First Look: The Fifth Ivory

Surreal nostalgia in Midtown

When friends told me a restaurant/piano bar, the Fifth Ivory Public House, had opened in Midtown, I was astonished. Any piano bar at the corner of Juniper and Fifth streets would likely be quite gay, or mainly so. And I haven’t been in a gay piano bar in decades. I didn’t know they still existed.

Fifth Ivory is a ballsy undertaking. It’s in a remodeled Victorian house that has been home to a string of failed ventures. As if to cover all the bases, the owners have tried to create a “Southern version of an Irish Pub and mash it with the nostalgia of a sixties Piano Bar,” according to its website.

Sound weird? Well it is.

My first visit was on a Friday evening with five friends. As soon as we walked through the door we were greeted by the view of a large crowd of men milling about the piano bar in tuxedos. Was it a post-funeral party? Had a gay Mafia emerged? Was it a reunion of waiters from Alfredo’s? The pianist tickled the ivories and my friends waved at a few men in black they knew.

“Why are they all dressed in tuxedos?” I asked. Nobody knew or seemed interested.

The dining room here is upstairs. That means if you are handicapped, you will be eating at the very loud bar downstairs or on the porch, if the weather is nice. It was cold. I explained to the charming host that a surgeon had ruined my knees so that descending stairs is very difficult. “You need an elevator,” he said. Yes! I asked where it was. “Oh, we don’t have one.”

It was getting more surreal by the moment.

I climbed the stairs. We were seated at a long table while the Mafia was escorted to a partitioned space behind us. A slightly inebriated couple was at a table abutting ours. We kept exchanging tales of gay clubs long gone. I felt machine-gunned by nostalgia.

I opened the menu. Good Lord! There were five appetizers and all but one was fried. We ordered three. The fritter plate included some deep-fried orbs of pimento cheese and hushpuppies, which the menu called “corn fritters,” despite their being cornless. They were Cracker-Barrel-icious. A peculiarly thick crust encased albino “green tomatoes” drizzled with horseradish sauce. The menu promised corn relish. There was none. A bad day for corn, apparently.

I don’t like being this mean. But the dip of “lump crab meat blended with Parmesan cheese” was among the most offensive dishes I’ve tasted in a long, long time. If you’d like to duplicate the fishy taste at home, I suggest you chop some sardines and pour melted cheese over it. It was not even Captain D-ish.

On to entrées! Since the specialty here is Southern comfort food, several of us chose the buttermilk-soaked fried chicken. The server told me it was a breast. What he and the menu did not mention is that the breast was boneless and flattened. Actually, it wasn’t awful. It was Chick-fil-A-licious. Bland white pepper gravy helped counter the effect of overcooking.

Other entrées on the table included a pork chop with a bread stuffing that contained apples, caramelized onions, and — WTF? — cheddar cheese, beef tips in a sauce flavored with juniper berries, chicken stuffed with smoked apples, bacon, and blue cheese. I’m not going to detail the problems with each dish, but everyone’s principal complaint was the lip-burning use of salt that covered bland or weirdly mixed flavors. Much of the food was overcooked, including chewy sides like potatoes au gratin and mac and cheese.

The food was strange enough that I felt obligated to pay a second visit. The piano bar (which features music Wednesday through Sunday only) was busy, with customers taking turns singing show tunes like the former gay anthem “Over the Rainbow” and “New York, New York,” a favorite of Liza and Frank. I was taking a second bullet of nostalgia.

We ate on the porch because the piano bar was intolerably loud. The food was about the same. Wayne ordered an Outback-ish sirloin steak topped with a “jalapeño butter.” It tasted like a repellent curry sauce to me, but he liked it. I got the Angus burger stuffed with jalapeños, pepper jack, and blue cheese. I could not discern the flavors but it was at least Smashburger-iffic. Collards had fresher flavor than earlier, but the mac and cheese was dreadfully overcooked. I ordered a dessert of bourbon-marinated peaches, probably canned, with pound cake and whipped cream. Served in a big goblet, it was sloppy, sugary, gooey, and edible.

My understanding is that the restaurant featured a more interesting menu when it opened. It’s going to need radical improvement to attract regular diners, although the piano bar — dripping in nostalgia — might keep business brisk.

Oh, I finally identified those tuxedoed customers as members of Black Tie Club International, whose website says it’s a social club for gay men into cocktail parties, fine wines, and “exquisite formal dinners.” Really?