Danny Meyer may get the spotlight, but Porchlight (271 Eleventh Avenue, 212-981-6188) is really the handiwork of Blue Smoke managing partner Mark Maynard-Parisi, who found a window into the West Chelsea bar scene where there literally wasn’t one before. “It was a full catering kitchen, and all the windows were boarded up, it had drop ceilings,” he says of the address. “But I saw the bones of the building and I knew what it could be.”
Maynard-Parisi saw the potential as his friendship with the landlord evolved from 2010, and when he saw the rustic-industrial space down the block from Union Square Events as both a conceptual fit for the area and a business investment in a burgeoning neighborhood, he made his move. However, he bristles at the notion that Porchlight is a concept bar. “I just wanted something as comfortable as a neighborhood bar, but special enough you have to travel for it,” he says.
“All of our restaurants are real. That’s such an important thing; they’re not authentic to a concept, but authentic to who we are. I don’t think Blue Smoke or Gramercy Tavern is a concept, so likewise we don’t feel Porchlight is a concept. We feel it’s something the neighborhood needs, and that makes it easier, because you don’t have to convince anyone of anything.”
Convincing diners of exploring a new neighborhood, on the cusp of gentrification, has always been a Danny Meyer trademark, however, from Union Square Cafe’s opening in 1985 to the Blue Smoke debut on East 27th Street in 2002.
“When I opened Blue Smoke it was one of the best places to find a prostitute,” he recalls. “It’s amazing to think of that. Battery Park City, though not a dangerous neighborhood, was in need of service; Gramercy was like that too. It’s not uncommon for us to take a little risk in terms of betting on a neighborhood.” And while he acknowledges Manhattan remains Union Square Hospitality’s wheelhouse, he can foresee a bar like Porchlight eventually coming to Brooklyn. “I wouldn’t want a 10,000-square-foot bar in Chelsea or in Brooklyn, but a 3,000-square-foot Porchlight? I can fathom that,” he says, looking to the future.
If anything, Porchlight is an evolution of Blue Smoke, with a food menu crafted by its cross-town chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois, who developed the small-plates menu of dishes like boiled peanut hummus and smoked swordfish in consultation with head bartender Nick Bennett, formerly of Booker & Dax. “There are so many Southern things that go well with drinks, and they collaborated on everything together — ‘Hey, I’m working on a whiskey drink, what do you think will go well with it? I’m working on a savory dish, what drink would you like to have with that?’ ” Maynard-Parisi says, noting the collaborative spirit is pervasive among the entire staff, who have a hand in the daily rotating cocktails and happy-hour drink specials.
There’s a team of industry veterans from inside and outside the Union Square Hospitality family working at Porchlight, and like all Maynard-Parisi and Meyer’s properties, the common core, he suggests, is niceness. “We demand a lot of our employees, but what we demand most is a generous spirit — no order divas, no ‘my way or the highway.’ If Nick were not a nice guy, he wouldn’t be working at Porchlight.”
One more thing Bennett isn’t? Poached. “We didn’t poach anyone, and even if I did,” he jokes, “I wouldn’t admit it. It’s just like not being a concept. It’s easier not to do that.”