Sweetbriar is one of those places, you don’t realize you like so much until after you leave. It’s almost like there’s a delayed reaction to this new-ish American restaurant in the Gramercy/Flatiron neighborhood. And no, this isn’t a fancy fusion American restaurant, but rather New American in its core. We’ll shortcut it and say that the food shines. Although it’s American, there are some major skills and technique involved. The kitchen is helmed by Chef Bryce Shuman, formerly of Eleven Madison and beloved Betony, which shuttered several years back. It’s no surprise given the pedigree of the team that Sweetbriar is a fine dining American experience disguised as a casual comfort food restaurant.
The setup is part of why we were confused about how we initially felt about Sweetbriar. First, Sweetbriar is in the unremarkable Park South Hotel, in the previous Covina space. The main entrance to the restaurant is on 27th Street, so it’s on the fringe of the hot restaurants in the Flatiron. While close, it seems a little random and on its own.
The Waiting Room
First impressions are everything, and the front bar area of Sweetbriar feels empty and incomplete. It’s so nondescript and bare bones it feels like a waiting room. There’s zero vibe when you walk in and nothing that makes you want to stay for a drink. This waiting room gives the impression that the restaurant, which is not within view, will be equally not exciting and empty as well.
Check-in is past the bar to a host stand, that still doesn’t quite give you a look into the rest of the space. You can hear there’s action somewhere, but not see it. We even started to make a backup plan to dinner we were so skeptical about what was to come. While the space was designed by the same guys who worked on SoHo House, the first impression of Sweetbriar doesn’t give off that vibe.
The Dining Room
The atmosphere and decor of Sweetbriar dramatically changes when you walk into the main restaurant. You are met with a beautiful bar that has a modern 70s vibe here, so not quite sure why that bar couldn’t be in the front room. Or at least have the decor there match the rest of the restaurant.
On the night we went, every table in the house was packed. The restaurant is a lot larger than you think it would be too; there are way over 100 seats in the house. The kitchen is open to the dining room and there’s a lot going on in there. The restaurant’s technique is live fire preparation so the sounds, sights and robust staff of cooks and servers in the kitchen buzzing about the dining room is lively. Rock music plays in the background, that gives off an edgier vibe.
In retrospect, the food is very good to outstanding. There are dishes that you will continue to think about long after your dining experience at Sweetbriar. The menu may sound simple, but each dish is prepared and presented like it’s coming out of Eleven Madison Park. First, we love a place that has pretzel crisps and ricotta cheese on the menu. Crudite is all the rage nowadays and the Sweetbriar version is full of fresh veggies with a side of unique chive onion dip. You can even order a pizza with mangalista ham, pickled onion and honey which takes a slice to the next level. If you bring more friends you can order more of the shared starters.
On the mains, Shuman is known for his surreal grilled short rib and maple ribs, both of which practically fall off the bone. The salmon mi cuit is just barely cooked, and enveloped in a foam of horseradish cream and smoked potato. You realize what a difference it makes when dishes are cooked over live fire. The menu is simple American but the dishes are fine dining quality.
While the servers may be dressed casually in aprons and t-shirts, the service like the food is fine dining level. Servers are knowledgeable about the food and clearly passionate about the menu and working at Sweetbriar. Where places today seem understaffed, the Sweetbriar operation runs like a well-oiled machine.
Right after our dinner, we thought this was a solid 7/10 which on our curve is pretty high. However, this is the meal that we continue to think about and can’t wait to return.