Gulp Friction

At age 23, Mr. Sileo got his own start in the hospitality industry, nabbing a job at the original China Club, a noted celebrity hangout on 75th Street and Broadway, where he first met Mr. Willis back in the late 1980s: “I started as head of security and a year later was promoted to be general manager. The bartenders at the time were all these guys from like 38 to 45, these grizzled veterans of the New York nightlife scene. I was, like, ‘Oh my God, these guys are going to eat me alive.’ But instead it went the other way. They all took me under their wing and they showed me the ropes of life and New York and the bar business.

“Most of them were his circle of friends,” he added, referring to Mr. Willis.

After leaving the China Club in 1995, Mr. Sileo went on to operate a few of his own venues on the Upper West Side. “My hottest spot, I had this place called Exile. It was on 70th Street between Broadway and Columbus,” he said. “It was like a funky little spot. We used to call it an industrial lounge. We closed in 2001.”

Later, he took a job as general manager of the swanky Oak Room and Oak Bar inside the posh Plaza Hotel, eventually becoming the venue’s beverage director.

“It was a cool experience but not my bag,” said Mr. Sileo, who ultimately quit to join his current partner, Lenny Linar, an operator of several Häagen-Dazs shops, in pursuing a wine-bar concept that felt “a little more down-home.”

“We’ve been wanting to open a bar together for a while,” he said.

Initially, he hoped to return to the
Upper West Side, where he resides with his wife and child. “Of course, you can’t find anything because of all the banks and the Duane Reades,” he said.

Eventually, he turned his attention to the Bowery, where retail space comes somewhat cheaper and the neighborhood offers a bit more grit. “We saw the spot and we thought it was cool,” Mr. Sileo said. “It reminded me of the Upper West Side 20 years ago, before it was all baby strollers. The Upper West Side went from an edgy neighborhood to a little too generic and sterile. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen down there. I certainly don’t want it to happen.”

Mr. Sileo had wanted to create a place for both yuppies and yippies alike.

“I went out of my way to make my price points where, you know, the musician who lives with two roommates can still hang out and drink,” he said. “One wine sells for six bucks by the glass. … If you want to come and spend a shitload of money, I mean, there’s a $200 bottle of wine on the list—but that’s the only one. Otherwise, you can come in and have a panini, a glass of wine, plus tax and tip for under 20 bucks.”

The recent polarization has somewhat spoiled that utopian vision.

“It cost us some money on Friday,” Mr. Sileo said, noting that some patrons couldn’t even get in the door during last week’s testy demonstration.

Then again, talk about free publicity.

“Since that day,” he added, “we actually had one of our better Saturday nights ever. You know what? If they want to come back and come in, they can come in. I have no problem with anybody walking in those doors. If they wanna come back, I’ll stand outside and feed them all pizza.”

cshott@observer.com