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As we built our list of the 99 Essential Restaurants™ in Lower Manhattan, we spoke with the chefs and owners who give these places life. We’ve excerpted some of those conversations here, and we’ll be publishing more in this space throughout the week. In the snippets of chatter that follow, learn what Union Square looked like when City Bakery opened, how Cafe Katja became a restaurant, and what it felt like at Eleven Madison Park when Frank Bruni gave the restaurant four stars.
What year did you open?
City Bakery owner Maury Rubin: 1990. Union Square had just been re-landscaped to drive out the drug trade. Greenmarket was about a dozen farmers twice a week. Both ends of Union Square were dark: On the north, the present Barnes & Noble was a boarded up eyesore; to the south, the Whole Foods today was an old department store from yesterday and empty for years. Lower Fifth Avenue was mostly empty or ancient family businesses, like B. Shackman, a toy store at the corner of 16th and Fifth, which was like walking into a 1930’s time machine. Eighteenth Street, home to the first City Bakery, was an ugly duckling block with crooked sidewalks, and was home to the fall-off-the-truck perfume business in NYC. Lou’s Perfume Palace was across the street from us, with a check cashing place next door. There was a Sanford and Son-like hardware store down the block — an incredible mess in every inch from floor to ceiling. That space today is Journelle Luxury Lingerie.
How do you fit in the neighborhood?
B & H owner Fawzy Abelwahed: I feel that B & H is the heart of the East Village because everybody loves it and knows it. They have all eaten here at least once or twice.
Delmonico’s owner Dennis Turcinovic: Delmonico’s is synonymous with Wall Street. It has been around for 176 years. Delmonico’s has attracted a regular clientele of stockbrokers, celebrities, athletes, and world leaders (J.P. Morgan, Mark Twain, Whoopi Goldberg, Abraham Lincoln, Robert DeNiro, Napoleon III, Betsey Johnson, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington) since the 1830s.
What was your original vision for this restaurant, and how has that evolved?
Cafe Katja owner Erwin Schröttner: [Co-owner] Andrew [Chase] approached me; he found the store. I was like, “I don’t want to cook anymore.” I wanted a bar or restaurant where I could get a proper beer served, with a nice head on the top, not filled to the rim. No food. He convinced me that we needed some little items. I was like, “OK, we can do some cold cuts with cheese, blood sausage, spreads, salads…nothing fancy or too much.” As soon as we opened, he came in and was like, “Can we do sausage? Let’s make it here.” He makes a really good bratwurst. So he was like, “Let’s do more, let’s do something else.” Suddenly we had a full-blown restaurant. We had a vision but we just added on.
What dishes can you not take off the menu?
Balthazar general manager Erin Wendt: The steak frites is the dish that is literally the foundation of the kitchen.
What is your distinct place in the NYC dining scene?
Commerce chef-owner Harold Moore: I think I am the working chef. People always put me in that underrated category.
Prune chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton: I’m not sure, actually. I could’ve answered more easily some years ago but I am not clear about our distinct place any longer as there are so many delicious, independent, quirky, great places to eat. It used to be that we were the only joint with wooden salad bowls and silver-tipped light bulbs and well-made cocktails and monkfish liver on buttered toast and whole roasted rabbits with their little teeth still intact, but I’m pretty sure that describes every restaurant in town as this point. Perhaps now it is just that we are the old lady of the genre? That we still play whole albums and don’t use Spotify? That I haven’t opened five other Prunes? That I don’t cook anything in an immersion circulator? Carruthers! I really can’t say for sure that we are distinct!
What’s the hardest part about having a restaurant in NYC?
Dirt Candy chef-owner Amanda Cohen: Every. Single. Thing.
Public chef-owner Brad Farmerie: You’re always under the microscope of 8.5 million people that all have strong opinions and want to voice them. Meek and timid people don’t live in NYC, so you just have to be confident in what you do.
What are your favorite memories of the restaurant?
Eleven Madison Park owner Will Guidara: I will never forget when we received four stars from Frank Bruni in 2009. I was in the dining room at the time, drizzling olive oil tableside over an appetizer of gnocchi, when a single diner, one of our regulars, finally pulled up the review on his phone. Leaping out of his chair, he thrust his phone into the air and yelled, “Four stars!” into the dining room. The restaurant erupted.
Northern Spy owner Chris Ronis: I remember a table of four came over and said, “Oh, it’s so-and-so’s birthday” and pointed the person out. We were totally shocked. We didn’t even buy candles — we hadn’t even thought that someone would want to celebrate their birthday here. I think we put a votive candle on their plate, but it was like, wow, we are a restaurant people came to for their birthday.