5 E 50th St btw 5th and Madison Aves, Saks Fifth Avenue, 9th Fl, Midtown East
The Place: The new, swanky two-level French(ish) restaurant and bar in Saks.
The Time: Tuesday April 23, 7pm. My mom and I came here for her birthday dinner last week, and when I discovered they have two bars (one for the restaurant and the other done up like a ski chalet on the lower level), I knew I had to come back to review them. Also I never drink in department stores so I’m ready to feel a little fancy. First is my account of the bar at the restaurant at L’Avenue, and second is of the downstairs bar called Le Chalet. Allons-y.
The Vibe: You can get to L’Avenue by going through the store, or going through its separate entrance. I choose the latter. A man in a suit opens the door for me, then I’m greeted by two women in very nice cocktail dresses. One asks if I have a reservation, the other presses the lone button in the elevator for me. This woman’s only job appears to be pressing a single button over and over again. The elevator plays music (literal elevator music but “hip”) and has two little mirrors so you can admire your diamond earrings sparkling in the light. When the doors open I go down a dark hallway, take a left, am vaguely greeted by another man in a suit, take a right then walk down a very long curtained carpeted hallway. They have gone through PAINS to make it feel like you are not in a department store. Then there are two women in two more cocktail dresses at the hostess stand. If you’ve been counting, that’s SIX PEOPLE on L’Avenue’s payroll that I’ve encountered so far and I haven’t even gotten inside the actual restaurant yet. When I finally reach the bar, it’s busier than I expected but filled with the kind of crowd I expected - middle aged white people and tourists. Everything is gold or blondewood and in addition to bar stools around the half-moon shaped bar, there are couches and chairs and coffee tables and coffee table books and framed black and white fashion photos of women in ridiculous poses. It feels like a very fancy Upper East Side apartment, because I guess that’s kind of what it is. But then there are shadow boxes around the space containing clothes and jewelry and furniture that remind me that I am, indeed, in a department store. That and the large display case of tiny decadent pastries on the way in. A middle aged white man sits next to me and asks for a “Grey Goose martini, shaken, up, very cold, very dry, nothing in it.” WHAT. That’s not a martini, that’s just cold vodka. Then a woman joins Grey Goose and orders a glass of chardonnay with ice. (I guess this couple likes things cold.) Is she his wife? Second wife? Third wife? Mistress? Idk it could be any one of these options. They leave to get a table, only to come back 5 minutes later to have dinner at the bar instead. She says “That was painful!” and then a manager comes over to apologize for something. What was “painful,” Janet!? What could possibly be “painful” in the fancy restaurant in Saks?!
The Bartender: There are two, a woman at the service bar and a guy taking care of everyone else. His name is Joshua and he’s very amiable, if a little frazzled. I notice that empty glasses and dirty dishes sit for a long time before anyone busses them. I’m not saying this is Joshua’s fault; this is on management. This place is dripping wealth, in design, clientele and the fact that it’s Saks for fuck’s sake, which makes me wonder how they can get away with this. But I guess after a certain point, it doesn’t matter if dirty glasses don’t get bussed quickly because people will still come here and pay $40 for a crab salad.
The Drank: They have a fairly extensive wine list, a short list of classic cocktails, and another short list of original cocktails, which includes a decent selection of mocktails. I ask Joshua about the Miss Saint Germain (I’ve never heard of a Miss Saint Germain cocktail yet for some reason it’s listed with classics) and since it has too many things I don’t want in it, I get a Negroni for $16. When Joshua sets it down in front of me, he says “this is a really good one, we’ve got a good recipe.” For those of you who may not know, a Negroni “recipe” is just equal parts of three things: gin, sweet vermouth and campari. So I ask if he uses equal parts. He says yes, but “we use an ounce and a quarter of everything.”...so it’s just a bigger Negroni? Ok, sure. It is a good drink, but a Negroni should always be a good drink as long as it’s made correctly. Pro tip: they give you free olives and almonds if you ask.
Was I Hit On?: Wow yeah where do I start. I knew I wouldn’t be left alone here, but it’s not Grey Goose who hits on me. Surprise! Two other white middle aged men come up to the bar to get a drink before their dinner reservation. One of them says, “we shouldn’t bother Miss Negroni over here” which he says loud enough clearly with the intention to bother me. He asks Joshua to make them “anything, dealer’s choice,” with zero guidance. Before I can stop myself, I turn to them and say “that’s a lot of blind faith to put in a bartender you don’t know” and he says that, oh no he knows Joshua and he’s friends with the GM. And now that I’ve accidentally opened the door for small talk, it’s game over. I find out quickly his name is Ian, and he comments on how I’m drinking a Negroni and reading a magazine. “So you’re just drinking a Negroni and reading a magazine, huh?” is actually what he says. When he realizes that stating facts doesn’t impress me, he then tries to show off his cocktail knowledge. When Joshua pulls out the gin and cointreau, Ian asks “Josh you making us Corpse Revivers?” Then when the drinks are poured and they’re bright pink, Ian whines “oh no did Josh make us Cosmos?” And now I’m suddenly PRAYING that Joshua made them cosmos. He didn’t, he made them Jasmines (gin, lemon, cointreau, campari, served up) and Ian says to me “you’re drinking a Negroni and I’m drinking a pink thing, what’s wrong with this picture?” Nudge nudge wink wink. I tell him drinks aren’t gendered and he asks me if I went to Smith. Since I won’t let Ian assume anything about me, or mansplain cocktails, an industry that I am in, we go toe to toe and argue about alcohol for a while, with a small break for him to mention out of the blue that he’s “living at a hotel right now because I’m going through a bit of a life transition.” Which is obvi code for a bad divorce. Real subtle. So I call him Eloise. Joe, Ian’s coworker, spends his time attempting to chat up the other solo woman (Carrie) sitting a few stools away. I obviously win the who-knows-more-about-liquor fight with Ian, match point being when Ian gets the four of us shots of Cynar, “amaro made from avocados.” “It’s artichokes, actually” I say and Ian looks like he just watched his Rolex get run over by a garbage truck. Blissfully, he and Joe are called to their reservation, but Ian doesn’t leave until I turn down his invitation to join them for dinner. When they’re finally gone, I get a chance to debrief with Carrie and it turns out she also works in hospitality! Then I take the free shot and realize, aw fuck I have to go to the bar downstairs now.
Ok. Le Chalet*:
The Vibe: I go down a flight of stairs and enter what feels like a Disney version of a ski chalet but for adults. There are fake animal heads everywhere, dark wood, more couches and coffee tables and coffee table books, framed black and white photos but this time they’re meant to look like family photos, fake fireplaces, decorative crutches. I repeat. Decorative. Crutches. Because sometimes people hurt themselves skiing, get it? The music doesn’t fit the space at all. There’s another half-moon shaped bar but this one is peppered with lamps with fur at the bottom that hang so low I feel like I’m wearing a hat. Also no one is here. A small group of men in suits occupy one of the nooks, then two women at the other side of the bar drinking wine. And me.
The Bartender: Andrew, who’s super friendly and also works at Sauvage and lives right near the bar where I’m currently working. He says this is Le Chalet’s “dead time,” weekdays after everyone’s gone to dinner. Andrew doesn’t seem sad, but I feel sad for Andrew because working an empty bar sucks, and maybe because this place, in all it’s trying-so-hard-to-be-cool glory, is also pretty sad.
The Drank: The same drinks menu is at both bars, but Le Chalet has an additional list of specialty cocktails. Since I am tipsier than I intended to be thanks to that double-proof Cynar, I get the lightest cocktail on this bar’s menu, the Normandie Spritz. It’s aperol, calvados, cinnamon cordial and prosecco. It’s nice and easy to drink. I also get fries because why wouldn’t I get fries.
Was I Hit On?: There’s no one here to hit on me, which is a relief after my experience upstairs. Though Joshua comes down to this bar to get something, sees me and says “oh, you’re still here.” And it’s never a great feeling when a bartender says “oh, you’re still here” to your face.
Should You Drink Here Alone?: Maybe if you’re shopping in Saks and want an afternoon glass of wine or Negroni, you could have a pleasant time at the restaurant bar. But neither L’Avenue nor Le Chalet gave me any real reason to come back. Both feel excessive in different ways (upstairs with its showiness and downstairs with its ski lodge kitsch), overpriced and tbh, I don’t want to have to deal with men like Ian when I drink alone at a bar, and men like Ian seem to be a big faction of their clientele. It’s only two months old so maybe it will get its act together but for now, I have to say au revoir to L’Avenue.
*I forgot to take a photo of Le Chalet, but honestly, you have to see it to believe it.