You don't have to watch the news or read the blogs to know something is wrong, that people are hurting. You just have to look around. Stores are shuttered, fewer people are in the shops and more are living on the streets; "sample sales" are liquidating stock from an overexuberant age. And few are hurting more than our neighborhood restaurateurs. Across the city, old standbys and formerly hot upstarts are shutting down. But perhaps we're soon to see the bright side of standing on the economic brink: the return of affordability. With falling rents come new options for a notoriously low-margin industry: value without mass production or manic turnover. And at the forefront of what I hope will be a new wave is La Carbonara.
While the stodgy name implies otherwise, the vibe here isn't old New York Italian. No Frank on the juke, no red-and-white tablecloths, and nobody's grandmother manning the sauce pot. That last element may prove La Carbonara's downfall — as well as subbing out 'Ol Blue Eyes for throbbing mid-90s Ministry of Sound beats — but the contemporary atmosphere of rough-hewn oak, cream wainscoting and dramatic, dim bare-bulb lighting creates a welcome respite from an unimpressive stretch of West 14th Street.
And, oh yeah, main courses top out at $14.95. For that price you can have braised rabbit or a marinated skirt steak with roasted Tuscan potatoes and spinach. It may not be the best steak in the city — nor in the top hundred — but it's a full meal for a fair price. Same goes for the $9.50 spaghetti and meatballs, which is a bit oversauced and overcooked, with under-seared meatballs. Le Zie, a short way up Seventh, does a superior job, but charges over 50 percent more. An appetizer of tangy salmon tartar ($8.50) was more impressive, impeccably fresh and plated with an eye towards composition. And a salad of baby spinach with crispy bacon, grilled portabellas and gorgonzola ($7.95) was rich and substantial enough for a light meal.
Perhaps it shouldn't be such a shock to find a proper meal for this price in Manhattan; one with gracious service of the sort that entices regulars (if you ignore the wild-eyed, Euro-trashy manager), fresh crusty bread, a wide-ranging wine list with nearly all bottles costing under $30, and a diverse crowd ranging from hot young things seeking a party to older couples seeking respite. It shouldn't be a shock, but it is. Is La Carbonara riding the crest of a new budget-chic trend?
I hope so. But please, 86 the house music.