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.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Double Happiness: Bayard Street Between Mott and Elizabeth

One tourist to-do, done

By David Crohn

Did you go to Chinatown for the Chinese New Year? Neither did I.
I haven’t been to Rockefeller Center for the tree-lighting ceremony either, and I’ve been living here for almost a decade. I did go to the Statue of Liberty though. It was when I was little and all I remember a big green foot.

But of all the standard touristy things, I’ve always felt like Chinatown for the New Year celebration was the one to do. The dancing dragon, the fireworks and confetti—it sounds like a really fun migraine.

But here comes the confession: Before last week, I’d never even been to Chinatown. Sure, I’ve skirted the boundaries, seen signs entirely in pictograms, but I had never walked along Mosco or Pell, streets that are unique to the neighborhood.

So, in honor of the Year of the Pig, which began last week, I trekked down to what was historically the heart of Chinatown. The boundaries have extended past Delancey Street in the north and down to Chambers Street, but it all started here, just below Canal and east of Baxter Street, a few blocks from the famous Five Points. Once I came to Bayard Street between Mott and Elizabeth Street, it was like standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or gazing across the San Francisco Bay at the Golden Gate Bridge—I had wholly arrived at my tourists' destination.

This stretch of Bayard Street is a narrow and frenzied passageway. There’s so much foot traffic that drivers passing through don’t bother honking their horns as they ride their brakes from one end to the other. I went just a few days after the official first day of the New Year, and the neighborhood seemed to be mildly hung over. Shiny, multicolored confetti marinated in mud and slush; no one but me jumped when kids crossing the street scattered little balls of paper that exploded in small bangs when they hit the street. The magnificent building at 62-64 Bayard, with its layers of terraces covered in streamers and red flags, looked like Bourbon Street if it were in Beijing.

I ended the day with the kind of Chinese-American food I’ve never seen on the paper menus piling up on my doorstep back home: A pork bun and a red bean bun at the Golden Fung Wong Bakery around the corner at Mott and Mosco Streets. They passed the wallet taste at $2.55 including a soda. It would take time, but if I lived here I think I could get used to a warm, sweet piece of bread filled with an amber paste of unidentifiable sweet goop and bite-size pieces of pork.

When people find out that I write this column, the first thing they always ask me is, Where I can I find reasonable rents in Manhattan? I’ve always said Chinatown. There are still dark corners of the Lower East side where you can find a studio for $1,000, but chances are it won’t be anywhere near a subway station. On this block, on the other hand, there’s a two-bedroom apartment going for $1,450 a month. It’s pretty small (280 square feet) and up a four-floor walk-up, but that’s a great deal, especially considering the close proximity to the N and R trains and fresh fish stores. Lots of fresh fish stores.

What Happened Here
During the wane of the Qing dynasty—China’s last—Chinese sailors and traders began trickling into the United States; after arriving in New York during the middle of the 19th Century, most immigrants continued on to the West Coast pursuing the “Gold Mountains” of California. Those that stayed behind formed the seed of modern-day Chinatown, and thousands more came back East to escape violence and discrimination on the West Coast, although what they found here wasn’t much better. By 1882, there were some 2,000 Chinese people, almost entirely men, living near the Five Points slum. They washed or made clothes and slept up to 15 in a single tenement apartment.
Today there are 70,000 to 150,000 Chinatown residents, most of whom are Chinese but with some Latinos, Filipinos, Burmese, Vietnamese and Caucasian hipsters thrown in.

Feel like Chinese? Let’s see, there’s the Green Bo Restaurant, New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe (sic), the Moon House, Hsin Wong, Mr. Tang… This is one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan where a cheese sandwich might be considered exotic. There’s also a Chinese ice cream place on this block, just in case you have a hankering for the red bean or green tea flavors during the summer months.