Thursday, February 22, 2007

McNally Compromises With Residents Over Morandi Sidewalk Cafe

And he didn't even need the permit
By David Crohn

In the end, there were 22.

It wasn’t exactly Congress hashing out the shape of American foreign policy, but watching locals and Community Board 2 members compromise over the future of a single storefront provided a fascinating glimpse into how things get done in the hermetic world of West Village virtual politics.

Famed restaurateur Keith McNally—he of Pastis in the Meatpacking District and Balthazar in SoHo—had planned to have some 50 tables and twice as many chairs at the sidewalk café at Morandi, his new Mecca of posh just off Seventh Avenue South. The entrepreneur ended up with less than half that after locals came out to voice their concerns at two community meetings.

Presumably, the presence of outdoor seating goes a long way toward the success of a restaurant that, as one commenter noted, will not be a local hangout but a destination for fine diners citywide. So McNally wasn’t about to exclude a sidewalk café, especially since, as he said, half the space inside is taken up by the kitchen. Morandi’s entrance faces Waverly Place, but its address is at 15 Charles, a medium-sized residential high rise whose entrance is right around the corner on the eastern end of Charles Street. Hence the concern.

The Sidewalks, Public Facilities and Public Access Committee—a division of Community Board 2—met Feb. 12 to review McNally’s application and consider public input. Along with the number of table rows the sidewalk dining area would have, attendees discussed the restaurant’s hours and how McNally would deal with the increased noise and foot traffic around the block.

Sonny Bohon, a self-proclaimed “world-renowned chef” who wore black leather boots and used a deep drawl to let the Blue Staters in the room know he wasn’t fucking around (“Look, I’m from Texas…I don’t like anyone”), called McNally an “honorable man” and said, “Why shouldn’t we have a nice place where we can have some nice food and wine?”

The very-small-crowd favorite was Jonathon Greenberg, who videotaped the meeting while his 2-month-old baby ga’d in a makeshift harness strapped to his chest.

“It’s not a question of whether Mr. McNally is honorable,” said Greenberg, a 26-year resident of 15 Charles. “I don’t think we as a community have an obligation to give up a public resource—our sidewalks—for his personal, private gain.”

Greenberg was concerned that with three rows of tables reaching toward the curb, life would be very difficult for stroller pushers and elderly folks with canes or walkers. It was a fear he echoed at the full CB2 meeting—again with Gabriel hanging tight to his torso.

Two other 15 Charles residents went to both meetings to say they were concerned about the noise the outdoor dining area would generate. One resident, a petite middle-aged woman who said she was finishing up her PhD dissertation, said construction at the restaurant in recent months made it hard for her to work and sleep. Another resident said she worked in finance and had to wake up very early in the morning.

Through it all, I was surprised to see McNally acting nothing like a Downtown Trump and much more like a nebbish.

15 Charles resident Jeffrey Raven complained that the word “Bar” was on the sign, which would presumably attract drunks in equal numbers with sophisticated foodies. McNally replied, or rather muttered and almost stuttered, “We can change that. Do you want me to change that?”

McNally truly is, as the New York Times described him in a 2004 profile, a “shlump” of a guy, making life hard for critics of his new undertaking and its very conspicuous sidewalk cafe.

New York’s culture of skepticism nurtures a healthy distrust of powerful people, but his unassuming nature—and perhaps the fact that no one wants to appear ignorant to the charm of steak frites at Pastis or Balthazar’s fresh bread—led board members and even some of his opponents to pepper their detractions with praise: “We ought to welcome him to the neighborhood” and “He has a stellar reputation,” they said at the full Community Board 2 meeting three nights later.

By then, McNally’s plans had shrunk. He included about one concession to address each of the 15 Charles Street residents’ primary concerns: there will be an awning covering the whole café, which it was assumed would muffle the noisy chatter wafting up; a doorman/bouncer type to keep revelers in line; and only two rows of tables, leaving space for strollers, walkers and even the occasional wheelchair.

Late in the proceedings, just before the permit was approved, it was revealed that, since the sidewalk café will be within the building’s property line and not actually on public property after all, McNally didn’t even need a permit. But, as a local himself, he went ahead with the process just as a gesture of goodwill. The rumpled Brit’s mensch rating went through the roof.

This $4.5 million restaurant, McNally’s first foray into Italian cuisine, should be open by the time you read this. McNally, credited for creating a New York brand of European atmosphere that has been widely imitated, said Morandi would be “the kind of country place you might stumble upon when unable to find the grander place you were searching for.”

Just how much stumbling there will be, of the drunken, raucous kind that so worries the PhD lady, remains to be seen. His reputation—and perhaps even the fact that homeowners nearby must be cognizant of the fact that this will have a positive effect on their property values—has encouraged residents to give him a chance. Or as West Villager Frank Cropanzano observed, “enough rope to hang himself by.”

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