When Vanessa Repice first moved to the West Village 12 years ago, she recalls, the neighborhood felt different, and not just because there were far fewer restaurants. “People had been there for generations,” she says. “Some of my neighbors’ kids were born there and grew up there.” They reigned over more brownstone-lined streets with more independent shops, guarding what Repice describes as “a little pocket of New York that was undiscovered.”
Not long after the resident finished unpacking her boxes, though, the secret was out, and stores like Burberry and Coach began supplanting the boutiques while high-rises grew on lots once held by houses. But while Repice was sad to see those changes begin to take hold, she wasn’t disappointed when the new neighbors started putting pressure on the seedier businesses that had been in the area for years. “I used to avoid the corner of Christopher and Greenwich Street because there was a porn shop there,” she explains.
A little more than a year ago, though, ownership of that address changed, and that business closed for good. And Repice, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry who was no longer avoiding the corner, snapped up the lease and began outfitting the space as Charlemagne, a new French neighborhood joint that she hoped would give fresh life to an old space while paying homage to that old West Village charm.
Repice knew from the outset that she wanted a true neighborhood joint, and when she started demolition, she worked to salvage old bits of space that would make her new place feel deeply rooted. Details include black-and-white honeycomb floors and a round tin chandelier, two details that lay just underneath the surface of the porn shop’s decor scheme. “Everything was covered by sub-flooring and carpeting,” she explains. “The walk-through would make you blush. There were these private booths downstairs. It was pretty crazy. But when we started to tear everything up, we uncovered all of these amazing pieces of history that had been buried.”
She and her team filled in remaining details, like the tin ceiling and accents from mahogany they’d salvaged from a Harlem brownstone. Things progressed, if slowly, until Sandy hit last fall. The damage the spot incurred delayed the opening until May of this year, though work began on the space in January 2012.
When Charlemagne, named for the king who united Europe, did debut, it rolled out an American brasserie menu, which draws culinary influence from Spain, France, and Italy. “I didn’t want to pigeonhole us into France,” Repice explains. Highlights, she says, include razor clams à la plancha, bucatini vognole, pepperoncini tempura, and a raw bar. She’s relying on the Greenmarket for produce and a number of local purveyors for other ingredients, and says the menu will change often.
The spot also recently premiered brunch, and as the place continues to find its footing, it’ll offer breakfast, lunch, and late-night dining, which Repice hopes will draw industry cohorts. “It was always great to have that go-to restaurant where you could eat after you got off work,” she says. Every move she makes is aimed at drawing and maintaining a crowd of neighborhood regulars seeking a spot to hang out and a taste of the old West Village.
“I wanted a place where people can go and have a really great dinner and brunch and want to come back a couple of times a week,” she explains. “I love what I do, I love eating out, and I wanted to recreate a little of what was lost here.”