When you spend your time elbows-deep in the New York restaurant scene, it’s easy to romanticize the life of a chef. We want to imagine that their greatest joy comes from the perfectly executed dance of the kitchen, or that growing from a small restaurant into a larger one fulfills the yearning of a long-held dream. But sometimes, real estate — and what can you do with it — wins out. For chef Melissa Chmelar, expanding from Spoon and Tbsp. to her recently opened Spoon Table & Bar was “like moving into a fancy apartment from a tenement. It’s a whole different ballgame!”
Sitting pretty on 33rd Street near Park Avenue, she’s celebrating simple victories. The 65-seat restaurant goes full force from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. She has a full cocktail program with wine on tap, including a Grüner from near where her father is from in the Czech Republic. She has a fresh oyster program to serve the happy hour crowd in the office building above her.
“The super exciting thing right now is having a salamander [a type of broiler],” she tells the Voice. “That’s been on the top of my list for ten years, and it’s changed my life.”
Those kinds of things might be a given for another chef, one who moved their way up in corporate restaurant groups or working for big-name chefs. But Chmelar has a kind of history and progression that’s rather unique within the New York scene.
A born-and-bred New Yorker, she spent a lot of time with her family upstate — picking berries, canning pickles and jam, and tapping maple trees for syrup — where she still spends time. She got married in the field next to their house there, where it’s “a different field every day and season. It’s always felt special, and I feel super close to it. That’s the country bit. I can’t live without that; it’s integral to who I am.” Her father is from the Czech Republic and her mother from Norfolk, England. She went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in London. And when she returned, she started a catering company out of her apartment.
This was in the early Nineties, “when there was a lot of money, and so people would have a chef come in and cook,” she explains. As the economy shifted, so did the kind of food she was able to cater, and on-site cooking turned into a drop-off program of prepared foods. Her menu at Spoon and Tbsp. in the Flatiron district was a step up from that kind of cooking: She had prepared foods on weekdays (along with a killer pastry and coffee program), and full brunch service on weekends. While hers was a beloved neighborhood spot, she was still limited by what she could do.
“It doesn’t have the same satisfaction of literally standing over every dish walking out of the kitchen I have touched, and it’s getting to the table 30 seconds later,” Chmelar explains. “That’s where [my work has] grown the most, with what I want to serve rather than what I have to serve. That’s what’s changed us, in where and how we’re serving food now.”
Fried artichokes, bourbon-pickled green tomatoes, deviled eggs, and mussels in white wine, butter, garlic, and thyme (accompanied by fries and garlic bread) fill the appetizer menu. There are skillets of mac ‘n’ cheese, chicken pot pie, beef and lamb meatballs, a burger, and fish and chips, too. According to their website, it’s “Good Food. Pure & Simple.”
But to Chmelar, it’s not just comfort food.
Thanks to her experiences working with agriculture, Chmelar sources her beef from a rancher in Connecticut and her greens from an upstate farm run by “a husband and wife I could hang out with all day.” She’s trying to convince her brother to get his commercial fishing license so that she can use the fish he catches in the restaurant: “How awesome would that be to get fish from my brother? When I call him, I can hear that he’s out on the water with his cutting board and knife, making his sashimi.”
When things are running smoothly, she wants to have purveyors come in to teach diners about their products in curated evenings, like a head-to-tail night, a menu focused on a farm’s vegetables, or a Stumptown coffee tasting. “It’s always been hugely important to me, with that field right by our house, to teach people that, ‘Yeah, that grows on a bush!’ ”
For now, she’s giving her attention to the dishes she already has. That salamander gets a workout. “We use the salamander in a million different ways to get crisp things on top, because I’m all about a crispy top,” she exclaims.
The pork chop, with whole grain mustard, smashed red bliss potatoes, and flash-cooked greens, is what Chmelar calls a “sleeper hit.”
She’s particularly excited about how the salamander works its magic on her Bodega Sammie, “a highbrow take on the deli sandwich.” It’s a bacon, egg, and cheese on focaccia, but they do it a little differently. “We do it in the salamander, so the cheese melts into the egg and bacon,” she explains. “It’s totally insane. And an add-on is homemade pimento cheese — if you put that on the salamander, it’s like both a heart attack and the best thing in the universe.”
The pork chops and Bodega Sammie best exemplify how Chmelar wants to see herself in the New York dining scene: “The neighborhood’s regular joint — there’s nothing like having regulars. I love them.” Open for breakfast daily, she wants to be the spot where people stop in before heading to work. For those who work nearby, she’s open for lunch and has a bar program for happy hour. There’s also a full dinner and dessert menu, as well as the weekend brunches that made her such a hit in her smaller space.
Her dining room is “calm and pretty,” and its design has elements of her country life and European roots. And while her newly opened space is experiencing the natural growing pains of New York City hospitality — demanding clientele, an air conditioner that goes down mid-service, as well as a new menu, staff, and space working on coming together cohesively — Chmelar wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I would first and foremost describe myself as a New Yorker,” she says. “That’s why I have a place here — this is my spot. It’s where I feel at home and comfortable. And New Yorkers are the people who I want to feed. Being a New Yorker and being able to bring them a little of this is special.”