As we were seated I couldn't help but wonder what purpose the mechanical bull served. Was it kitsch? Is the owner a bull rider? Are they suggesting that I exercise after my meal?
Surrounded by a ring of candles perched atop a circular wrought-iron barrier, the man in the hot seat looked straight out of Gossip Girl. He had just taken off his inky-black velour blazer and scrunched up his dress shirt's sleeves. His friends were standing around this "Ring of Fire" with pints in hand, jeering at him in mocking tones as some Prada-marinated coquettes flittered their eyelashes nearby.
"Your menu, sir," interrupted my daze.
Oh, right. My menu.
"Now y'all let me know if you have any questions about the barbecue or the bull," she added.
"Welcome again to Johnny Utah's."
Tonight was the last stop on my laundry list of certified-gentrified barbecue spots in New York. I had satiated my fill of $20+ platters of spare ribs, baby backs, brisket, chicken, pulled pork, sausage and every other smoked meat worthy of being consumed. I had drained my wallet and abused my arteries for weeks upon weeks. This was it, sitting at a well-polished, 3-by-3-foot walnut-colored table, inches away from a man riding a bull. I looked down to my notebook and wrote something, "Bull riders = Rich guys and over-zealous women. Camera flashes galore."
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Like the rest of the fellows on my list - Hill Country, Wildwood and Blue Smoke - Johnny Utah's falls under two basic categories: upscale and barbecue. These four are pioneers in their own right not because they have brought barbecue to New York but because they have made their own market like no others. They've beaten out the rest of the 50 other "barbecue-centric" restaurants in the city. They've gone beyond the crap-trap joints of Dallas BBQ, Southern Hospitality or any of the tacky, Time Square-situated barbecue joints out there. They've done what New York simply does best: take a cuisine from elsewhere, gussy it up and market it to the people.
This was, before my eyes, the gentrification of barbecue as we know it.
LIGHT THE FIRE
The invasion of this chichi collection of barbecue joints began in 2002, with the introduction of restaurateur Danny Meyer's "Urban Barbecue" restaurant, Blue Smoke. It was a time when New York was experiencing a barbecue renaissance - roughly a decade after Virgil's, a Times Square barbecue fixture, had plopped into town. Others were setting up shop also, with the likes of John Stage at Dinosaur Barbecue and Adam Perry Lang at Daisy May's.
But Mr. Meyer didn't want to emulate the chumps who plagued Times Square. By then he had already opened an incredibly well received bundle of restaurants that included Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. He knew what New York needed, so the St. Louis native gave them what they wanted - or at least, what he thought they wanted.
Smoked meats priced at $7 to $14 a pound down South were now being offered at $16 to $25 in Yankeetown. Complimentary all-you-can-eat pinto bean sides became $5 sides the size of a baby's fist. Simple n' easy Kraft mayo 'slaw and Kraft mayo potato salad became sesame-decorated coleslaw and sweet potato fries with cinnamon-maple dip - or simply no potato salad at all. Pork belly with poblano jelly and peanut sauce even jumped on the menu to compare againstâ€¦ well, dill pickles I suppose?
It was the beginning of a new era - a gentrification of Thine Holy Southern Barbecue. Paper towels and grubby hands be damned, it was time for cloth napkins and fancy silverware. So they hauled in the widescreens, built the underground Jazz club and installed the fine leather banquettes. They meticulously placed the soothing skylights and lined the walls with well-aged imported wood. They created cocktail lists and added a lengthy list of microbrews and fine vintage wines. They built a barbecue restaurant in Gramercy.
When Blue Smoke opened in the spring of 2002, Manhattan was waiting. Critics were curious and barbecue purists were skeptical. No one had ever hauled in apple wood smokers from Missouri. Nor had anyone ever consulted the barbecue guru Mike Mills for restaurant direction. It even was a risk when they nominated Kenny Callaghan head chef - a man who had trained solely under classical French techniques - not even a Southerner himself.
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Adam Platt, food critic for New York Magazine, was one of the first to have a taste. He reported how unusual it was to have split pea soup and deviled eggs on a menu that contained apple wood-smoked organic chicken, Creekstone Farms Texas beef brisket and Kansas City spare ribs slathered in an in-house KC sauce. They were edible, he noted, but were they fitting for a "barbecue" restaurant?
It didn't matter though once the barbecue arrived. Mr. Platt panned the St. Louis ribs as being on par with the faux-Memphis dry rubs served at Virgil's. The brisket was too dry, the pulled pork sans smoky flavor. The Texas beef ribs had the texture and taste of old pastrami. The baby backs got compared to Chinese takeout. It was a rough start for the Manhattanization of barbecue.
But it was only the beginning. Over the next few years Mr. Callaghan, the executive chef, honed Blue Smoke's barbecue and turned it into a training ground for pit masters in the rough. He hired "Big Lou" Elrose, a retired NYPD cop with a love for barbecue, who would eventually open up Wildwood. He hired Robbie Richter and Pete Daversa - both of who would move on to Hill Country. He hired Marlon Manty - who would eventually go on to create Johnny Utah's.
It was one after the other, honing them daily just as soon as he hired them.
The ironic thing is, none of them were from the South - the often-accepted birthplace of American barbecue. They were coming from Brooklyn, Queens, Connecticut and Michigan. One didn't graduate high school; another spent 14 years at an IT company. This bunch wasn't exactly "authentic."
Even Mr. Callaghan, "The Godfather" of this bunch - and also a New York native - had his beginning at Johnson and Wales University with only a food management degree. His restaurant experience included only classically French restaurants: The Helmsley Hotel, The Russian Tea Room and eventually Union Square Café.
Yet for these guys it wasn't the past that mattered, but rather the will to make good barbecue - at any cost. Blue Smoke was expensive because they cared about barbecue - not because they wanted to gouge their customers. They were buying top cuts of meat from La Frieda, the well-loved meat purveyor of New York's top restaurants. They spoke with some of the nation's best pit masters because they wanted to learn from them. Mr. Callaghan even started the Big Apple Barbecue, an annual festival that brings top pit masters to New York for a weekend of barbecue.
After five years in the business, Blue Smoke had managed to make a name for itself not only in New York but nationally. People were starting to notice. The barbecue was getting better. The prices were still high.
Mr. Callaghan had finally done the unthinkable - he had found a way to bring decent barbecue to New York.
MORE THAN JUST BARBECUE
While Blue Smoke and Mr. Callaghan were relishing this newfound attention, Mr. Elrose, Richter and Daversa got their own kind of boost. Marc Glosserman, a former CEO of Centric Telecom and Bethesda, Maryland native, reached out to the trio. Inspired by the legendary Lockhart, Texas barbecue joint, Kreuz Market (pronounced 'Kritze'), Mr. Glosserman wanted to create a barbecue spot that paid tribute to the legend. Well, that, and his grandfather just happened to be the former mayor of Lockhart.
So the Columbia-educated MBA holder bought a prime spot on West 26th Street in 2007, less than one block west of Madison Square Park and three blocks west of Blue Smoke - then let the three chefs loose. They sold meat by the pound - just like in Texas - and plopped it on big squares of brown butcher paper. They stuck to salt, pepper and cayenne, "which is all you need," according to Mr. Daversa. The décor was modeled entirely out of wood with framed photos of Texas barbecue spots like Smitty's and Kreuz Market on the walls. Mr. Glosserman hung a giant silver star in the middle of the restaurant as a nod to the Lone Star State and built a stage downstairs for live music - just like Austin, Texas, the "Live Music Capital of the World."
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"We wanted to pay respect to Texas barbecue so that's all what we stick to," Mr. Daversa told me over a mason jar of ice cold water - the preferred vessel at Hill Country.
Mr. Daversa looks like a young Regis Philbin with a bit more brawn and a full brown beard. He's got a constant smile on his face and keeps tapping the worn wooden table we're sitting at with a pen.
By now it's two years after the opening of Hill Country and Mr. Elrose and Mr. Richter have moved on, leaving him alone at the helm. Mr. Elrose left in 2008 to open Wildwood, a dozen blocks south near Union Square. Mr. Richter, who left earlier this year, is currently in the works of putting together Fatty Cue, a delayed barbecue restaurant he has teamed up for with renowned New York chef, Zak Pelaccio.
He has spent the last fifteen minutes describing how he fell in love with barbecue - specifically baby back ribs - around the time he was 18.
"So do you actually prefer Texas barbecue?" I ask him.
"No comment," he quickly chuckles.
There is a short silence.
"No I do - I love Texas barbecue but I'm not biased," he cleverly mops on top. "There's something about every type of barbecue I love."
He went on to tell me how the dilemma he faces is that the restaurant is limited solely to Texas barbecue - but in actuality, more so just Lockhart, Texas barbecue. That means no baby back ribs, no Carolina pulled pork, no Kansas City spare ribs. While his counterparts are churning out all sorts of limitless barbecue creations, Hill Country remains true to its original mission: To bring the Hill Country of Texas to New York.
While the mission is earnest, the conflicts are endless. Prices run from $8-29 a pound for any of the meats that might include moist and lean brisket, market chicken and boneless prime rib. The "Pit Master's Combo," which throws in 1/4 pound lean brisket, one pork spare rib, one beef rib, a quarter Bell & Evans chicken and two 8-ounce sides comes to $25. The beer selection, which glorifies the terribly thin Lone Star, runs from $4 to $6 with no draft available.
To think that any of these prices would fly in Texas or that anyone would give a damn about who Bell & Evans are or why the drinks come in mason jars is somewhat ludicrous. The spot's boasted lunch special, a barbecue beef sandwich, hits at $9.50 alone and $11.50 with a side and drink. In Texas, specifically at Kreuz Market, a hearty half-pound sandwich - two times the size of their hockey-puck plop - comes to about $5 and actually makes you want another.
"We aren't trying to be them," he says in defense of the sharp-looking interior and inflated prices.
"We're trying to replicate them. We're trying to honor them."
For a man that grew up in Connecticut - passionately seeking the ultimate lobster roll, I believe him. His voice is earnest when he speaks - his body language shows slight restrain. This man loves barbecue and you can tell by the way he gushes about it.
He's tried, literally, smoking any meat you can think of. Wild boar, pork belly, whole hog, turkey, beef tenderloin, beef knuckle, bone-in hams, buffalo, lamb - you name it and he's probably tried it.
"I'm doing what I've always wanted to do. Not many people - I'd say 75% of the people in the entire world are not doing what they love to do - as a profession," he told me.
"Most people that love to cook - and could be chefs - you know, they're crunching numbers on Wall Street."
After 13 years as Director of Networks and Technology at an I.T. search firm, he's actually telling his own story. He followed the same footsteps many others took during the dot-com boom - chasing after money but not what they love. Yet on the side he was constantly cooking barbecue every chance he had. He devoured books by Chris Lilly and Dr. BBQ (Ray Lampe, now a Food Network personality) - really whatever he could get his hands on - teaching himself how to improve. Eventually, he gave in, quit his job, and enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education.
His cooking at Hill Country reflects his past experience at Blue Smoke with Mr. Callaghan and Wildwood's Mr. Elrose. He does beef ribs just like Blue Smoke and credits his brisket as similar - albeit better - than Wildwood's.
"Technically it should the same brisket," he says with a smile.
"I mean he's got the same techniques, soâ€¦ they're just doing a different rub."
"And they're using different wood too - which I think makes a huge difference."
Mr. Daversa has a point, though. He uses post oak wood instead of Blue Smoke's hickory and apple wood or Wildwood's straight apple wood. His simple three-spice rub makes a difference also - which is why his meats taste so much like themselves, as odd as that is to say.
The beef ribs taste quite beefy with a salty twang. The thick-cut spare ribs taste like pure, clean pork. The chicken tastes like chicken - moist, juicy, succulent, smoky chicken as a matter of fact.
Sometimes it's greasy and sometimes it's off - but it's essentially on track with what these men have set out to do - to prove that good barbecue can exist in New York. It may not be the best nor worthy of winning any national championships - but it's hands down better than any of the Times Square tourist traps by far.
Is it authentic? As much as authentic can be when you ship all your post oak wood from Texas, get your meats from Texas and stick as close to what is available in Texas. They've made an effort to bring up Texas staples like Blue Bell ice cream and Big Red soda. They even had signs made in Lockhart and brought bottled coke up from Mexico. The word, "Texas" is more or less stapled in the minds of their employees as they hum to the country music that plays inside Hill Country.
"If you're trying to replicate and you're trying to be authentic, then you need to spend the money," Mr. Daversa laments.
"And unfortunately, that eventually gets carried down the line to the customer."
Elsewhere on Manhattan - and sometimes Florida - fellow alumni of Blue Smoke are arguing the same position.
"A lot of people come to barbecue restaurants for the food. But then a lot of people just come for the beers - it's a place to socialize," explains Wildwood's Mr. Elrose over the phone.
(His voice is distinct - it's the epitome of a Brooklynite. He even lets me know that he's staring at a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico - after the opening night of Wildwood's second restaurant in St. Pete Beach, Florida).
"Let's face it - if I had my way I'd have a little smoker and be on the side of the road selling spare ribs and pulled pork sandwiches from 11 o' clock to 3 o' clock in the afternoon," he adds on.
"But listen, in New York, ya know, you're paying big rent and everyone knows you make more money on booze than you do on your meat."
There is no denying that Mr. Elrose is dead on. It would be foolish to dismiss any idea of a life where we work four hours a day and visit restaurants just for booze - hell, enough lucky souls in New York do that already.
But his restaurant's framework is what falls into play with the likes of Blue Smoke and Hill Country. $10.50 brisket sandwiches, $15.50 half racks of ribs, $28.50 rib samplers. The prices are like Sorcerer's Apprentice Mickey versus the multiplying broomsticks of Fantasia. When does the madness end?
Classic slides like creamy coleslaw and baked beans mingle with aged cheddar mac n' cheese and sweet onion and bacon Brussels sprouts. He has every barbecue hub covered: Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis, Texas and [North] Carolina - throwing in Denver-cut lamb ribs just for extra measure.
David Rockwell, the architect who does the Kodak Theater at the Academy Awards, designed Mr. Elrose's soaring space made up of iron-bolted columns and wide ceiling beams. Servers boast about the all-organic meats and green-certified status of all B.R. Guest Restaurants. (Sound it out). Even the bar list is meant to impress you: 50 kinds of beers and 40 kinds of bourbon.
Barbecue restaurants, at least in this echelon, are in no way the mom and pop shacks of the South - or wherever a purist might hold dear to their heart. Authenticity is of the past - entertainment is of the hour. Replication is not what these men are doing.
Wildwood is more of a sports bar with a barbecue-kissed menu -thrown in with chipotle chicken wings, Chicken Cobb Salad and some BBQ Duck Rolls.
"The vision of Steven Hanson, when he approached me, was for Wildwood Barbecue to be upscale and sexy," Mr. Elrose explains.
Mr. Hanson, the president of B.R. Guest Restaurants, who owns restaurants both in New York and Las Vegas, has a background with nightclub business and designer sportswear.
"His vision was he wanted you to be able to take a girl out on your first date, bring her to a barbecue restaurant, have a great time, and not be embarrassed by the surrounding or anything else like that."
A BUCKING BULL & A GOODNIGHT GULP
When all fails and barbecue no longer matters, there are always $10,000 mechanical bulls to purchase. As I found myself back at Johnny Utah's, roughly a week after I ate there, the eerie scene around 11 A.M. is far different than the raucous thunder of clanking glasses and fully cranked speakers pounding the Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Otherside."
Mr. Manty's theatrical production is a shameless act. The man doesn't even care that he isn't the leader of the pack.
"We're a restaurant that serves barbecue - not a barbecue restaurant," he clarifies behind steely grey eyes and a highly stylized goatee, his husky frame shifting on a barstool.
"Which makes a big difference."
This is the man that called Mr. Daversa "Regis," claims "Wildwood tastes like General Tso's chicken," and calls out Paul Kirk of R.U.B. BBQ for "trying to outsmart New York."
"Everything that is good and bad about New York is right hereâ€¦ and a mechanical bull," he admits.
He caters to the clientele of his neighborhood, Rockefeller Center, without a bit of guilt or a touch of remorse. He acknowledges the scene at night consists of the notorious Bridge & Tunnel crowd. He views Heartland Brewery as competition and battles nightclub Butter for Monday night crowds.
Mr. Manty is the ringleader of this newly emerged barbecue group - the bad seed that got away who defines the crossbreed genre barbecue has fallen into in New York. His menu's only barbecue plates are grilled chicken and a rack of "Texas BBQ ribs." He has a trio of sliders for appetizers that include pulled pork and barbecue chicken. They sell for $12.
He differs from the rest in that he cooks his ribs on the grill - only because he has to. Just this past year Johnny Utah's was forced to remove their original smokers in accordance with the neighborhood, a hurdle he has since had to deal with.
"I don't want to cook food I don't want to eat," he clarifies with conviction.
"I wouldn't do it if I wasn't proud of it."
Though he's getting by for now, his plans are to build a "barbecue commissary." The idea is that he can then smoke his meats elsewhere and bring them to the restaurant.
"You know I miss my brisket. I can't cook brisket without my smoker. I'd like to get back into brisket," he says in a mantra-like rhythm.
Brisket or no brisket, his words ring with irony. I think back to a week ago and re-imagine myself at that 3-by-3-foot table which now sits quietly in an oddly empty room. The music is still loud, Mr. Manty's voice is still thunderous and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been replaced by Led Zeppelin.
I remember how terribly unctuous and tasteless those ribs were - bedaubed with a tangy red sauce that reminded me of T.G.I. Friday's.
I snapped back to Mr. Manty as he finished describing his plans to open a Johnny Utah's in London in the future. He thinks it can work. He thinks it'd be "great."
But will it be great? Successful? Entertaining with a touch of barbecue?
When I meet "The Godfather" the next day, Mr. Callaghan, he sums it up perfectly.
"You can be the best cook in the world - but if you don't know how to run a business, you're not gonna make it," he says in his warm, hospitable voice.
"Business sense, excellent food, hospitality - you have the three of those, you'll succeed anywhere."
Especially when you offer barbecue in New York.