When I heard the story, firsthand, behind Candle 79 and its sister eateries, the Healthy Candle and Candle Cafe, I was surprised that it had not been turned into a movie - yet. In 1984, Bart Potenza purchased Sunny's, a well-known health food store whose previous owner had some interesting traditions. He used to light candles each night to bless and cleanse the shop. When Bart heard this, he changed the name to "The Healthy Candle." A customer named Joy Pierson began frequenting the store in 1987, quickly befriending Bart. He hired her as an in-house nutritionist and then asked her to become his partner. The Healthy Candle continued to grow and the two looked to expand. In 1993, in a moment of serendipity, they won $53,000 in the take-five lottery. The two immediately decided that this was their ticket to open the Candle Cafe on Third Avenue and 75th Street. Though the Healthy Candle closed in 1994, Candle Cafe continued to thrive, expanding in 2003 with Candle 79, an entirely vegan restaurant.
As soon as the Manhattan Sideways team and I sat down, the bartender placed a house made ginger ale and a mango pomegranate fresca with chia seeds in front of us. As befits a restaurant that is dedicated to improving customers' health, the mocktail list is as varied and complex as the cocktail list. This does not mean, however, that the alcohol list is not impressive: Candle 79 is one of the few restaurants in New York to feature an "eco bar," meaning it only stocks completely organic and sustainable liquors. Benay Vynerib, the general manager and catering director, said that the eco bar is also "as local as we can be." She pointed out the Tree Hugger cocktail, made with Veev, an alternative to vodka. For every Tree Hugger cocktail ordered, a meter of rain forest is saved. Two drinks that we watched being made were Spiced Pumpkinhead with Crop Pumpkin vodka, apple, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, as well as a Spiked Cherry Bomb, a mixture of Purity vodka, ginger, cayenne, and cherry.
I have been a fan of the Candle restaurants for many years, but was eager to have Olivia and Tom, two avid carnivores, sample some of the outstanding dishes. Benay ordered us a plate of pomegranate barbecue seitan skewers to try alongside a sweet potato salad. It was followed by a wild mushroom crepe with a zesty sauce drizzled on top. For dessert, we all tried the Mexican chocolate brownie topped with caramelized bananas, soy coconut ice cream and candied pecans. Benay informed us that not everyone who visits Candle 79 is a vegan or vegetarian. Quite the contrary – eighty percent of visitors are omnivores. Benay was proud to tell us that she has been a vegan since the mid-nineties and was thrilled to join Joy and Bart at Candle Cafe in 2002. It was interesting to learn that many of the employees begin as meat-eaters but eventually shift their preferences to vegetarian food.
It was at this point that we met the chef, Angel, who has been working with Joy and Bart since the late nineties. "My passion is cooking new dishes," Angel told me. Originally from Mexico, he began as a runner in the cafe, but always wanted to be in the kitchen. Bart and Joy recognized his potential and made him a chef. "I like what I'm doing," he said with a smile. Continuing to walk through the rest of the restaurant, Benay pointed out the buddhas and touches of feng shui that Bart has added on both floors, saying "There's pride and care in everything he does."
The inside of Nice Matin is like a bright carnival ground with three central pillars decorated with lights, wide spaces between tables, and colorful art on the walls. Above the doorway, there is an arrangement of baskets and fruit with handwritten signs and prices in euros, emulating European markets. At any hour of the day or evening, the restaurant is filled with people both from the surrounding neighborhood as well as from the Lucerne, the connecting hotel. The chef and owner of Nice Matin is Andy D'Amico, who has since gone on to develop other restaurants around the city, including 5 Napkin Burger. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Andy worked at Parker House in Boston and at the Sign of the Dove on the Upper East Side, where he was promoted to head chef. In 2003, he partnered with Simon Oren to open Nice Matin, a venture that earned him the title of "Best Chef 2003" from New York Magazine. I met with Danny, the General Manager, who shared their elaborate cocktail list that had classics with a twist. He brought out a San Tropez, Nice Matin's take on the mojito. It had summery passion fruit foam that complemented the mint and dark rum. The restaurant has seasonal cocktails, such as hot toddies in the winter and Campari cocktails in the spring. My favorite time to dine at Nice Matin, however, is on a warm weekend morning when their elaborate brunch menu is offered, and I can sit outside.
Sojourn calls itself the Upper East Side’s “sexiest restaurant, ” and it is hard to argue: the color scheme, in coppers browns and reds, gives the restaurant a warm, intimate feeling. The name, which means “a temporary stay, ” hints at the fact that visitors can expect a full dining experience. Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was excited to return to Sojourn. She and her family had discovered the restaurant, tucked behind a residential-looking doorway, right before Thanksgiving and had visited two more times by the New Year. Along with the friendly staff, warm ambience, and delectable, seasonal food, what makes Sojourn stand out is its approach to courses: all menu items can be ordered as sharable tapas, with just the right number for the table. For example, when Olivia went with a group of seven family members and ordered the chorizo croquettes, the waiter said he would bring out two orders at three to a plate... plus one extra. Using this innovative way of ordering, each party can essentially create their own tasting menu. As for beverages, the cocktail menu is sophisticated and diverse. The restaurant not only has a large selection of wine, but also keeps some of their grapes in barrels rather than bottles, a more environmentally friendly method of storing and serving it. Among the many menu items that Olivia’s family tasted were the zesty arugula salad, crispy fish tacos, and Kobe beef sliders. Despite being thoroughly full, they made sure to have enough room for the warm, fluffy churros served with Mexican chocolate dipping sauce. We spoke to Johnny Musovic, who owns Sojourn with his father, Sami. They originally opened a Mexican restaurant called Santa Fe in the same location, but discovered that the neighborhood did not have a strong need for casual Mexican food. Instead, the father and son duo reopened with a higher-end concept which has been wholly embraced. Johnny proudly told me that his father is no newcomer to the restaurant world, having been the Head Maitre D’ at Sparks Steakhouse and Mr. Chow’s. He also has two other restaurants nearby. As for Johnny himself, he told me “In this industry, you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, ” referencing his time spent as everything from dishwasher to delivery boy to co-owner. He is clearly very proud of Sojourn for a variety of reasons, beginning with the food. “Most chefs are into fresh, local ingredients, but these chefs really are. ” He is also happy to have cultivated a chic, relaxing space, which includes live music on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Though he proclaims that the Upper East Side is his favorite part of the city, Johnny’s dream is to open up a Sojourn in Midtown one day. Until then, his goal is to integrate his bar crowd and his dining crowd. One night, he held a two hour open bar as his way of “giving back” to the neighborhood. Along with drinks, he offered his customers a series of hors d’oeuvres. He was surprised by how many of his bar regulars approached him and said, “I didn’t realize you had such great food! ”
Shaaray Tefila has a very special place in my heart. For well over twenty years, beginning in the early 1970's, this was a home away from home for my grandparents. Reaching 79th Street and having the opportunity to write about this synagogue has brought tears to my eyes again and again. Rabbi Tattelbaum played an important role not only in my grandparent's lives, but in mine as well, when I was a young, impressionable teenager. It was Chip Schrager, the Communications Coordinator for the temple in 2015, who kindly guided the Manhattan Sideways team through the space, beginning with the main sanctuary. The room is expansive, seating 400 people downstairs and 200 in the balcony, and Chip was proud to say that it was filled to the rafters during the recent Hanukkah services. Something that I did not know was that the building used to be a movie theater until the temple took over in 1958. The old projector room is now used as an office for the parenting programs. Founded in 1845 as a strict Orthodox temple, Shaaray Tefila has shifted locations throughout the city, becoming Reform along the way. Stepping into the chapel, where smaller services are held, I saw bold stained glass ornaments on one side of the room with the names and symbols of characters from Jewish lore. In the meeting room nearby, well-polished Judaic pieces, along with artifacts dating back to the temple's founding were displayed. In addition, we took note of photographs of the old temple on West 82nd Street, the Seal of the Congregation, and even the trowel that the rabbi used to lay the cornerstone of the Temple. Leaving the room, Chip gestured to photographs of six men who were senior rabbis at Temple Shaaray Tefila. The temple has a strong children's program, including a nursery school, kindergarten, and religious school that extends through high school. We appreciated getting to observe the room used for art class. A giant paint pallet decorated the wall and colorful supplies lined the room. We then ventured up to the roof where the playground is located, surrounded by a fence that still allowed for a beautiful view of the winter sunset. It was here that Chip continued to speak of the various programs offered to every age group, including senior citizens. This is what my grandparents took advantage of so many years ago, and it warmed my heart to know that people are still participating in the various classes that Shaaray Tefila has to offer. As Chip beautifully stated, "Whatever your Jewish journey is, we want to be a part of it. "