Sidewalk Scuffle Could Scuttle New P.J. Clarke’s

pjclarkes2 Sidewalk Scuffle Could Scuttle New P.J. Clarkes
Necessary enclosure? Or foot-traffic tie-up?

P.J. Clarke’s owner Phil Scotti hopes to open an Upper West Side spin-off of his iconic Upper East Side eatery by Christmas.

Among other benefits of expanding the 122-year-old P.J.’s brand across town, the proposed West 63rd Street location would provide its proprietor with a shorter commute to work. “It would make me feel so good to have P.J. Clarke’s, you know, a few blocks from my house,” said the West 69th Street resident.

Yet Mr. Scotti’s stated $5 million effort to bring the business to his own backyard could be quashed, he said, if the city doesn’t sign off on his controversial sidewalk-seating plan. The Department of Consumer Affairs has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Oct. 30.

Mr. Scotti intends to operate an enclosed 22-table, 46-seat sidewalk café at his annointed “P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Center,” which would become the third such raw bar and burger joint in Manhattan to don the historic P.J.’s moniker.

Offering pseudo-alfresco service certainly isn’t unusual for the area. In fact, the proposed P.J.’s site, which formerly housed Iridium Jazz Club, used to have an enclosed sidewalk café of the exact same size. Mr. Scotti contends that the former cafe’s footprint remains exempt from current sidewalk-seating restrictions, even though this “grandfathered” section of public space hasn’t actually had table service for at least six years.

Not everyone agrees.

“It’s illegal,” asserted West Side resident Hope Cohen at an Oct. 3 public meeting.

Like so many New York restaurateurs these days, Mr. Scotti is facing opposition from the neighbors. He’s perhaps taking it harder than most, however, because these are actually his neighbors; not merely the restaurant’s.

Why, just two decades ago, Mr. Scotti was himself a member of Community Board 7, the very body that so overwhelmingly objected to his sidewalk-seating proposal earlier this month, calling it “too big” and the location “too busy” to allow for so many seats on such a narrow sidewalk. Board members also questioned whether the sidewalk section was still exempt from current zoning regs, given its lengthy period of non-use.

If it’s not, then the seating issue becomes a potential dealbreaker for Mr. Scotti, who’d rather scrap it than barely scrape by on the rent. “It’s not like I could lose 40 seats and make it financially viable,” he said. “It would make sense to build a steakhouse where you get, ya know, $75 a person. But not a place where you get $18.38 a person, which is the check average at P.J. Clarke’s.”

He dismissed community concerns about his café possibly impeding area foot traffic as overblown: “It’s a high traffic area for about an hour a day. I mean, people come over and pick up their tickets at five-thirty and turn around and say ‘Where should I eat?’ And at seven-thirty, they go to the theater and there’s high traffic. And when the shows get out sequentially, ya know, two and a half hours later there’s a little traffic. For two hours a night, it’s Lincoln Center. But the rest of the time it’s a neighborhood.”

Why the local brand is catching community flack when national chains seem to be moving in with relative ease simply baffles the restaurateur. “You know, the West Side is becoming like every strip mall in America,” he said. “At least have something original.”

With one spin-off location already, in lower Manhattan–not to mention two licensed P.J. Clarke’s in Chicago–Mr. Scotti stated his commitment to keeping the iconic brand as New York-centric as possible.

“I could build 100 P.J. Clarke’s,” he said, “but I don’t wanna do it. I love the original. I wanted to be downtown for some corny reason about being across from Ground Zero and not being afraid to be down there. And I want to be on the West Side because it’s my neighborhood. And that’s all I want.”

- Chris Shott