Wednesday, December 30, 2020. Cold and moonlit here in New York in the middle of the last week in the old year, with no wintry snows in the forecast. Many New Yorkers who can be are away in much warmer, sunnier climes to celebrate the coming New Year.
Today, inspired by yesterday’s Palm Beach Social Diary column, we are re-running a Diary written almost five years ago about the former New York restaurant Swifty’s which is now a big success in the Colony hotel in Palm Beach. Swifty’s was an outgrowth of Mortimer’s a very successful Upper East Side restaurant with the social crowd back in the ‘70s, ’80s, and ‘90s. We decided to run this account since it represents a time in New York not long ago, but now long past when it was part of the center of attraction. All about personality. Or personalities. Hope you enjoy the memory …
Thursday, January 14, 2016. Gale Hayman invited me to join her and Christopher Mason for dinner at Swifty’s. It was a perfect spot on a cold winter’s night in midweek in New York. It was very busy with a lot of the regulars from the neighborhoods surrounding. I saw Enid Nemy, Jeanne and Herb Siegel, Mark Gilbertson, Aerin Lauderwith Michael Kors and a handsome friend; Tommy Quick, up from PB was dining with Serena Boardman and Todd Meister and friends, Anthony Haden-Guest with Christina Zilkha, and many others whom I either didn’t know or didn’t see.
It was a extra special night although it may be there were many in the restaurant who did not know, because it was Swifty’s last night in business. They closed for good after the last customer left. I cannot tell you why; I do not know. No doubt business had slowed up for them although their catering business was going great guns. Whether or not they’re continuing that, I don’t know.
Swifty’s was opened in 1999 by Robert Caravaggi and Stephen Attoe, both graduates and exponents of the Glenn Bernbaum restaurant business at Mortimer’s, the great go-to Upper East Side restaurant of the 1970s and 1980s through the early 90s. When Glenn died at age 76 in 1998, he left his entire estate to an AIDS charity, including the building that housed the restaurant.
It became a multimillion dollar endowment. It also left those two guys, Caravaggi and Attoe without a restaurant. As it happened, two doors south on Lexington Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd Street was a small vacant space previously occupied by another restaurant – I can’t recall its name. Robert and Stephen leased it and with some backers including several of the old Mortimers’ regular customers opened a restaurant with a similar menu and atmosphere,. They named it Swifty’s.
The name – Swifty’s – was a celestial reference, in its way, to Mortimer’s. Glenn Bernbaum had a pug that was a gift from a friend, and it was named (whether he gave it the name or not, I don’t know) Swifty after Irving Lazar a/k/a “Swifty,” the Hollywood literary agent who was a frequent customer when he was in town.
Swifty the pug led a restaurateur’s life, or rather a restaurant widow’s life. He was walked by members of the staff three or four times a day, and he was housed in Glenn’s office, across the hall from his apartment on the floor above Mortimer’s. He only saw his master when his master went into the office where his accountant worked. Glenn was definitely not a dog person.
Another customer and friend of Glenn’s realized that Swifty had no life. This woman had a house in Southampton, and she also had pugs. She suggested to Glenn that he let Swifty’s spend the summer by the sea and have some dog friends. Glenn thought that sounded like a good idea, and so it was. When the summer was over, the lady told Glenn the terrible news that the dog had run away! I doubt Glenn was deeply disturbed because he never had a relationship with the dog in the first place. However, I later learned that Swifty, the dog, was fine, living with the lady with the house in Southampton, and well cared for.
Swifty lived beyond his master’s life of course in the location at 73rd Street and Lexington Avenue. And it had a great run as the neighborhood club-like cozy restaurant with the comfort food menu. Last night I had the Ginger Carrot Soup, and then the Swifty’s Meatloaf with Haricots Verts and French Fries. The original meatloaf menu came from Mortimer’s and was said to be Bill Blass’ personal meatloaf recipe. At lunchtime there was the Sunset Salad with Lorenzo Dressing which originated at Quo Vadis, the restaurant owned by Robert’s father. I never ordered it but another major favorite on the menu was the Calves’ Liver with Sauteed Onions and Smoked Bacon.
The restaurant was an overnight sensation. It was half the size of Mortimer’s and it had a tiny bar (which is always a negative in a restaurant), and there were two rooms, front and back. Mario Buatta had a hand in the redecorating, creating a classic and cozy brasserie atmosphere.
In the mid-1990s, Liz Smith suggested Swifty’s hold a block party/cocktail party fundraiser to the Mayor’s Fund in New York. Over the next few years, the Fete de Swifty (so named by our friend Peter Rogers) took over the block of 73rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues for one night, erected a tent and held a festivity with buffet, bars, music and other diversions. It was very popular and ultimately raised well over a million dollars for the Mayor’s Fund.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Swifty’s was one of the most prominent go-to restaurants on the Upper East Side of New York. It was small, with a total seating of not more than 70, if that, but it was welcoming and neighborly in that people dressed up a bit for the occasion – shirt and tie, suit or dress – or were more relaxed. Many a private dinner or cocktail party was held in the back room which was also the preferred location for many of their regular customers.
It even had its own “character” Zagat’s rating: “If you don’t own a house in the Hamptons”, you probably “won’t feel at home” at this UES “neighborhood club” where “the elite meet for meatloaf” and other “flatline” American standards; outsiders are exiled…” It was amusing to read although more caricature than reality, for Swifty’s was always comfortable for anyone who came in for a table. Robert and the staff were not only polite and accommodating but kind and courteous. During those heydays some of the most famous people in the world came to dine along side the neighbors and whomever stopped in from wherever for a delicious repast.
It had a good run, but it will be missed by many who often had the pleasure of its company.