West 8th Waits for a Table

“These restaurants have been welcoming,” argued Honi Klein, executive director of the Village Alliance business improvement district, perhaps the biggest proponent of the ragged strip’s would-be culinary revolution over the past several years.

The number of abandoned storefronts has dropped since eateries including Le Pain Quotidien, Sushi Yawa and Cho Cho San have moved in. Yet even Ms. Klein admits the uprising has been less than overwhelming; of 84 potential storefronts along the street, she has noted, only seven are now bona fide restaurants.

The continuing push for a further kitchen-led revitalization has stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

At a local Community Board 2 meeting last month, neighbors turned out in droves to weigh in on the street’s latest proposed hospitality venture, a planned 2,800-square-foot gastropub at 47 West Eighth Street, with seating for up to 115 patrons.

Protesters lobbed a flurry of reasons to deny the place a liquor license, including the perception that landlords were now driving out other, less noisy retailers in favor of fork-clanging, higher-rent-paying restaurants. Carol Wilson, co-chair of the West Eighth Street Block Association, pointed to Shoe Review, a holdout from the footwear golden era, at 29 West Eighth, which recently lost its lease because its landlord believed he could get more money from a food business, she said.

Conversely, landlord Soonbin Kim, who bought the building at 45-47 West Eighth for $7.2 million last year, argued that 95 percent of expressed interest in the vacant, would-be gastropub space came from food-related businesses. “I said no to 7-11,” said Ms. Kim, who further suggested that she actually lowered her asking price to attract a more suitable purveyor of consumables.

The community board ultimately voted in favor of the planned pub.

“That’s just the trend, you know, that more restaurants are looking on the block,” said Erik Um, 25, manager of neighboring da Bhang cafe at 45 West Eighth Street (and also a relative of Ms. Kim’s), where a small, mellow group of patrons huddled over laptops and plates of waffles drenched in chocolate sauce and whipped cream on Sunday afternoon.

“You’ve seen it happen in a lot of other districts and they’ve succeeded,” said Mr. Um, whose trendy cafe (the name is Korean for “tea room”) opened last December.

Lonely fellow eatery operators can hardly wait for others to join the cause.

“The restaurant business is one of those things where, when you group a number of good restaurants together, it’s just a busier street,” said chef Ahktar Nawab, whose fashionable Elletaria opened up in a former plus-size men’s clothing store at 33 West Eighth this past May.

But awaiting the street’s next gilded age will certainly test their patience. “Since I’ve owned this restaurant,” said Mr. Nawab, 35, “I’ve sprouted gray hairs and gray whiskers in my beard, and it’s just instantaneous, constant worry.”


West 8th Waits for a Table