Before 1200 people filed into Gantry Plaza State Park yesterday to sample dishes and drinks from 60 neighborhood restaurants at the eighth annual Taste of Long Island City, a smaller crowd assembled for a Patron Hour. In addition to easy access to the M. Wells oyster bar and glasses of rose from a local wine shop, these event-goers, who shelled out nearly double the General Admission ticket price for the privilege, were treated to an anecdotal speech from City Council Speaker and Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, who admitted that her partner Kim wears a tee shirt from The Chocolate Factory–the event’s organizer and benefactor–to bed.
Quinn spent the next several minutes greeting supporters and other politicians while moving from table to table with Chocolate Factory executive director and co-founder Sheila Lewandowski. Her presence–and the swarms of other high-ranking community members–is a testament not only to the import of the growing Long Island City small business community, which features a lot of restaurants, but also the role of the Chocolate Factory theater in bringing this neighborhood together.
“We [Lewandowski and husband/co-founder Brian Rogers] started this event eight years ago as a way to have a small fundraiser for our local theater,” Lewandowski explained over the phone the night before the party. “We looked around and said, ‘What do we have?’ We had arts and these local businesses, so we conceived it as a way to get our audience out in the neighborhood and encourage them to see a show and then go out for drinks here or dinner there.”
At that time, the party was a few table crammed into the Chocolate Factory space, upon which 200 neighbors descended. The event grew steadily. “The turning point was in the third year,” recalled Lewandowski. “We were introduced to Rockrose Development, which was opening a new building. They gave us their 14,000 square foot roof deck. The event was already naturally evolving to include more than our tightknit community, but that space blew it out of the water. It became a more public community event, and it’s more cemented in who we are. It’s real and funky, and more people want to be part of it.”
Eventually, the Chocolate Factory moved the Taste to Gantry Plaza State Park, which allowed the organizer to book more vendors. “We try to get a real cross-section of businesses,” said Lewandowski. “There are local restaurants, Rockaway brewing, food manufacturers and delis. And they offer all kinds of food: Italian, South Asian, Indian, tapas, and Mexican.”
How the event has evolved is also reflective of how the neighborhood has evolved. “We’ve lived here longer than we’ve had the theater,” she explained. “When we moved here 16 years ago, families owned the place–you still heard Italian spoken on the street. You do now, too, but it’s about 10 percent compared to 80 percent. A lot of young families and artists moved in, and then a lot of restaurants opened.”
And today’s restaurants, she says, are reflective of neighborhood roots. “Sarah [Obraitis] from M. Wells Dinette grew up in this neighborhood,” she explained. “This is where she came back to to create this amazing thing. There are four Italian chefs in this neighborhood who are all related and part of one family. 100 or 200 years ago, their family created businesses here. When Casa Enrique, a Mexican restaurant across the street from the theater, opened, the owner’s mom came up to test the recipes. There were these stoic Mexican women with their arms crossed, and the two brothers were so nervous. This is where their home is. They wanted to put their heart and soul into it.”
And that’s the spirit Lewandowski aimed to capture at last night’s event. Missed it? Check out our photos on the next page, and consider trekking out to the neighborhood to experience the community first-hand.