Living in the East Village for the past seven years and having been visiting the neighborhood for many years prior, I have witnessed the dramatic changes that have marked New York’s renaissance. It took great courage to walk the streets of Alphabet City as recently as the late 80’s. My inner New Yorker still has a wariness of Tompkins Square Park after dark and of people following too close on the sidewalk. These are remnants of a time the 20-something, night jogging, fashionista with the blaring iPod dulling any street sense she may have can’t relate to.
The businesses that opened here in the late 80’s and early 90’s had a pioneering spirit that was rewarded as those young innocents came pouring into the neighborhood. Unfortunately in recent days, many of those that had blazed the trail have since fallen victim to the revitalization they helped to create. Rents went through the roof and many of those leases that were so eagerly offered when times were tough became too expensive as the landlords got hip to the market rate. The result since the recession has been a spate of empty storefronts up and down Avenues A, B, C and D.
A new wave of pioneers has descended upon the East Village in these difficult times. Small food businesses are beginning to occupy vacant and troublesome spaces as rents have become more manageable since the ironic twist of economic hardship has hamstrung local landlords. Young entrepreneurs have come to fill the void.
I had been lamenting the lack of a hang out type cafe near my apartment for years. The three that were closest had all closed and nothing had come to replace them. A few months ago a tall skinny guy wearing a fedora opened the doors to La Bonne Bouffe on the corner of Ave. B and 2nd Street. I was one of his first customers and sat with him on several occasions just talking about food. Skander Belbekri is a dreamer. He had no restaurant experience, and it showed. He opened without signs, an English speaking staff, menus or any idea how to make food arrive in reasonable time. It was always unclear if you should order at the counter or wait on table service. It really was a mess but the food was terrific and the place had charm. It took a few months of baptism by fire but La Bonne Bouffe, which is French slang which amounts to “Good Eats”, has found its rhythm, signs and menus and seems to be doing fine. You can find me there daily, reading my paper, eating and drinking coffee at “my table”.
Anthony Fontana is a native New York Siciliano, like me. He spent his formative years around the restaurant business but found his way in sound engineering. His shaved head and colorful tattoos were appropriate for his music industry persona but seem a bit out of place in a cannoli shop. Anthony and his girlfriend, Brielle Dahan, began by rolling a cart around the Feast of San Gennaro selling artfully flavored cannoli. 30,000 pieces later they were opening Stuffed Artisanal Cannolis on Stanton St. The shop, like Skander’s place, was incomplete when I first visited. There weren’t any tables, chairs, art on the walls and the garbage pail was only big enough to hold maybe two cups and a cannoli wrapper. It reeked of inexperience but screamed passion and ambition. I chatted with Anthony and Brielle on several occasions and as much as I liked them both immensely…I keep going back because that young man has a gift and it speaks to my roots. His cannoli are magical. They come in crazy flavors like Twizzler, Oreo and Peanut Butter and Jelly (my favorite) as well as the traditional that keeps the menu anchored for the purist. I always admire the fire people like Anthony and Brielle have for doing what they love.
Tai Deng was a printer at Newsweek for years. He is also a director and performer for an avant-garde theater and a very good photographer. Tai left Newsweek, went to Vietnam, was married there and returned with his wife and decided to open a Vietnamese sandwich shop. I attended the opening several weekends ago and revisited a few days later. Bahn Mi Zon, on 6th Street near Ave A is a tiny place that seats maybe 10, tightly packed. Tai is still working out how much food to order each day and is having a devil of a time with the cash register but everything on the menu is fresh, authentic and delicious.
Sigmund Pretzels opened last week on Avenue B. I only had the opportunity to meet Lina Kulchinsky, formerly a pastry cook at Bouley, for a brief conversation. She was cheerful, upbeat and optimistic. The offerings at Sigmund range from the traditional to the experimental…from your soft, doughy, salty hot pretzel to creations like jalapeno cheddar pretzels served with a cream cheese dip and turkey and brie pretzel sandwiches. Sigmund’s is in an oversized space for such a business and they are still working out how to capitalize on the late night crowds in the neighborhood but it’s a great location and once again…the product stands out.
The common thread among these fresh endeavors is that the initial focus of the owner/operator is on the food and customer service. They all understand that the other details, like decor and being able to work the cash register or having menus, will come if you have customers who like your food. There is innocence and purity to places like these that makes me want to patronize them and forsake as much of the big box mentality that we have about food. I love that Boulud put the new slick DBGB on Bowery and that WD50’s Wiley Dufresne has become a television star. These are good things. But I really relish the fact that new faces, filled with promise and hope are providing good food experiences at reasonable prices here too. Eat there. Support these places. Because…when people like Skander and Tai and Anthony, Brielle and Lina stop trying it’s going to be empty storefronts and Starbucks…and I for one do not want that.