"Everything is an adjective here, but an exciting one," declared Danny Brown when I stepped inside the 550 square foot space of his new bar and restaurant, Charc. Opened in early 2017, Danny quickly went on to explain that after ten years in a far larger spot in Forest Hills, he is now attempting to reinvent what was best about his Michelin star Danny Brown Wine Bar & Kitchen. "People think that less footage is easy, but in, actuality, it is not always so." Danny and his team have found that they have had to make numerous adjustments to accommodate the lack of space. "It is challenging as we confront logistical issues," but Danny went on to say that he loves the charm of his 84th Street location. He is looking forward to evolving as he and his staff become more comfortable - and he is able to determine what works best for the customers in the neighborhood and beyond.
The inspiration behind Charc is a fascinating story, and one that Danny emphasized to me "is all true - nothing is fabricated." (He even has a photo of him with the owner). Back in 1995, Danny's cousin took him to a minuscule bar on a back street in Paris called Bar de L'X. "Maybe there were five tables," he recalled. The chef cooked behind the bar and put out four or so different dishes and Parisians came in, and ate and drank whatever was being served. The food was, obviously, outstanding and sometimes included duck breast, filet mignon, and simply cooked potatoes. Danny returned a few more times over the years, and on his last trip to revisit in 2008, he discovered that it had closed, and no one had any further information about the couple who ran the restaurant.
Fast forward seven years later, after closing his restaurant in Forest Hills, Danny decided it was finally time to pay tribute to his beloved Paris locale, for as he stated, "Imitation is the best form of flattery." He original called his establishment X Bar/Bistro before changing the name to "Charc." The kitchen where Danny prepares his dishes is extremely intimate, yet every spec of it is utilized to the maximum. "We are experimenting and being creative," he said thoughtfully. "I want people to have fun." They are encouraged to come in, have a drink at the bar and some food, or take a seat at one of the small tables. The food will not be too fussy and the menu, the cheese, and the wine selection will change frequently. "This will give people a chance to have a bit of a dining adventure."
The focus for the wine is French varietals. "I am trying to cover as many regions in France as possible," but then Danny expanded by saying that as long as it was grown using a French grape, he was willing to serve it. "I didn't want to exclude anyone." Laughing, he added that soon he would add "vacation" wines. These can be from Italy, Spain or parts of the U.S. "It will be nice to have a departure from the list periodically."
And then there is the cheese. Perhaps they will only have one selection on any given night, but it will be an excellent one served with a fresh baguette - St. Stephen's, Harbisson or another made in either New York or Vermont. These will accompany the featured dessert. When I stopped in, we were treated to the apple tarte tatin. Exquisite!
While standing and chatting with Danny, a woman entered announcing that she lived in the neighborhood and had been jogging by and noticed that the space was open. She had come into say hello and welcome. "My husband and I are very into food, so this looks perfect for us." I have no doubt that she and everyone else in the East 80s will return again and again.
The story, or shall I say, the saga, for Gerald and his wife, Peggy, might be the most moving one that I have heard from business owners on the side streets of Manhattan. Enduring multiple setbacks and disappointments - both in New York and Paris - the loving couple nevertheless pursued their ultimate dream of opening a pastry shop. Through determination, separation, and very hard work, in 2017, the two have finally opened their doors to the Upper East Side bakery, Miss Madeleine.Gerald and Peggy Hudeau left Guadeloupe in 2012 with the goal of coming to the United States to begin a new life by opening their own company. With five children in tow, they were forced to stop in Paris to obtain their visas. It took over one year to receive this visa, however, it was only granted to Gerald. He chose to come to New York, on his own, in the hopes of filing the necessary paperwork and getting a license to open a food business. Knowing absolutely no one in New York, and having little money, Gerald found some odd jobs and continued with his efforts to secure a space for the bakery and to do whatever was necessary to bring his family here.After three denials from the US Embassy in Paris, while continuing to pay rent on a potential property in East Harlem, Gerald decided to "fight" on his own, without the help of a lawyer. He filed all of the necessary paperwork again and went for another appointment at the Embassy in Paris. "My God, this time I got the visa, but for only six months." He, once again, had to leave his wife and kids in Paris because the immigration agent told him that he had to prove that he could provide for everyone before they would be allowed to enter the United States.Arriving back in New York, he found an apartment, took classes to get a food protection certificate, and prepared the necessary licenses for the bakery. Returning to Paris he received the visa as an investor for five years. He made the return trip alone, yet again, to New York.As Gerald related to me, "When I got here, I was obliged to close the store that I had rented in East Harlem, and terminate the contract of very good employees. I was crying in my apartment with only a sofa to sleep, without TV and something to eat. I tried to stay strong by working for another business to get some funds and to get my wife and one daughter in New York first."Here comes the good news, Gerald said to me, "I was able to have the visa for my wife and my daughter. With my wonderful wife, we tried to open again La Mulatresse Corp - the company that we had begun back in 2012 in Guadeloupe. Both from white and black parents, we created La Mulatresse Corporation, but we closed the property after an explosion of the building's boiler in my basement."Gerald immediately looked for work. He found this in a large American company, where first he was a laborer, then a shift leader, then an assistant manager and, ultimately, the General Manager. "One of the best days was when all of my kids arrived in New York - in 2015 - and Madisson, my daughter, was again with her brothers and sister." Gerald went on to say, "We spent a long time with dark days, wondering if it was a good idea, thinking about the kids and their future while fighting with the bills and debt."Peggy was able to find a job at Canele by Celine, the former bakery here on East 82nd Street. Gerald shared, "When Celine saw the magic in the kitchen, she decided to make a business with us by buying some of our products and asked me to be her General Manager."This is the point in the story when I had the extreme pleasure of meeting this outstanding man and his wife. We organized several events together, and I was most impressed by how professional Gerald was in representing Canele by Celine, and how kindly he treated his staff and each of the guests. What was overwhelmingly acknowledged by everyone was the exquisite French pastries being served.After one year of working very hard in the small kitchen turning out wondrous creations, Celine decided that it was time for her to turn over the operations to Gerald and Peggy to fulfill their own personal dream. It was a long and difficult road to travel, but the beautiful couple has finally found their destiny. Miss Madeleine has opened its doors to their loyal neighbors, who have returned to support them and to eat their variety of delectable sweet and savory food. "We hope to continue to show people the best of French pastries in an authentic French setting."
I walked into Trinity Pub just a few moments after it opened at 5pm, and was soon followed by a stream of customers. "It's a neighborhood bar," Barry, the bartender, told me. "The kind that's quickly disappearing in Manhattan." He pointed out a man and a woman who had just taken a seat at the bar, explaining that they used to live in the area, but had recently moved to Westchester. Though they had a few other errands to run, they essentially decided to visit the city in order to have a drink in their old pub. "It's the best bar in NYC, or at least the friendliest," the man exclaimed. The woman nodded, saying that she had met her husband in medical school, "And he remembers every exam we've taken," she said, pointing to Barry.Barry is clearly a big reason why people become regulars. With his genuine nature, big smile, and quick wit, he is everything one might want in a bartender. But he was quick to heap praise on the owners of the bar (Gene, Billy, and Timmy) for their management. He told me that they used to work around the corner at a bar called Fitzpatrick's. After it closed in 1996, they opened Trinity Pub, and the entire Fitzpatrick's crowd showed up to help get it ready for opening night. I then learned that the space had been a bar since the 1930s, mostly run by German and Hungarian immigrants. In the 1940s and 1950s, the bar was known as "Schubert Hall" and then was a firefighter's bar called "Sidestreets" in the 1970s and 80s - much to the delight of those of us from Manhattan Sideways. Barry showed us an old photograph of the bar from the 1940s as well as an online list that named Trinity Pub as one of the oldest bars in the neighborhood. He also shared a story of how he had once met an eighty-year-old woman who remembered coming by and pulling her German father out of what was then Schubert Hall. In addition to Trinity Pub, the owners run two other bars in the neighborhood (Banshee and The Gael), and Barry was proud to tell me that they have been able to pay for their children's education thanks to the three bars.Barry pointed out some of the signature traits of Trinity. He pulled out the plaque that listed the pub as pouring one of the greatest pints according Guinness consumers in 2008. In addition to trivia every Monday and a well-attended happy hour from 5pm-8pm, Barry informed us that the bar offers the chance for charity guest bartending, where the proceeds from a group of thirty or more go towards a charity of the guest bartender's choice.On the back wall, there is a mural of three Irishmen sitting at a bar. Barry told me that they call it the "three wise men." And how fortunate were we to actually witness a meeting of three modern day Irish men as they sat down next to each other. They all appeared to know Barry, an Irishmen himself, but did not know each other. They quickly began asking about their hometowns, inquiring how often they go back, and offering one another candy. What better way to be given a clear glimpse of the friendships that are born and grown in this welcoming pub.
Some businesses fascinate me because of their history, while others inspire me because of the unique work that they do or the niche they fill in society. Nica Trattoria captured my immediate attention due to the infectious spirit and big personality of Giuseppe Nicolosi. He wears many hats at Nica Trattoria as he is the owner, chef, waiter, and host extraordinaire. Though the restaurant is named after his partner, Dominique "Nica" Liana Russo, whom he met while she was studying at Columbia University and he was working on the Upper West Side, it is Giuseppe who greets every guest who walks through the restaurant's door. Along with referencing his partner, "Nica" means "small" in the Sicilian dialect, a perfect descriptor for a trattoria that seats about thirty guests. Giuseppe says that the name has allowed them to "with one stone, kill two pigeons."Though Giuseppe is Sicilian, he designed the menu to be a "big hug to all of Italy." This was not difficult, since Sicilian cuisine combines many different flavors, thanks to its diverse past. Giuseppe explained that before "Sicily annexed Italy" in 1896, it was home to a variety of cultures, causing there to be eleven distinct styles of cooking on the small island, including French, Moroccan, and Spanish. Giuseppe is proud of the number of Sicilian dishes on the menu, calling the culturally diverse taste combinations "an explosion on your palate."Our conversation was interrupted when two families walked in to be seated for dinner. Giuseppe sprang into action, hugging the family that he knew well, clapping his hands, and addressing the entire room as "belli," "bella," and "bello." One diner, who had clearly eaten at Nica Trattoria many times before, took out pictures of her children to show Giuseppe. He then proceeded to lower the lights for them and put on some light Italian classical music. He addressed both families at the same time by clinking a glass with a knife and opening the menu with a flourish and a whistle. It was like watching a thespian at work: Giuseppe creatively described the specials that included cauliflower tortino, French mussels, and fresh fava beans sauteed with sausage, while draping himself on people's shoulders and engaging in amusing conversation. The specialty of the house is the "Clouds from the sky." When Giuseppe asked his audience if anyone knew what "Clouds from the sky" were, a well-seasoned young boy yelled out, "Gnocchi!" Giuseppe beamed and nodded, adding, "We need to put a seatbelt on you; they are so white and fluffy!" Giuseppe continued describing other dishes (like his grandma's style lasagna and buchetini with pine nuts and raisins) while waltzing around his personal stage. He then took everyone's order, his energy remaining at 100% through the entire interaction. He treated people like family, jokingly scolding them for changing their minds and declaring, "I'm coming for your order in one minute! Start to count! 60...59...58..."When Giuseppe returned from the kitchen, we spoke about his history. He would not reveal to Olivia, one of the Manhattan Sideways writers, exactly when he moved to New York, saying, "You wasn't born!" He preferred to focus on his mother (who taught him to cook) and the fact that he managed many restaurants in New York before opening Nica Trattoria in 2006. Giuseppe has refused to ever stop learning. He has taken countless online courses, and the wall next to the bar is riddled with his graduation certificates. He is now certified in nutrition, wine, molecular engineering, and other varied subjects. He admitted that when I walked into the restaurant, he had been taking a practice test for his newest endeavor. He confessed that he is always thinking, "How can I improve myself?"Giuseppe is extremely pleased with the reception that Nica Trattoria has received. He has many regular customers that consistently come from places outside of the city, as well as from around the world. He joked, "When an airplane lands, at least one person is thinking of Nica." At this point, Angelo DiGangi, founder of the Community Advocacy Center and a regular at Nica, walked in and sat at his usual table. He turned to Giuseppe, not knowing I was there, and said, "This is the best spot in New York." After I introduced myself, he said, "It's really a little bit of Sicily." Giuseppe beamed at the compliment and moved behind the bar, agreeing that he likes to promote the Sicilian way of life, especially when it comes to the wine. He stocks a lot of Sicilian wine and is very interested in food pairings. He then pointed out that since Italy has 4,000 years of history and the United States only 400, America has not quite had the time to figure out wine pairings. Italy is different: "Food and wine. That is Sicily."I continued speaking with Angelo, who gushed about Giuseppe. "He does it with love," he said, referring to both the food and the service. We had already witnessed the service, but it was clear that Giuseppe also gives his all when it comes to the food. Everything is purchased fresh each day. Angelo said that he started coming to Nica Trattoria after work for an espresso. "I fell in love with the man," he smiled. And as Manhattan Sideways witnessed, it was hard not to fall in love with Giuseppe. Everyone gets the personal attention of a family member. As Tom, our photographer, put it dreamily, "I feel like I'm at home."
Pinpoint Bridal is a family business. As I entered the small, yet intimate boutique, I met Erol, the main designer's son, and Fatima, his cousin. "If you're going to be in any kind of business, a family business is the best kind," Erol said, matter-of-factly. Erol, who has worked in his mother's business since 2009, calls himself the "general manager," but clarified that his duties are many: "I take care of everything."Remziye Perkin, Erol's mother, has an impressive resume. Originally from Turkey, she trained in design at the Fashion Institute of Technology before joining Vera Wang as one of her first seamstresses and tailors. After working with Vera for five years, she decided to utilize her knowledge of bridal couture by opening her own shop. Pinpoint Bridal was born in 1995.Pinpoint Bridal does alterations in-house. The business actually began solely as a tailor, but branched out over the years into custom gowns, mother-of-the-bride outfits, and even delightful flower girl dresses. (Though Pinpoint does not specialize in bridesmaids dresses, they do provide alterations.) Though what makes Pinpoint Bridal special, Erol pointed out, is that they do custom gowns.Fatima and Erol told me that appointments usually last for an hour, and women are asked to visit three separate times before the wedding, so adjustments can be made up until the final fitting. During a first appointment, brides often bring in a drawing or cutting from a magazine depicting what they envision. I asked what design fads Fatima and Erol have noticed in their years working at the store and they replied that it varies depending on where people are from, since Pinpoint receives visitors from New York to Dubai and everywhere in between. Fatima mentioned that French and Irish customers often ask for pure white, whereas Italian brides lean towards ivory, but Fatima and Erol both agreed that "Off-white can never fail." In 2015, Fatima continued, many women wanted V-back dresses inspired by Oscar de la Renta. Erol smiled as he remembered a dress commissioned that same year featuring feathered sleeves in the style of a dress Kim Kardashian wore.Whereas Pinpoint Bridal designs many traditional wedding dresses, they also receive requests for some more modern, atypical dresses. One woman, for example, said in her first appointment that her dream since she was eight years old was to wear a blue wedding gown. The two cousins agreed that more and more women are wearing dark grey, red, or powder blue down the aisle. When I mentioned the glamorous ballerina-style dress in their window, Fatima explained that this was a "second outfit" that a bride could wear during her reception. On the other end of the spectrum, however, many women are choosing to turn to family heirlooms. Pinpoint Bridal has been asked to alter many mothers' and grandmothers' dresses over the years.When I inquired about their passion for what they do, Fatima's immediate response was, "I love it," and then Erol chimed in, "It's happy." He told me that thirty to forty percent of Pinpoint's clients are referred from people who have had good experiences in their shop. "There's a lot of word of mouth," he said. "We're proud of everything we do."
Brandy's Piano Bar, located on a quiet Yorktown street, has been a piano bar since 1979 but has been a straight-up bar for even longer. When the current owner took over in 1985, he renovated the space and discovered the original panels that decorate the short dividing wall between the bar and the seating area. They feature the bar as it once was, and the two men portrayed in front of the building are thought to be the original owners.I spoke to Peter, who has been working at Brandy's Piano Bar since St. Patrick's Day in 2014. Although Brandy's features a singing wait staff, Peter works the earlier hours, noting that he only sings "in the shower." The bar offers a happy hour from 4pm to 8pm with live music beginning every night at 9:30pm. The piano player rotates each night; therefore, one can expect to be able to listen to anything from Broadway hits to classic piano tunes to the top forty. Requests are welcome and according to Peter, "There's no song they won't try...though they might be crap at it."While customers sing along, it is the waitstaff that steal the show, with many of them moving on to roles on and off-Broadway. Peter pointed out the signed posters from New York professional productions that decorate the back wall. They represent the shows that feature ex-Brandy's employees. Some even return to Brandy's after a run on Broadway, including Lauren Mufson, who played Donna in Mamma Mia.Peter explained that Brandy's is a great place for people who do not want to visit a "touristy" location. Though the after-9:30pm crowd is different every night and comes from all over the city and the world, Peter's early evening crowd is familiar to him, full of locals and regulars. Despite the amazing musicians and voices that pass through, Brandy's is still a neighborhood joint, complete with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Ed and his wife Heidi know that being small has its advantages and disadvantages. Their reputation has been growing, which is wonderful, but on many evenings this can also mean up to an hour wait for people hoping to get into the tiny restaurant. Based on its popularity, there is no doubt that the cozy eatery has filled a void uptown. Unlike the East Village, for instance, where every nook and cranny is filled with enticing bars and restaurants, Heidi’s House is the only one of its kind in the immediate area. Ed emphasized that he would not want it any other way - he loves being “part of the fabric of the neighborhood” and interacting with the steady, loyal crowd.Ed and Heidi are both former teachers. The full name of the restaurant is “Heidi’s House by the Side of the Road,” a reference to a poem of the same name by Sam Walter Foss. While Heidi is presently studying for a masters degree, Ed has been taking on more of the responsibilities in running the restaurant, though Heidi is still the master of the wine list, which has a wide, interesting selection and rotates with the seasons. Ed is the beer man and has steered away from draught, preferring craft and bottled beers. He is also in charge of the space. He put his skills as a former carpenter to use in building the restaurant, finding salvaged wood from the building itself, some of which is over 100 years old.Ed brought out a couple signature dishes for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph. Cipriano and his sous-chef Heleo Aviles whipped up a plate of bruschetta as well as the seared sirloin steak special, served with fingerling potatoes, red pepper puree, and fresh horseradish sauce. Though it was early, the small space was already bustling, and bartender Rosendo Hernandez had his work cut out for him.When Ed and Heidi first began planning their restaurant, they wanted to create a place where they, themselves, would like to go. They designed an intimate, TV-free zone with great jazz and good food where customers could meet and enjoy a conversation while dining on an eclectic mix of comfort food. For the latter, they found Cipriano Pita, who has been with Heidi and Ed since they first opened Heidi’s House in 2010. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, he is a “natural born cook,” smart and intuitive. Because of the limited space in Cipriano's "workshop," Ed said that the produce, meat, and fish are delivered daily. "We have nowhere to store it, so it has to be fresh." Everything is hands-on, without any corporate elements.The atmosphere is similarly guided by what Ed and Heidi want to see in their space. They brought decorations from home, including framed post cards, quirky sculptures, and a Nepalese window frame. There are board games at the front of the restaurant including checkers, chess, Scrabble, dominoes, and Trivial Pursuit. I was struck by a poem on the wall behind the bar written by a child who came to dine with her family, detailing her experience at Heidi’s. “Everyone wants to be around things that they like,” Ed pointed out. It was refreshing to experience a place where every detail is decided by what the owners like, not what they assume the customers prefers - in the end, it appears that they are one in the same.