Though Wise Men puts up a speakeasy facade—inconspicuous signage, no windows, incongruous in the neighborhood—it's considerably less expensive and less crowded than other hidden bars in Manhattan. Adjacent to a 7/11, it's marked only by a mural of five Chinese women standing in front of the original Wise Men steakhouse. Even the handle on the door, a bright red handwheel, easily passes for NYC street plumbing. If Wise Men is looking for a party crowd, it's not being obvious about it.
The early press on Wise Men has noted it as a "fashion business watering hole," but on the night of my visit, the crowd was not nearly as intimidating as that description would suggest; my t-shirt and hoodie were not at all inappropriate.
The cocktail menu largely consists of classics with few twists; the Sazerac ($12) is aggressive with herbaceous absinthe, the Vesper ($12) is appropriately strong. The food menu, however, has a less definable identity. Some of the dishes are faithful presentations of classic party hors d'oeuvres, like the Crab Toast ($10) with shaved lettuce and Rumakis ($6) of roasted apple and bacon.
Other dishes seem more appropriate for satisfying the drunk munchies. The Patty Melt ($14) is cooked medium rare with crisp pickles and caramelized onions, but lacks the oozing cheese and buttery crust you expect from a melt; it's served on a seeded rye bread though, which is a more welcome divergence from the norm.
A generous plate of bucatini ($14), heavily laden with black pepper and guanciale, will satisfy any craving for salt and fat. A side of broccoli ($8) with pecorino has a pleasant hit of lemon and chili flake, but is soft bordering on mushy.
The larger items on the menu are essentially served a la carte—sides are additional. A pair of Lamb Loin Chops ($19) with mint pesto and a Bavette Steak ($19) are well seasoned and nicely charred on the grill, but given the portion size and lack of any complementary element on the plate, are both a bit expensive.
The owners of Wise Men have stated, "We wanted food that isn't complicated. We're not trying to be foodies, we're just making things that taste good." Some of the dishes are successful in their simplicity while others fall a bit short.
Perhaps Wise Men is best for a few drinks and some small bites. Order one of two of the good cocktails, have a few of the stronger dishes, and enjoy the vibe Wise Men achieves.