Runaway rents in the West Village have driven out the small, unique businesses that were once the hallmark of the vibrant, historic neighborhood and a primary reason for its appeal. Nowadays cobblestone streets abut barren commercial storefronts. Uninspired moneymaking pizza and pasta joints, or pricey, formulaic restaurants peddling tired menus of chops, seafood, steaks, and sugar to tourists (the likes of which plague the Meatpacking), are slowly invading.
The lack of casual-cool restaurants and bars frustrates locals, myself included. There are few venues for indulging in a clever-without-pretense cocktail or interesting glass of wine with thoughtful food to match that don’t also require an advance reservation or three-hour wait, or cost the equivalent of the New York police department’s latest revenue-seeking, low-level form of citizen harassment, the $189 ticket for biking through a red light (discovered through personal experience).
With those gripes out of the way, I am pleased to report that the newest incarnation of Upholstery Store, now Upholstery Store: Food and Wine (713 Washington Street; 212-929-6384), the under-the-radar Kurt Gutenbrunner and Leo Schneemann project adjacent to Wallsé on Washington Street, hits all the right notes as an intimate community nexus for food-and-drink-loving residents. It is equal parts wine and cocktail bar, with a range of precisely composed, small and mid-size plates that can function as companions to your drinking agenda or be the focus of the night. Schneemann spoke with the Voice about what’s new and old, at their latest venture.
“After having owned Wallsé for fifteen years now, we very much understand the need to preserve the integrity of the far West Village. The name was kept as an ode to the original upholstery store in the Seventies,” Schneemann said. The recent expansion of the former “Upholstery Bar,” which was just a sliver of a wine bar, came about when the longstanding adjacent deli vacated. After combining the two spaces, Schneemann and Gutenbrunner decided to add a new kitchen and wine cellar, and to redesign the interior to resemble classic Viennese architecture. “It was most important to evolve from a neighborhood wine bar to a beautiful neighborhood restaurant,” Schneemann explained.
The renovation didn’t happen overnight; construction work in the city rarely does. The building’s landmark status added time to the process, as did the discovery of a series of structural issues that needed repairing. “Once we could start the interior, we took our inspiration from Vienna in 1900, including the marble tables, bentwood chairs, and elegant light fixtures.” They used modern materials in a bright white and blue color palette, set against panels of warm-toned wood, but kept historical details like the original brick walls intact. They also retained the handsome wood bar in the front while adding additional tables, for dining or simply drinking, throughout. The result is a carefully designed, welcoming, and attractive interior that feels like precisely what it is: a New York take on Austria.
The expansion practically doubled the bar’s size; with the kitchen came the opportunity to develop a fresh menu. The previous space didn’t support serving more than standard-issue cheese and charcuterie plates. Now, with heat, water, and proper equipment, the menu dabbles in dishes heavily influenced by Austrian cuisine — with the occasional Asian accent. “Gutenbrunner’s idea was to create a menu with a fresh seafood focus along with simple salads, and to be heavily reflective of the local markets and clean design,” Schneemann said. “We have beautiful oyster pairings, a Viennese-style fried chicken, and the lobster roll that has become a staple item. And of course, the apricot cake with apricot compote.”
While the food menu stands out amid a sea of mediocre dining options, the drinks are an especial drawcard. The old Upholstery had a terse, Austrian-focused wine list. The new list isn’t War and Peace, but it contains an appropriate number of bottles for the restaurant’s size, with that rare authentic viewpoint lacking at most bars. “Gutenbrunner and I are both Austrian and of course we love the wines. We will always support them. We now have more international selections, with around 100 bottles on the list, and 15 by the glass.”
The bigger space afforded them not only a wine cellar, but a full liquor license. Cody Goldstein, head bartender, is a huge asset to the new creative cocktail program. He’s regularly behind the bar, sporting a big grin and sideways fedora, experimenting with recipes combining esoteric ingredients — both highbrow and low- — like Manischewitz with a base of Maker’s 46 in a drink called the Yenta. His concoctions can also be startlingly beautiful in presentation. The Village Garden comes garnished with a tiny arrangement of shrubs, herbs, and an edible flower, all of it fit for a miniature dollhouse.
In fact, the drinks are so good, I’ll argue Upholstery Store surpasses Wallflower and Employees Only as the West Village’s best cocktail bar, especially because the drinks are cheaper (slightly, but every dollar counts); they are served by a friendly, accessible bar team; and the space isn’t overrun and impossible to get a seat in — yet.