The Upper West Side’s culinary scene is, generally speaking, one of flux. Yesterday’s sushi counter is today’s taco shop. Restaurants come and restaurants go; rents rise, strollers roll in, renovators follow. Change is the order of the day. But some institutions remain constant. “After a decade, I think people know you’re here to stay, at least I hope so,” says Bill Telepan, whose eponymous restaurant Telepan (72 W 69th Street; 212-580-4300) has been serving greenmarket-focused food for ten years this month.
To celebrate, the restaurant is curating a special, seven-course menu, including some nostalgic favorites from the earliest days of the restaurant.
“We’re making black truffle pierogi with cabbage and chives. It was on our original menu, and it’s been a special on an off because I love it so much. I grew up with a Hungarian mother who would cook cabbage for hours in bacon fat, until it was sweetly caramelized, and serve it with homemade pierogis, so this dish is a real taste of home for me.”
Telepan has made his home on the Upper West Side for over 25 years. This is a man so rooted in the neighborhood that he refers to the 60s as “downtown“ streets. “Because I lived on the Upper West Side, looking for a restaurant was really fun. I wanted to bring the kind of food that I wanted to eat to my neighborhood; great, seasonal, fresh flavors, with a certain elegance, but also in a comfortable environment. I wanted it to be a gathering place. I feel so grateful and fortunate that that’s what it turned out to be.”
Opening a fine dining establishment north of Lincoln Center was the work of an outlier, so initially, Telepan worried that people simply wouldn’t notice his new restaurant. “But once we started getting a bit of critical buzz, things got very busy. Luckily, I had staff who I’d worked with before, but it was a struggle with all the training to get everything up and running. I’m happy not to have to do that anymore.”
“Those first few months were crazy. I was working seven days a week for the first 11 months. There was this odd mix of diners, critics and foodies from around the city being tourists on the UWS — which gets a lot of stick for being a culinary wasteland, that I think is unwarranted — plus lots of people from the neighborhood coming to see what was going on, lots of parents from my daughter’s school coming to be supportive.”
Making a reappearance on the ten year menu is a dish from those first frantic weeks, egg in a hole. “I loved this dish as a child,” says Telepan. “So when I was thinking about my first menu, I wanted to create a playful, adult-version of this comfort dish. I thought the maitake mushrooms, toasted garlic, and spinach paired really well together. Over the years, my cooking has changed some, because you continue to learn. It hasn’t veered away from being seasonal, but I’m trying new flavors, and getting access to different or better ingredients. It’s been an evolution. But I’m happy to cook some of these old favorites again.”
Also on the menu are some items that have turned into classics.
“You never know what people will really take to,” says Telepan. “You can only ask yourself ‘Do I love this? Do I crave it?’ I have a lobster bolognese with this light tomato-shallot-garlic sauce, with chopped lobster and a lobster tail on top. I think it’s delicious. People got mad when I’ve talked about taking it off for a while, then I start to crave it again, so it stays on.”
Once a restaurant has opened and settled down into its niche — especially when that niche is neighborhood-specific — it can easily be forgotten. For Telepan, a new injection of energy came after seven years, when the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star. “It was great for the staff to know that people are still paying attention to what we’re doing here. It was wonderful to feel so appreciated. That’s been a highlight of the last ten years, for sure.“
And the other highlights? Telepan considers this.
“I actually really love the day-to-dayness of having a restaurant. I like when we have regulars who come back, and when it’s just an ordinary day and people are chatting and relaxing and having a great time. I enjoy the life of the restaurant and all our staff, the weddings and babies and celebrations. Everyday I feel really grateful. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I do. And, oh man, City Bike! I love being able to cycle to work – I live 17 blocks away, so I can go from relaxing at home to working in five minutes flat.”
The ten-year, seven-course menu is running at Telepan throughout this week – check it out while you can.