors over the banquettes are angled so diners at some tables can see what the big fish eat. The Mademoiselle editor was also intrigued to see Calvin Klein sipping tea with lemon.

Another secret? "No," Mr. Klein croaked, "a terrible cold." Shouldn't he be home in bed? No, he said, he must have a holiday lunch with a friend. Besides, eating at the Royalton was like being home. "You don't have to dress," he said, plucking at his T-shirt.

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