Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to the West Harlem Piers for lobster and cheese fries.
Baylander Steel Beach, which opened a few weeks ago at the West Harlem Piers, is almost certainly the only New York City restaurant that saw active duty in the Vietnam War. Back then, in the late 1960s, the vessel was called YFU-79, and it chugged around Vietnam's delta region. The ship was later decommissioned, but found a new life in 1986—and a new name, the Baylander—as a helicopter landing trainer in Pensacola Bay, earning its distinction of being the world's smallest aircraft carrier. In 2014, it was briefly docked off Brooklyn Bridge Park, and now it's making its debut as a restaurant in Harlem.
Today the Baylander's only orders are to provide a nice place for New Yorkers to grab a bite, maybe knock back a few drinks, and enjoy some sweet river breezes and wide-open vistas. And for that, I have to say: mission accomplished, sir. Maybe it's because going on any sort of actual vacation seems part of a distant, fantastical future, but our hour-long stay aboard the Baylander the other evening felt like a refreshing treat.
The Baylander is docked a good distance out on the river, and access is via a series of gangplanks. Temperature checks are required before entry, and once on deck there are several different areas at which to sit, at picnic tables, two-tops, and stools before a counter that runs both fore and aft. You order everything at the bar, a repurposed military storage container, take your drink to find a place to sit, and pick up your food from the kitchen when your buzzer goes off.
The ship looks like a naval vessel, minus the weaponry, though the real "decor" here are the long and lovely views up and down the Hudson.
The operator of Baylander Steel Beach, Michael Trenk, also runs the Columbus Avenue "Jazz Age" bar called Prohibition, as well as two Lucky's, those burger joints in Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea. He draws upon both the menus and staff of those spots for this venture. Overall, the food here was very good, and, given the dramatic, destination-worthy location of the restaurant, probably much better than it needs to be to attract customers. A welcome surprise.
There are several land-based dishes available—Buffalo Chicken Wings, the Steel Beach Burger, a Jumbo Hot Dog—but since we were eating on the water I figured I had to go all in on the seafood section of the menu. My favorite item was the overflowing boat of Fried Clam Strips, which tasted much lighter, and more briny, than they looked. The accompanying tartar sauce was nice and tangy as well. A pair of well-seasoned Cajun Shrimp Tacos also over-performed, with guacamole and pico de gallo providing additional zing.
The generously stuffed Angry Lobster Roll, all claw meat with just enough mayo to complement rather than overwhelm, was the first of the season for me, and the one bite I had totally hit the spot. I would have liked more, to be honest, but my companion devoured the rest while I was momentarily distracted by the silly looking dog under the next table. The Crinkle Cut French Fries, which arrived in a little Lucky's-branded sack, were crisp and salty and held up to dunkings in the crock of neon yellow cheese sauce. Cocktails, including three frozen options, run about $12, and beer buckets and wine are available as well.
Baylander Steel Beach makes for an easy, pleasant adventure, and is readily accessible by biking up or down the Hudson River Greenway. Great views, low key crowd, cool breezes, decent food. Definitely email for reservations if you're going with a crew of four or more; there was a significant wait for tables by 6 p.m. on a Wednesday.
Baylander Steel Beach is located on the Hudson River at the 125th Street West Harlem Piers, and is currently open on Tuesday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., and from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the weekends (baylander.nyc)