Recently I was at Jack's Oyster House for the first time with a large group to celebrate a birthday. It's an impressive restaurant: wood paneling, tall ceilings, and gorgeous flower arrangements give it an air of Old New York luxury, a la Edith Wharton. I could just picture one of her dyspeptic characters, George Dorset, dining on terrapin here and complaining about it. Established in 1913, Jack's still draws in lots of customers; in fact, on a Thursday night it was jam-packed. The maitre d'hotel was gracious, and our waiter introduced himself-- but I have to say that after that, the service was less than impressive for such an old standard.
This is a great place to take someone you want to impress, but there are a couple of drawbacks. One is that it is extremely noisy. The floor appears to be stone or tile (with that lovely old fashioned black-and-white checkerboard pattern), and there is no carpeting; the ceilings are high, and so the sound reverberates. So don't take a date here if you want to be amorous; also, don't take grandma with the hearing aid.
The food was really good, but it's not as uniformly great as the restaurant wants you to think it is: I had the famous Manhattan Clam Chowder, which was okay; but it doesn't even approach the classic taste of, for example, Legal Seafood chowders in Boston. There is a tendency at Jack's to overdo dishes, which is a tendency of Old New York: one of the dishes on the classic menu is "Creamy Lobster Newburg Accented with Sherry Served in a Sourdough Bread Bowl," for example. A sourdough bread bowl?! Isn't that something you'd find more aptly at a Bagel Barn or Bounteous Bread franchise? That sort of thing seems out of place at a classic Northeastern seafood joint. Here's another one to accent your arteries: "Sizzling duck and foie gras fried rice with roasted pineapple, edamame, and scallion." That sounds just gross, in every sense of the word. Also, you'll find steak "bathed in a brandy mustard demi-cream," ($21.99), half a duck "lacquered with a pacific rim orange ginger glaze," and, most confusingly to me, lamb "with a garlic mustard crust and mint tomato jam" (also $21.99). When I used to eat meat, I remember being somewhat put off by overly fussy preparations. Garlic mustard AND mint tomato is a thicket of flavors, not a creative fusion. Pick one or the other, if you're going to be a classic restaurant.
We lucked out because during the month of January, Jack's had a prix fixe menu for $19.13, to commemorate their founding year. For that amount, I got a nice salad, plus the basil and pine nut encrusted salmon, and a dessert. (The chowder was a la carte.) The salmon was wonderful; it didn't taste much of basil, but the crust was buttery and crunchy, and it was 'day boat salmon,' (whatever the heck that means-- never did get to ask the waiter) which was really fresh and moist. Some of my dining compatriots got the oysters and the shrimp cocktail appetizers, which both looked fantastic. Another one of us got the sea bass, which also looked great.
The dessert was a real disappointment: I got the apple dumpling, which was a lackluster filo-type shell with boring apple filling. The chocolate cake was another item on the prix fixe menu, and it looked like a miniature bundt cake-- I couldn't tell if it was good or not, but there was nothing interesting about it.
The service was slow, and not particularly helpful; if the group I was with hadn't known about the prix fixe menu ahead of time, the wait staff never would have told us. With all the choices at a place like Jack's, you need wait staff who can explain things patiently and make recommendations. At least this one night, that was not the experience I had.
They said they do occasionally have prix fixe deals-- maybe twice a year-- so it's worth calling ahead and asking, because it's quite expensive a la carte.