If you’re ever, for some unfathomable reason, looking for a low-key evening in the Meatpacking District, Orient Express— which stands directly adjacent to owner Osman Kakir’s pre-existing wine bar, Turks and Frogs—might be your best shot. And that’s only if you go early.
Located on a stretch of West 11th Street that your average real estate agent would mistakenly describe as “quaint,” you can get there without weaving through the stiletto brigade that haunts most of the neighborhood, but you might have to navigate around a few loading docks on the way.
Inside the bar, the blaring music—a strange mix of old-timey jazz vocals and, later in the evening, thumping lounge tunes—perverts the otherwise tranquil atmosphere, where candle-lit tables and a railroad dining-car motif invite feelings of warmth and welcoming, despite the volume.
On one recent visit, a smolderingly hot bartender mixed clever, boldly flavored cocktails like The Churchill ($13), a tart, grapefruit- and gin-based elixir, or the sweeter, smoother St. Polten ($12)—also gin-based (we try not to mix our liquors on Wednesdays), and made with lemon, blackberries and St. Germain. The small menu also packs a punch, with powerful dishes like Tarama and Turkish coffee crème brûlée (both $7). Even the presumably house-made plain white pita bread is unexpectedly tasty. If you’re willing to deal with the long wait, the menu—though a little limited—has a reasonable selection of entrées, and is an OK place to grab something that resembles dinner while you drink. The portions are average, but the tables are small and the plates themselves are huge, so you’ll want to remain relatively sober at least until dessert. Otherwise you run the risk of turning a little soft candlelight into one big flaming wooden cheese board ($14).
After 8 or so, even on a weeknight, the initial coziness of the place wears off as patrons crowd the narrow bar area and forget how to use their inside voices. Orient Express is, at least for now, painfully understaffed. We waited at least 10 minutes for every drink or dish, as the only two front-of-house staff members struggled to meet the crowd’s demands.
We did get a free round for our troubles, which eased some of the pain of the $12 to $14 cocktails we actually ordered. Still, at roughly $50 a head for two (paid) drinks each and a few shared appetizers, we’d rather have spent the night club-hopping down the block, or drinking in another neighborhood where we don’t have to listen to the chorus of ankles snapping on cobblestone.
Orient Express may not be the next great faux hole-in-the-wall, but it is the kind of place we’d try again on a date with someone who doesn’t enjoy drinking warm white wine from a coffee cup in the park: It’s dimly lit, subtly romantic and lacking even the faintest possibility of an awkward silence. As long as your date doesn’t manage to knock anything over, he’ll seem smoother than your cocktail.
>> Orient Express 325 W. 11th St. (betw. Greenwich & Washington Sts.), 212-691-8845.