That's why customers need to find Thomas Restaurant and liven up the joint. My friends tell me that the rooftop deck can be loud in the evenings, luring the young and the restless up a flight of stairs for Cosmopolitans and calamari. The buttercup-colored dining room on street level, however, isn't particularly packing them in. On both a Saturday and a Tuesday evening, only two or three tables were occupied, even when there was a lot of action upstairs.
"I heard it was really more of a bar than a restaurant," said my friend Lorraine, who lives a few blocks north. I told her that she shouldn't believe everything she hears, especially in the restaurant world. Ditto for another friend who says he won't go into Thomas simply because he loathed the last two restaurants that moved into the space Joe D's on 39th Street and Matadors after the legendary Café Allegro left in 2002. "I refuse to be disappointed again," my friend told me, adding that he hoped the new owners had hired an exorcist to chase out the bad vibes of past tenants.
Unlike the two casual-dining restaurants that preceded it, Thomas has ambition. You have to give credit to the three young entrepreneurs Brian Donatell, Kevin Van Emburgh and chef Grant Linebach for pulling out the stops. They gave the main dining room a clean, appealing makeover. The walls are still exposed brick, but they laid shiny wood floors, tore out the old drop ceiling and hung sophisticated, pretty light fixtures.
Each white linen tablecloth is draped with a sheet of brown butcher paper, while the music is soft and unobtrusive. Café Allegro it ain't, but Thomas isn't going for that former restaurant's mink-and-Mercedes crowd. At Thomas, the prices are reasonable, the portions are healthy and the room has a distinctly soothing vibe, which it hasn't had since Café Allegro's well-trained staff fussed over customers like doting nursemaids.
Instead of fawning waiters, the Thomas owners hired briskly efficient ones. They're the kind of servers who greet customers immediately and have a basic knowledge about the ingredients and the preparation of the dishes on the menu. (They're more knowledgeable, in fact, than one of the three owners who, I later discovered, still has to ask the chef to answer simple culinary questions three months after the restaurant opened.) We had a pretty waitress named Dana, who explained the array of small plates and the 10 entrees.
"We have the best calamari in the world," she boasted to four of us on the first night, ignoring me as I rudely stuck out my tongue I'm now officially and permanently bored by fried squid. That night, the fruit-and-cheese platter sounded like too much, and the grilled asparagus too little. We decided to share a plate of scallops, which conveniently came four to an order. I doled out one of the pillowy mollusks for each of us, spooning a bit of herbed butter sauce over them.
"They're very nice," said Marilyn, who loved the fact that the sauce had little bits of ham and peppers and wasn't too garlicky perfect for dipping warm baguette slices, which she devoured. Meanwhile, we watched group after group of pretty young blondes go up and down the stairs to the rooftop deck.