To enter the Waverly Inn, which occupies the street level of a 19th-century town house at 16 Bank Street in New York City’s West Village, you must pass through a gate, step down onto a stone patio, swiftly pivot to the right, duck under an archway beneath the town house’s stoop, swiftly pivot left, and finally walk through the front door. It’s not the ideal setup for ingress and egress, but the fact that the restaurant is celebrating its centennial this month is a testament to this enduring fact: Whatever’s going on in there, people want to be part of it.
The restaurant opened as Ye Waverly Inn & Garden in 1920. Back then, Greenwich Village abounded with subterranean tearooms filled with would-be John Reeds and Emma Goldmans staking out their Bolshevik or Menshevik positions. Ye Waverly Inn was itself technically a tearoom, but from the beginning it was more genteel than the student-y places along West Eighth Street. Its succession of homey, low-ceilinged rooms with fireplaces was designed by Paul Piel, a distinguished sculptor and a scion of the Piels Beer family, who also created the red sign that still hangs above the entryway, a silhouette of two benches facing each other, railcar-style, with a table between them topped by a huge serving tureen. The southernmost room was actually a semi-enclosed garden, facing Waverly Place, that expanded the restaurant’s capacity in the summer months.
For all the churn that defines New York City and deflates sentimental New Yorkers, the Waverly has maintained a certain constancy. It has always served chicken potpie, and it has always attracted a literary-bohemian crowd, starting with such 1920s figures as the novelist Willa Cather, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the caricaturist Alfred J. Frueh. The restaurant’s connections to Vanity Fair run deep, too. In the 30s, when the magazine’s managing editor was Clare Boothe Brokaw—later more famous as Clare Boothe Luce—Brokaw’s secretary at V.F., Phyllis Abell, fell for and married one of Ye Waverly Inn’s founders, Clarence Dettmers.
The Dettmerses ran the restaurant until 1961. In 2006, after a brief period when the restaurant sat derelict on its historic corner, the Waverly Inn reopened, minus the “Ye,” under the stewardship of a new ownership group that included Graydon Carter, then Vanity Fair’s editor (and now the co-editor of Air Mail), the TV producer Roberto Benabib, and the restaurateur-hoteliers Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode. Carter commissioned a mural by the illustrator Edward Sorel, depicting what he describes as “the Greenwich Village all-stars”: among them Cather, Millay, Edmund Wilson, Jackson Pollock, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, Joseph Papp, and Dylan Thomas. Fran Lebowitz is seen standing just outside the restaurant’s entrance, smoking by its signature red sign. On temperate nights, this is true not only in the mural but also in real life.
For all the churn that defines New York City and deflates sentimental New Yorkers, the Waverly has maintained a certain constancy.
Those of us who dined at the Waverly Inn before its most recent makeover remember it as a palimpsest of its various eras, the original Colonial-style décor overlaid with floral 1950s wallpaper yellowed by time and soot, a complement to the bowed, ever more wobbly hardwood floors. In the 1970s and 1980s, the restaurant’s food received qualified praise from the New York Times writer Mimi Sheraton, who admired the ambiance and recommended the most simply prepared dishes—the roast duck, the fried chicken, the crackling roast-pork loin—but repeatedly warned readers, “Continental dishes are best avoided.”
The owners during this period were Murray and Daisy Sellack, an echt Village Jewish couple who ran the place as an amiably shabby neighborhood spot, a Jane Jacobs fever dream. Murray was immortalized by Terre Roche, the middle sister of the folk-pop trio the Roches, in one of their best-known songs, “Mr. Sellack,” whose opening couplet goes, “Oh, Mister Sellack / Can I have my job back?”
Roche had recently quit her job as a waitress at Ye Waverly, having signed with her sisters, Maggie and Suzzy, to Warner Bros. to record what would become their critically acclaimed 1979 debut album, The Roches. “That song is a nonfiction song,” she says. “I did that thing where you quit your job when the record deal is on the table and the advance is coming, but of course there’s a delay, and suddenly you have no income stream.”
It has always attracted a literary-bohemian crowd, starting with such 1920s figures as the novelist Willa Cather, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the caricaturist Alfred J. Frueh.
Terre never actually did ask Murray Sellack, a man she remembers as gruff and emotionally inscrutable, if she could get her job back. But literally a day after The Roches was released, she came face-to-face with her ex-employer on the street. “He just looked me in the eye,” she says, “and said, ‘You could have at least put the address and name of the restaurant in your song.’”
In its new lease on life as the Waverly Inn, the restaurant has been spruced up and culinarily rejuvenated—the potpie is better than ever, and now you will enjoy the forays into Continental cuisine, such as the Dover sole and the roasted halibut with escargot and English peas. Karl Lagerfeld, in his slimmed-down later years, was so taken with the kitchen’s roast carrots, a side dish, that he ordered them to-go for his entire staff during Fashion Week.
But the place’s innate eccentricity remains. The bar coasters commemorate Norman Mailer’s 1969 run for mayor of New York City. The menu’s header proudly bears an endorsement from the current U.S. president: “Worst food in city.” The managing partner who oversees the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, a rakish fellow named Emil Varda, is an avant-garde playwright and former Polish dissident who was jailed in his native country for his anti-authoritarian activism.
Varda says that no special 100th-anniversary festivities are planned for the Waverly Inn, preoccupied as he has been simply with keeping the place running under pandemic conditions. The restaurant is currently a busy, 80-seat alfresco operation, its tables set up under lantern-strung awnings along both its Bank Street and Waverly Place sides. But this week, the Waverly Inn resumed its indoor-dining operations at 25 percent capacity, per Governor Andrew Cuomo’s protocols. Unlikely as it sounds, contorting oneself to get through that front entrance marks a welcome return to semi-normalcy.
David Kamp is a writer in New York and the author of Sunny Days