By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Location East Village
Price $1 million in 1997
Square feet 8,000 (1860 five-story building)
Occupants Donna Binder and Deborah Gavito (co-owners, Counter vegetarian restaurant); Rafaella (two years old)
Let's sit for a minute in your beautifully designed new restaurant that's around the corner from your house. The bamboo floor and elliptical ceiling decor make me think of Miami Beach and being on vacation. Your wine tower looks so Flash Gordon. I wish I could drink a whole bottle right now but it's sort of early in the day. Oscar Brown Jr. is singing, "Straighten up and fly right, dah dah." Tell your long story, which started with one building and became two and involved a life-and-death battle with the neighborhood Ukrainian power broker. [Donna] We bought a building to have a restaurant but then we had to rent another space for the restaurantthe one we're sitting inand we live around the corner in what would have been the restaurant space. Years ago, I got this crazy idea to buy a building. But it's really hard to find places in the East Villagethey're either so expensive or need so much work. Then we found it, the one around the corner. We had an architect who said it was zoned properly and we believed him. We started construction. To buy the building, I had to negotiate with three Ukrainian sisters who hated each other. We just totally screwed up. We had to borrow so much just to get the down payment. We're not rich. The architect didn't find the right information. It's not legal to have a restaurant there.
We went for a zoning variance. An amazing experience in hellishness. We had Tom Duane, Virginia Fields, Margarita Lopez all pulling for us. Some of the Ukrainian-community owners went door-to-door to get signatures saying that we were going to bring drugs into the neighborhood. We only have organic wine. They hired one of the biggest law firms in the city and we lost. We had this half-built restaurant. So we had to make it into a nice home for ourselves. Then we finally opened this restaurant after six years. The one we're in now. We rent this space. [Deborah] After we lost the variance, we had gone to look at a bar on 4th Street. We asked who the owner was. The woman said, "Oh, it's this Ukrainian guy." Yes, him. We didn't look for a space for two years.
[We walk around the corner to their home in the five-story building.] You have the whole ground floor! A giant electric tulip is on the wall, blue-and-white tiles in the archways. [Donna] We brought the the tiles back from Mexico, Dolores Hidalgo. We did a lot of work ourselves. This entire place was gutted. We took hundreds of bags of clay dirt out of here. We had this one guy who helped. He's Albanian and he's wonderful. We have a plan for the front but first we had to pay off the lawyers. Our legal name for the building is Georgie Duncan Realty. Our dogs are Georgie and Duncan. We get so much mail for Mr. Georgie Duncan. The space had been a dance studio. Lois Weaver came over and said, "I used to come here to experience feminist theater."
It's an incredible building. We were really lucky. It's in great shape. They're not tiny apartments, but huge. That's kind of rare. The other apartments have French doors, moldings. We have four tenants. The building basically pays for itself. Deborah and I have been together 11 years. I'm from Long Island. [Deborah] I came from Denver in '81.
The bathtub and sink are lavender! From 1929. We designed the bathroom around them. We went upstate and got them from the Historical Albany Foundation, architectural salvage. It's a not-for-profit. That's where we got the old radiators, $125 each. We've been buying doors from Albany, too.
How do you carry all this? [Donna] We do it in stages. [Deborah] Look out the window. Our neighbors are across the way. The Ukrainian man and his wife. They live in this whole five-story building. Just to themselves.