Rockefeller Center’s owners were thinking outside the Rock — way outside — when they brought bar/restaurant Smith & Mills to the fabled Midtown complex.
The speakeasy-like lounge is a hiding-in-plain-sight delight.
The new venue was originally supposed to open a year ago, and it’s the last sort of place you expect in the landmark’s underground concourse, which is teeming with office workers, tourists and people on their way to NBC studios upstairs. It could easily be in Tribeca, home of original-but-less luxe Smith & Mills, or even in East Williamsburg.
Close to the ice rink and steps from the bustling 5 Acres cafe, it lurks behind a windowless wall. Only a menu recently posted outside the door indicates it’s a public restaurant.
While other Rock Center eateries beckon us with windows and seats on the Concourse floor, fortress-like Smith & Mills seems intended to scare customers away. The entry vestibule is so dark, you expect to see a guy “checking the list” behind a velvet rope.
But walk in and you’ll find a charming, friendly room with little resemblance to its hard-edged Tribeca predecessor. Owners Akiva Elstein and Matthew Abramcyk (who’s also behind the Golden Swan at the former Spotted Pig site) plushed it up with sexy, velvet burgundy booths and banquettes, a big egg-shaped bar and Deco-style ceiling fixtures.
The smartly curated soundtrack shuffles between bebop, hard bop, reggae, rock and soul — everything from Coleman Hawkins’ “Chant” to Grace Jones’ “Esta Cara Me Is Conocida.”
It’s ideally attuned to the mellow vibe that’s even more mellow after one of beverage director Robert Krueger’s killer cocktails, such as the instantly tranquilizing “One More, That’s Is,” a potent elixir of bourbon, eight year-old rum, herbal Amaro Meletti and spicy Mole bitters.
Go for lunch, when the place is quiet, to enjoy the music. (Managers should consider adding the obligatory burger to the menu to draw in more of a midday crowd.)
Nights can be too raucous to hear yourself, much less to savor obscure tunes like a 1947 number by Marcel Thielemans & the Ramblers, a Belgian-Dutch jazz band. (Thanks, Shazam!) The boisterous crowd seems thrilled to booze it up while occasionally noshing on the menu.
There are raw bar items, crudo, bar snacks, small-plates and some larger dishes on offer. It’s a mainstream, fun-American mix from chef Miguel Diaz’s all-electric kitchen. Most things I had were splendid. A $24 cavatelli with mushrooms, black truffles and fiore sardo was richly composed. Smoked trout (also $24) with trout roe and goat cheese with crisp brioche toast was luscious.
Some of the pricing is unappetizing. At lunch, a 6-inch-long po’boy with three large, sweet Louisiana Gulf Coast shrimp and spicy remoulade was delicious and satisfying — for a reasonable $24. But a $28 tuna crudo was a microscopic rip-off.
A Mediterranean-style tuna sandwich sparked by Calabrian chili aioli and olive tapenade was another bargain for just $24. But why did the menu call it a salad?
“I know, I brought it to the managers’ attention,” our friendly waitress said.
Smith & Mills reflects Rockefeller Center’s effort to lure a hipper Midtown crowd than in the past when it had more generic eateries. The owner, Tishman Speyer, brought in Korean restaurant Naro, pasta spot Jupiter and the new America 5 Acres, along with Brooklyn music shop Rough Trade and indie bookstore McNally Jackson.
But Naro is hushed and esoteric, Jupiter tends sober and staid, and 5 Acres feels like Terminal 5 at JFK.
More than any other Rock Center venue, Smith & Mills feels like a party.