Of all the new wine bars that have opened in Manhattan in recent months—a record 11 of them during the last Zagat survey alone—Bowery Wine Company at 13 East First Street has perhaps attracted the most vocal following.
“Die yuppie scum!” chanted protesters outside the small sipping spot last Friday night; many wielded placards: “EVICT WINE BARS SAVE THE EAST VILLAGE.”
At least some of the attention can be attributed to the venue’s location on the ground floor of the Avalon Bowery Place luxury apartment complex, one of several shiny new upscale buildings to pop up along the once downtrodden corridor.
But much of the buzz is because of the wine bar’s purported celebrity proprietor, the actor Bruce Willis.
Ever since the bald-headed star of Pulp Fiction and Die Hard reportedly hopped behind the bar one night this past April, the sleekly designed, roughly 1,700-square-foot venue has become a political lightning rod, with supporters and detractors repeatedly trading shots in the pages of the New York Post.
“We want to show our opposition to right-wing Republicans opening yuppie wine bars in our neighborhood,” spewed local lefty gadfly John Penley, who has even threatened to roast Mr. Willis in effigy in the form of a pig on a spit named Bruce.
Meanwhile, the New York Young Republican Club rushed to embrace the place, booking the wine bar for its monthly get-together; one member even threatened a full-scale yuppie invasion of the neighborhood: “We’re coming with briefcases and BlackBerrys in hand to stake our claim.”
Mr. Willis has publicly backed a number of GOP candidates over the years, most recently fellow actor Fred Thompson. He has, however, renounced his “Hollywood Republican” label,
So, how did the Emmy-winning star of Moonlighting wind up in the middle of the epic struggle over East Village gentrification?
“Basically, he’s not really a partner,” confessed Bowery Wine Company co-owner Chris Sileo, one of two people whose names actually appear on the controversial wine bar’s liquor license (Mr. Willis not included).
“We’re old friends,” Mr. Sileo said of the famous action-film hero. “He lets me attach his name to the place to do me a favor because he knew it would help me. We just say he’s involved in the project.”
Given all the fuss stirred up by Mr. Willis’ supposed involvement in the place, however, Mr. Sileo might want to rethink his celebrity endorsement deal.
“I could do without it,” he said of all the recent hubbub. “I think most of it was because Bruce’s name was attached, and they saw an opportunity to get in the paper.
“I have no problem with activists,” he added. “But it is totally misdirected.”
Echoing the sentiments of fellow Bowery retailer John Varvatos—whose splashy opening of a trendy clothing store on the site of the hallowed CBGB rock club sparked similar demonstrations this past spring—Mr. Sileo said his small business is not responsible for the overall upscaling of the neighborhood.
Blame the landlords, he said; not the tenants: “If you want to direct it at Avalon, fine. But don’t direct it at some New York guy who happens to open a place in the Avalon. We could’ve easily opened down the block; we just opened there because it was a decent location and we got a decent rent.”
Mr. Sileo, 44, is perhaps most perturbed at being pegged as something he’s not, telling The New York Times amid last week’s brouhaha, “I’m more of a hippie than a Republican.”
Like many of his detractors, Mr. Sileo, too, yearns for Old New York: “What happened to the city that never sleeps?” he lamented to The Observer on Monday. “You know, I don’t understand these people putting so many restrictions on nightlife. New York is so based on nightlife. And nightlife is such an integral part of the economy. I understand if the nightclubs have shootings and stabbings. But other than that, I just don’t get it.”
The veteran restaurateur also ratcheted up his rhetoric toward his rivals: “I’m more of a New Yorker than any of these moron protesters.”
“My family’s ingrained in the bar business and in this city forever,” said Mr. Sileo, a Greenwich Village native whose father and grandfather once ran an old neighborhood watering hole called Luigi’s.
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.”