550 Plandome Rd., Manhasset
SERVICE: Warm but scattered
AMBIENCE: Airy and sleek with rustic touches
ESSENTIALS: Dinner, Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Call for lunch hours. Reservations necessary on weekends; major credit cards accepted; two handicapped-accessible entrances, one leading to a parking lot out back. Raised booths are tricky to navigate, but other tables flush with floor.
Publicans is a weighty name in Manhasset. Though 550 Plandome Rd. has operated under a few different names — Dickens until 1977, Edison’s Ale House from 1999 until last year — it is the 22 years between that the place spent as Publicans which persist in local memory.
That’s partly because Publicans was made famous by J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, “The Tender Bar,” and also because it has long been a village nexus where people drank, gossiped, met their spouses, held bridal showers. Parked at Publicans’ long bar was often a colorful cast of dedicated regulars.
Last year, when Edison’s closed, Connecticut real estate firm Imian Partners leased the space and set about a resurrection. Led by investor Sean Peters, who lives nearby, and Imian’s John Heil, the firm took the building down to the studs — as well as hired a new chef to rethink the food.
The new Publicans opened in January with an immaculate interior and reinvented menu. The transformation may have disoriented longtime regulars. Gone is brown-on-ochre décor; in its place, everything seems to gleam: The original bartop, now on a rebuilt base; the liquor bottles arranged along industrial pipe shelving; the white subway tiles behind the bar and the pressed tin below it. A few salvaged bits remain — some stained glass from the old bar is now in the bathrooms. But the nouveau-rustic eatery — which also has exposed brick walls and a centerpiece cedar-lined wall — is powerfully illuminated by new windows, a bank of flat-screen televisions (perhaps a few too many), and oversized pendant lamps over the bar and nearby booths.
That bar is still popular, packed on a recent Friday night with business types swilling pints, their suit jackets draped over bar stools. The 23 taps weave Budweiser with craft beers from the likes of Dogfish or Farmingdale’s Lithology Brewing. The cocktail menu is short but bracing — a powerful, citrusy Strong Island Iced Tea can have you swaying on your heels.
Diners looking to move away from the bar can grab a table in the airy dining room, where a chalkboard quotes “The Tender Bar”: “There’s one main road . . . at the top is the most popular church . . . at the bottom is the most sacred bar.” Can Publicans remain sacred to a new generation? If the staff can work out a few kinks, probably so.
Publicans’ menu is succinct, created by chef Richard Schoenacher, a Hicksville native who recently returned from a decade in California. His Left Coast sensibility rears its head in thoughtfully chosen ingredients, and the chef knows when to let them be. Take the “colossal” crab cocktail — a tumble of succulent, almost buttery chunks served simply atop lettuce, with lemon wedges and a piquant, scrumptious mustard sauce. Equally fantastic was crisp calamari served over arugula salad, its armor laced with curry spices — unusual and addictive.
The service here is warm but scattered. That calamari order was initially forgotten, for instance, and other appetizers arrived in staggered fashion. A petite plate of Buffalo chicken wings was decent enough; tastier were crispy baby artichokes, crackly, lemony petals dusted liberally with Parmesan cheese. Salads seemed like afterthoughts, though: A kale-and-quinoa salad was topped with globs of sticky Humboldt Fog cheese that resisted tossing. A Caesar salad was barely visited by dressing.
Timing issues persisted. One evening, we ogled tzatziki-topped grilled salmon over quinoa tabbouleh while we waited for more than a few minutes until the next entree arrived: A tender, demi-glace soaked filet mignon, its edges almost crusty, its insides rosy-pink. Later still was the $18 Publican burger, a hefty fistful of dry-aged La Frieda beef on brioche, charred American cheese across its top.
One bite confirmed this was very, very good meat, earthy and nutty, almost caramelized. Yet the burger also had been cooked too long, arriving almost well-done when it was ordered medium-rare. (A misstep that a manager offered to fix.) On another visit, the squash risotto beneath a braised short rib (stringy, and no longer on the menu) was tepid; ditto for the polenta beneath otherwise excellent roasted chicken in a slurpable jus. Post-meal Lavazza coffee? Hot one day, lukewarm another.
In a pub of yore, timing and temperature issues might pass unnoticed. In a place where the bill for two, with drinks, can exceed $150, it’s a letdown.
One gets the sense that eventually, the rhythm will steady. There is good juju in the walls and an earnestness at Publicans. While the pub’s interior is sleek, its food service is still a work in progress. Yet with Al Green or reggae blaring and the bar heaving, it’s easy to have fun here — a place that has changed dramatically to reflect the changed town around it.