By then, the formerly elegant Bleujacket dining room — which I'd described as "an iridescent shell of curves, created with translucent gold curtains, and banquettes upholstered in a coppery raspberry fabric" back in 2001 — had undergone a seriously trashy transformation. Imagine Hillary Clinton strutting around in a sparkly bra and panties like Britney Spears, and you'll get an inkling of the jarring change when KC Masterpiece heirs Rich and Charlie Davis turned the place into Captain Ribman's Meat Market. The Davis kids wanted a frat-boy hangout, so they installed TV screens, video games and neon beer signs; hired sexy waitresses; and served pork ribs and deep-fried Twinkies.
That didn't last long, either. It took another couple of years before a new tenant would take on the challenge of creating a not-too-fussy but classy concept for this 134-year-old limestone building.
That's where Michael Levy comes in.
The last time I wrote about Levy (Way Out West, April 13, 2006), he was running the ambitious Westside Deli & Bistro in a strip mall on the far west edge of Lawrence. Levy's casual café served breakfast, lunch and dinner in one big, spacious and noisy room. It was laid-back during the daylight shifts, but for the dinner hour Levy draped his tables with linens, set out twinkly candles and played light jazz on the sound system. And he layered his menu with sophisticated but modestly priced entrées such as gnocchi in truffle sauce and pork scalloppine.
Unfortunately, the Westside Deli & Bistro was just far enough away from the town's culinary mecca — the Massachusetts corridor — that it wasn't at the top of anyone's restaurant list.
When 811 New Hampshire became available, Levy took a gamble, moving his business downtown and making some changes in his restaurant's style. Levy's new place is the New Hampshire St. Bistro. It's a lot snazzier than the Westside Deli, but no one cares whether patrons are wearing overalls and Harley-Davidson T-shirts or an Issa frock. (I saw both on one visit.)
The dining room looks much as it did in its Bleujacket period, with new translucent golden curtains screening off the main dining area from the bar and pretty flowers on the uncloaked tables. The menu is an interesting mix of Midwestern home-style dishes (Southern fried chicken, meatloaf, chicken potpie) and old-fashioned continental cuisine: steak au poivre, wiener schnitzel, roasted vegetable Wellington and coquille St. Jacques.
On the evening I went to Levy's bistro with friends Craig and Wayne, we were walking across New Hampshire Street when we ran into a mutual friend who lives in Lawrence. "I used to eat at the New Hampshire Bistro a lot," he told us, wrinkling his nose. "But I got tired of it. The fried chicken is really good, though."
Since I've never agreed with this friend on matters of taste, I decided his opinion was a good omen for the New Hampshire St. Bistro. Levy's menu, created with executive chef Randall Dickson, was the second positive sign for me. It's eclectic, yes, but with a seductive array of small and large plates that really caught my fancy, including potato latkes (a holdover from Levy's deli operation), escargot, and macaroni and cheese!