Restaurateur to Landlord: Check the Basement

“These roots go down into very rich soil,” said Toney Edwards, owner of Le Madeleine restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen.

Mr. Edwards was referring to the tall ficus tree he had planted as a sapling nearly a quarter-century ago, in the garden-seating section of his then-fledgling French bistro on 43rd Street near Ninth Avenue.

But he might as well have been speaking about the restaurant itself, which, alongside its flora, remains entrenched in its longstanding location, despite the landlord’s yearlong efforts to uproot it for a multi-story residential building (probably condos). The lime-painted brick storefront stands just a single story above ground.

Mr. Edwards credits the endurance of both his ficus and his restaurant in large part to the goings-on underground.

“The reason the garden is such a healthy, happy garden,” he explained, “is that it used to be a latrine.”

Enriched by the outhouses of the ancient residents of the adjacent, 19th-century tenement building on the corner—which Mr. Edwards’ eatery now abuts—this fertile ground set the foundation for a lush, sky-lit patio where theater-district diners now feast on duck confit to the tune of $3 million in annual revenues.

But the restaurant’s subterranean connection to the historic housing next-door doesn’t stop at mere manure—a point Mr. Edwards and his lawyer make abundantly clear in court papers. In fact, the primary argument in the restaurant’s legal case to stay in business largely hinges on another under-the-surface issue.

“This is where the kitchen crew changes clothes,” said Mr. Edwards, leading Counter Espionage on a tour of the eatery’s labyrinthine basement last week. “This is the linen storage,” he continued. “Around the corner here, we’ve got the boiler room for our hot water for our dishwashing. There’s also a carpet there that’s used by our Muslim brothers to do their praying.”

Deeper still in the bowels of the restaurant, Mr. Edwards unlocked a door marked “Cave,” revealing a tightly packed wine cellar, before moving on to a large food-storage area and a cramped office space he called “the brains” of the operation.

The significance of this vast underground space, at least for Mr. Edwards’ purposes, is its specific location: below the historic building next-door.

The restaurant’s current lease, signed in 1997, encompasses three addresses: the single-story “store and garden,” commonly known as Le Madeleine, at 403-405 West 43rd Street; plus the basement space in the protected 607 Ninth Avenue tenement next-door; as well as a portion of the basement and ground floor at the adjoining 609 Ninth Avenue.

“The dishwasher room, the drying room, the coat-check area, the access to the basement, the changing area, the dry storage, the prep area, the office, the wine cellar—all of that is in the other two buildings,” Mr. Edwards said.

Yet when landlord Mark Scharfman moved to evict Le Madeleine in July 2005—citing a provision in the lease granting him “the absolute right, option and privilege to terminate this lease” at “any time that the landlord intends to demolish or to substantially remodel or rehabilitate the Building”—the paperwork only addressed the one-story storefront. It neglected to mention Mr. Edwards’ additional basement areas in the protected buildings next-door.

The restaurateur’s attorney, Arlene Boop, is now challenging the legality of Mr. Scharfman’s action based on this sort of cellar loophole.

“Even in laymen’s language, it’s probably more complicated than that,” said Ms. Boop, who tried to explain her legalese more plainly: “Think of a mansion with a one-story extension—it’s all ‘the building.’ The lease defines ‘the building’ as all the addresses of the property, and it’s a big, capital B for ‘building.’”

Based on Ms. Boop’s interpretation, the lease’s demolition clause would apply only to construction on “the entire building,” basement and all, according to court papers.

“You can’t just demolish a piece of it,” she argued. “You’re treating it as if he only has a lease for the one-story. What about all this other stuff?”

Mr. Scharfman didn’t return calls for comment. His attorney, Steven Sidrane, however, disputed Ms. Boop’s basement-based argument as meritless. In Mr. Scharfman’s view, he said, the issue is much simpler: “They’re challenging the landlord’s right to terminate the lease. But there’s a clear right to terminate the lease in the lease.”

At least one judge already agreed with the landlord’s keep-it-simple reasoning. This past July, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Faviola Soto rejected Le Madeleine’s legal nitpicking, ruling simply that “the landlord has exercised its rights pursuant to … the lease.”

Mr. Edwards has since appealed that decision in the hopes that five judges will lend a more sympathetic ear to “what the first judge didn’t listen to.” The two sides return to court on Dec. 15.

Meanwhile, Le Madeleine continues to cling to its subterranean lifeline, courtesy of a court-ordered stay of eviction, nearly 10 months after its originally scheduled termination.

Even Mr. Scharfman’s dangling of a possible alternative storefront on nearby Ninth Avenue has failed to sway Mr. Edwards’ intense desire to stay put.

“You wouldn’t be able to move this restaurant to another location; this is a very unique spot in Manhattan,” explained Mr. Edwards, who’d gladly take a rent hike over relocation. “I would be happy to open another restaurant at some point; I’d be delighted to. But it would not be Le Madeleine. And it wouldn’t be this space. You don’t often find a single-story building with an open garden.”

Particularly one this fertile.