Celebrities and Chicken Salad: The Lure of Freds at Barneys

Drilling a flagpole into the faux-birch-wood floor of the dining room at Freds, the 22-year-old restaurant in the Barneys New York flagship store on Madison Avenue, and staking out the space as essential territory in any evocation of The Real New York, would certainly leave you advancing a controversial position.

And yet, there is a case to be made.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit for lunch one rainy Monday afternoon. My friend had arrived early and, displaying the healthy sense of self-importance necessary to psychological survival in Manhattan, demanded a table better than the dark one in a corner we were going to be given.

Ordinarily we might have enjoyed the privacy of something quieter, but we wanted an unobstructed view in the event that Michael Cohen showed up. A few days earlier, Mr. Cohen, the 45th president’s embattled lawyer, had eaten at Freds with Donny Deutsch, the advertising executive and television commentator who last year, during a segment on “Morning Joe,” invited President Trump to a round of physical combat (“Donald if you’re watching, we’re from Queens. I’ll meet you in the schoolyard, brother”). Later, Page Six reported that Mr. Deutsch was dating the president’s second ex-wife, Marla Maples.

Mr. Deutsch is a longstanding patron of Freds, which is not short on affection for boys from Queens who have done well enough to make a habit of $38 salads, or lacking in tolerance for those from the Five Towns whose offices have just been raided by federal law enforcement officials. There, but for the grace of the RICO statute, go so many of us.

Freds is the creation of another boy from Queens, the chef Mark Strausman, who grew up in Flushing, as he recounts in “The Freds at Barneys New York Cookbook,” which he wrote with Susan Littlefield and which has just been published by Grand Central Life & Style.

Mr. Strausman flunked out of various colleges before rising to prominence in the late 1980s, serving Tuscan food to East Side plutocrats. The Pressman family, which had established Barneys as a men’s wear outlet in downtown Manhattan in the 1920s before eventually turning it into something far more ambitious, brought him in to develop a restaurant similar to those at Harrods or Harvey Nichols in London where, with great novelty at the time, you could have sushi served to you from a conveyor belt.

The result, which opened in 1996, was a restaurant in a department store rather than a department-store restaurant, which carries a meaningful distinction.

The department store evolved in the early 20th century into a place of leisure, intended to transform the consumer’s understanding of shopping as an experience rooted in pleasure rather than duty. In 1914, Lord & Taylor opened in Manhattan with a manicure parlor for men, a mechanical horse and three places to eat. By the middle of the century, the department store had become a more overtly gendered environment, and the sort of restaurant you would find in it bore few traces of masculine inclination.

Freds, which eventually spawned branches downtown, in Chicago and in Beverly Hills, Calif., was in its own way revolutionary because it extended itself to both sexes, to the enterprising and busy, refusing to encode female indolence. “I have always hated the term ‘ladies who lunch,’” Mr. Strausman told me.

Absent were the pastels and aviary themes that distinguished similar ventures. The portions were — and remain — quite large to match the appetites, symbolic if not literal, of those who come.

The food is the food of people who relish consistency (the trainer every morning at 5:30, dinner every Tuesday at Nello): Caprese salad, pizza margherita, tuna tartare, Belgian pommes frites, chicken Milanese, chicken paillard, chicken soup. Freds’ chopped chicken salad — a tumble of avocado, bibb lettuce, pears, string beans and meat — has, for years, been the most popular item on the menu.

The recipe is included in the new cookbook. But more than a cooking manual, the book comes to us as a memoir and artifact for members of the restaurant’s de facto fraternity, which over the years has included Laura Bush, Bruce Springsteen, Rudolph Giuliani, Jack Welch, Hugh Grant, Julianna Margulies, various members of the Tisch family and executives of the Corcoran real-estate empire. (I asked Mr. Strausman how long Mr. Cohen had been coming. “I don’t know,” he said. “We started noticing him when he made himself be noticed.”)

On the day I visited most recently, the dining room was busy and full, as it has been every time I have gone over the past decade. My friend and I were flanked by two Argentine tourists. There were tables of businessmen; a table of women in head scarves; a table of women who looked as if they had watched “Jersey Shore” and not been frightened.

Mr. Strausman no longer presides over the day-to-day operations of the dining room; instead it is Alfredo Escobar who stands in the role of executive chef, having come to this country from Mexico when he was 16 and worked his way up from a job as a line cook. This, in the end, is New York.

Recipes: Freds’ Chicken Salad With Balsamic Dressing

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Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/07/dining/freds-at-barneys-cookbook.html by GINIA BELLAFANTE