By Michael Barbieri **** Parnell’s Pub & Restaurant is a throwback to a time before New York was overrun with corporate chain stores and fast casual eateries. Opened originally in 1968, and located on the corner of 53rd Street and First Avenue, Parnell’s has the feel of a good old neighborhood joint — sort of a cross between an old-fashioned Irish pub, and a woodsy hunting lodge, with terrific food, and even a little piano bar thrown in!
Outside, the bright red exterior is eye-catching and inviting and, as you step inside, the first thing you notice is an elegant, carved-wood bar. A wooden partition with inlaid etched glass panels separates the bar from a small dining area with exposed brick walls and hanging Tiffany lamps. The overall feel is warm and homey. Further back, there’s a larger dining room with more Tiffany lamps, heavy wooden beams across the ceiling, hanging copper kettles and pots, framed hunting prints, backlit stained glass panels,and gorgeous carved wood newel posts and balusters that delineate a raised platform at the rear.
I had arranged to meet a friend for dinner at Parnell’s on a Saturday night, and as is my habit, I arrived a bit early. The hostess escorted me to a nice table in that raised dining area, which gave me a great view of the entire room. To one side of us, there was a small electric piano, manned by the talented Bill Zeffiro, who entertained the crowd with classic songs from the American Songbook, Broadway, and more. While Parnell’s has live piano music and an open mic on both Wednesdays and Saturdays, Zeffiro hosts a Singer’s Spotlight on Saturday nights — all singers are welcome, but there is usually one highlighted singer who does several mini-sets throughout the evening.
Shortly after I was seated, my friend joined me, and we placed our orders. The menu contains quite a few pub food staples, like crispy calamari, fish and chips, and Shepherd’s pie, but we decided to go with some of the less obvious choices. We picked the black bean tacos — three crispy tortillas, each filled with mashed black beans, topped with pico de gallo, avocado, and cilantro, with a jalapeño aioli on the side. The beans had a delightfully earthy flavor, balanced out by the bright, fresh flavors of the cilantro and pico. The avocado added a cool creaminess, and the aioli gave them a nice little kick of heat. The French onion soup was exactly what you’d expect — a beefy broth, loaded with caramelized onions, topped with a slice of a crusty baguette and nutty Gruyere cheese, melted under the broiler. While I enjoyed it, it wasn’t remarkable, really; it was simply a good onion soup that could’ve been found at any pub, maybe in need of a touch of salt. Lastly, we had the shrimp and vegetable dumplings. Served steamed or pan fried, they were mild and flavorful, with a tasty minced filling, and two dipping sauces: a spicy mustard, which was more deli than Asian, and a fantastic ginger-garlic sauce, our favorite.
As we enjoyed our appetizers, we were treated to performances by Annette Hollander, who gave us a lovely “Look to the Rainbow,” from Finian’s Rainbow, and “Speak Softly, Love,” the theme from the film The Godfather, and Cindy Miller, who teased us with a bawdy ditty about Little Red Riding Hood. Next, the evening’s Spotlight Performer, Deborah Stone regaled us with her first set, which included “To Keep My Love Alive,” and Mercer and Carmichael’s “Skylark.”
Soon, our entrées arrived: the calves’ liver for my friend — perfectly done, topped with bacon and sautéed onions, and served with mashed potatoes on the side. Now, I’ve always hated liver and onions. I have bad childhood memories of the dish, but for the review, I gave it a try, to see if my tastes had changed. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it! The liver had a strong, but pleasant mineral undertone, and the onions and bacon imparted great flavor – Hey, just about anything is better with bacon. Right? I still found the texture unpleasant, however, but, if you like liver, I do recommend it. I chose one of the nightly specials: the spectacularly good pan-roasted Hudson Valley duck breast. Beautifully cooked, it was just a bit rare, as duck should be, and very juicy. The mildly sweet jus drizzled around the duck was delicious, and the grilled asparagus and the arugula, almond, and red onion salad were great accompaniments — the light vinaigrette on the salad added a nice acidity.
Later in the evening, we got a second set from Deborah Stone, which included Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later” and “Anyone Can Whistle,” along with the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” I got a big surprise when a woman named Helen Klass got up to sing. I had worked with Klass many years ago, and although I hadn’t seen her in years, her vocals were as strong as ever, and her interpretation of “Not Exactly Paris” was a knockout!
Finally, we ordered dessert. I opted for the warm bread pudding. I happen to love a good bread pudding, and though the texture of this one was spot on, I found it rather bland. The sweet bourbon toffee sauce that should have come with it, was absent from mine – a shame, because it might’ve made a big difference.
My friend’s maple créme brulee with pistachio ice cream was much more successful, with a perfect crack to the caramelized sugar on top, and the stunningly good ice cream, which was amazing on its own!
That evening brought back a wonderful memory: As a child, I was traveling with my parents, and we stopped at a motel – a Ramada Inn, I think. At dinner, we were seated near a set of swinging doors, and any time someone would go through those doors, the sound of piano music and joyful voices singing “I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night…” came drifting out. It was my first awareness of piano bar, and I wanted desperately to sneak in there. The vibe at Parnell’s reminded me of that, in the best way. And while the crowd skews a bit older than the bar patrons we may be used to, anyone who appreciates good music, sophisticated pub fare, and a comfortable atmosphere will love the throwback that is Parnell’s!