As buzz saws whined and packing peanuts swirled around their feet, a roomful of bright-eyed waiters took notes about the menu they would soon be serving at the Harrison, a new Tribeca restaurant which should have been opening in the shadow of the World Trade Center, but is now opening in the shadow of a traumatized city and a neighborhood still economically reeling from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“The pork tenderloin is not organic, not free-range. It comes from Iowa,” said the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, Jimmy Bradley, standing beneath an iron chandelier with a burned-out bulb. “The menu should be exciting. Once you get used to it, once you learn everything on here, it’s going to change. We want to surprise people.” He went on to give the finer points of sautéed sweetbreads saltimbocca and homemade bresaola with petit taleggio fettunta and fig syrup. Opening night will be on Oct. 22-pushed back from the original opening date of Sept. 17.
The dark-haired, baby-faced Mr. Bradley, 34, and his business partner, Danny Abrams, 40, say that they like opening in what they call “non-convenience-oriented” neighborhoods. In 1999, when they opened the Red Cat restaurant in forsaken West Chelsea, on 10th Avenue and 24th Street, art galleries were only beginning to trickle in. Today, walk-ins to the Red Cat are told with a smile that there’s a one-hour wait.
Tribeca, post–Sept. 11, presents a thornier challenge.
“This is a proven restaurant destination, with a high concentration of two- and three-star restaurants,” said Mr. Abrams, a bouncy man with bleached-blond hair and wire-rim glasses, who handles the front of the house at the Red Cat. “We want to be a neighborhood restaurant with world-class aspirations.”
“We want to offer the hospitality of the Red Cat,” said Mr. Bradley. “It’s a much more true sense of hospitality. It’s not about who the designer is, it’s not about the location of the restaurant, it’s not about a name chef. It’s about how you make people feel.”
Their corner space on Greenwich Street and Harrison Street, which was occupied by Spartina until April, is not, at first glance, a location that stirs up good feelings. Looking out from the French doors, you can see river barges piled with debris from the World Trade Center. Looking south down eerily empty Greenwich Street, you’re confronted by the charred carapace of the World Trade Center’s Building 5. Unless the winds are favorable, the air still carries the strong burning smell that has haunted Manhattan and Brooklyn for weeks. Police officers zip past in golf carts; National Guardsmen patrol a barricade on Chambers Street.
“You know, it’s surprisingly pleasant here,” Mr. Bradley said, his voice rising as he turned to look out the window.
One can argue that, by opening a restaurant adjacent to a war zone, Mr. Bradley and Mr. Adams will earn a fierce loyalty from Tribeca residents.
“People tell us, ‘We’re really glad you’re opening,'” said Mr. Abrams. “It’s a sign that life goes on. At the meeting for the Tribeca Organization, people told us, ‘Get open. We’ll support you.’
“We have a great base” at the Red Cat, he added. “Regulars there are unbelievable. They tell us, ‘We’ll bring five, eight people down to support you.'”
But will that be enough to make up for the loss of what would have been a pool of tens of thousands of hungry office workers from the surrounding area?
“Tribeca lost its prime customer base” in the attacks, said Tim Zagat, whose 2002 Zagat Survey, published this week, reports the closing of 30 restaurants in the vicinity of the disaster site. “They lost 55,000 people in the World Trade Center, 25,000 in the World Financial Center-it’s like losing the town next door. It’s rough. Only Monday did the Holland Tunnel reopen. [Restaurants in Tribeca] have had phone problems, so that people didn’t know that they were open. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s still smoke. It’s not very appetizing.”
Local restaurateurs are overwhelmingly supportive of the Harrison.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said Karen Waltuck, co-owner of Le Zinc and the three-star Chanterelle down the block, which is now offering a $35 prix-fixe dinner and $20 lunch in addition to their $84 menu. “We’re feeling this amazing support of people coming downtown. The energy has been so wonderful. [The Harrison opening] just adds to it.”
“It’s fantastic. It’ll take some time, and they’ve already spent the money,” said Edward Youkilis, former manager of the Odeon, who’s planning to reopen Bar Odeon on Oct. 19 under a new name. “It’s a little nutty right now-there’s a helicopter hovering over the Odeon-but things are not as bad as they could be.” Asked about the timing of his own venture, he said, “I’m not nervous. It will cater to the neighborhood with simple food and prices. People will always want a burger and a beer.”
The interior of the Harrison is fairly basic. The dining room, which seats 100, has dark wood floors, white wainscoting and iron chandeliers with parchment shades. A French cobbler’s table makes up part of the bar. Downstairs, there’s a private dining room and wine cellar that can double as a screening room (Miramax is a block away). The Mediterranean menu will have entrees averaging a gentle $19. Mr. Bradley said they need to make $3,000 a day to break even, which means that, at an average of $45 per person, they need to draw at least 70 people a day.
On the morning of Sept. 11, construction was in full swing. “We were in the final push,” said Mr. Bradley. “We’d been there seven days a week for four weeks. Our crews saw both planes hit. The Chinese guys were working outside. They ran.”
“I didn’t think about the business for days,” said Mr. Abrams.
“We had two thoughts: open when we can, or open in the spring,” said Mr. Bradley.
“It’s hard to have a restaurant when people have to go through checkpoints and show ID to get there,” said Mr. Abrams. “How would we get supplies? It was day-to-day for three weeks.”
They decided that since they wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant, what better way to win their new neighbors’ hearts than to feed them lamb’s tongue Piedmontese with Barolo sauce in their time of need? And they’d already put $1 million of their own money (they have only one other investor) into the space, for which they have a 10-year lease.
So on Oct. 2, they set a new opening date. Immediately following the attacks, since the staff of waiters, cooks and busboys was already being paid, Mr. Bradley sent them out for 12-hour shifts on a Spirit Cruise ship that was bringing food down to rescue workers. “I told them, ‘You’re doing whatever the fuck the guy on the boat tells you to do,'” he said, laughing.
None of the 47 employees have quit. One of the waiters, Gerad Argeros, a 30-year-old filmmaker, said, “When you hear people are leaving the city in droves and buying gas masks, to have people like Jimmy and Danny saying, ‘We’re going to build a place in the neighborhood that people are going to fall in love with’-it’s amazing. Maybe it’s brave to come down here. I feel like I’m doing something smart. I wanna ride the wave.”
The Tribeca scene was looking bright on Oct. 11, when a citywide benefit for workers at the Windows on the World restaurant, which had been located on the 106th floor of Tower 1, filled tables at several local restaurants. At Odeon, a neighborhood standby for 21 years, there was a celebrity-packed party to boost support for the neighborhood. “A lot of people told me, ‘I didn’t know it was open down here,'” said Odeon’s general manager, Steven Abromowitz. “They asked me if it was the reopening party, but we opened a week after” the attacks.
Restaurant Week, which runs Oct. 15 to Oct. 19 and offers three-course lunches for $20.01 at places like Chanterelle and Nobu, is also expected to bring New Yorkers back downtown.
“It’s a funny situation to be in, to be told that it’s your community duty to eat a meal,” said Tribeca-based architect and writer James Sanders.
But few Tribeca restaurants can survive on the patronage of the locals alone, and a patriotic burst of uptowners dipping below Canal Street will only last so long. It is rather Mr. Bradley’s reputation as a rising chef, and Mr. Abrams’ skills as an easygoing host, upon which the Harrison’s future depends.
“Their timing was good, up until the moment when something happened that they had no control over,” said Drew Nieporent, who closed the kitchens of his own Tribeca empire (including Nobu, Tribeca Grill and Montrachet) in the two weeks after the attack to focus his energy on feeding rescue workers. “Anyone opening anything anywhere in New York isn’t going to have the same advantage as before the 11th.” But he added of the Harrison: “They’re gonna be O.K.”
“It’s not economics alone that are guiding the current situation, it’s not knowing what will be from day to day,” said Michael Ginor, president of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. “You might have plans to go out to dinner, and then you hear about anthrax and stay home and order pizza. It’s really a very tragic time to open a restaurant. Jimmy Bradley’s pedigree is strong. And if any place could succeed, it would be his.”