Pre-Babbo, Remembering The Coach House Restaurant on Waverly, and How Babbo Came to Be

Vanity Fair has a preview in their May issue of Restaurant Man, a memoir by restauranteur (and Master Chef judge) Joe Bastianich who “recounts his evolution from being the son of a Queens-based working-class restaurant owner to prevailing over New York City’s most mouth-watering gourmet Italian restaurants.” This includes popular Babbo near Washington Square and Eataly, among others. Reading the VF excerpt was interesting for its story of how Babbo came to be, the author’s partnership with Mario Batali, and an interesting anecdote about real estate in New York City. Mr. Bastianich writes of the vacant (at the time) Coach House restaurant which lead me to wonder about this “landmark” institution that preceded Babbo and closed in 1993.

Upon its official closing, in “Neighborhood Report: Greenwich Village — An Appreciation; After 44 Years and 4 Proud Stars, Dinner Is Over at the Coach House,” the New York Times wrote:

The restaurant’s setting was as warm and restorative as a wood stove in January: brick and wood-paneled walls, red leather banquettes, brass chandeliers, handsome 19th-century oil paintings, and gentle lighting. Celebrities and food mavens from around the country made a point of visiting the Coach House over the years. Perhaps the most prominent patron was James Beard, the celebrated food writer and gourmand who made a tradition of dining there every Christmas Eve.

From the Restaurant-ing blog:

At one point, when [Beard] had become more prosperous, he ate almost nightly for a solid month at one of his regular haunts, the Coach House near his home in Greenwich Village, where his favorite dishes included corn sticks, black bean soup, and mutton chops.

The Coach House was open for 44 years in its Waverly Place location and closed in 1993. (Thankfully, and perhaps unusually, at least it would be for today, it was not because of landlord issues — in this case, that’s due to the fact that the owner of the restaurant also owned the building.)

Also from the New York Times:

Housed in a 19th-century coach house just off Washington Square, on what was once the estate of the Wanamaker family, the restaurant was created in 1949 by Leon Lianides, a meticulous and genteel man who had a hand in every aspect of the business, from menu planning to wine selection and decor. The 76-year-old Mr. Lianides, who has been in failing health in recent years, never reopened the restaurant after closing for vacation last summer.

The space was vacant for close to five years until Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich took over the space in 1998.

The story of how that came to be from the forthcoming book via Vanity Fair:

Mario [Batali] was totally irreverent in his style, kind of a hippie like me, but a lot farther out than I was willing to go. He was from Seattle but had gone to school at Rutgers in New Jersey. He used to deal weed in college, wearing a robe and genie shoes, and he worked at a place called Stuff Yer Face Pizza. He was a skinny version of what he is now. He wasn’t wearing the clogs yet, but always the shorts. That was his signature—cargo shorts and sneakers. By then I had eased into some kind of post-bachelor, urban-contemporary bon vivant. Mostly I looked as if I owned a successful restaurant. Mario looked like he was on his way to a Phish concert. We made a good pair.

One night we were coming from dinner somewhere and were walking down Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, by Washington Square Park, and we saw the old Coach House restaurant all boarded up with a big “for rent” sign.

We were just having fun, not really planning on opening a restaurant, but somehow we got the inspiration to start what we thought would be the perfect restaurant, where we would have no economic ambitions and just kind of fulfill the pure aspiration of creating the ideal environment for eating and drinking and expressing our passion for Italy and all things Italian. You can bet that Restaurant Man has a few in him when he starts thinking like this. And that was the birth of Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca.

We didn’t need to make money, we were flush—both of our restaurants, Becco and Po, were doing better than we could have dreamed—and so suddenly there was a purity of spirit and ideas, a freedom, almost an irreverence toward what was standard or expected. Sometimes the greatest commerce comes from a lack of commerce, we declared, contrary to every truism that Restaurant Man has ever preached or lived by. We didn’t exactly have our feet planted too firmly when we got to blue-skying this fantasy—we were just thinking about this great new idea for an Italian restaurant, wine and food in the perfect setting, and the Coach House was calling our names. …

We called the number on the “for rent” sign and met with this guy who was like the sultan of Albanian-Muslim restaurant slumlords in New York—he wore tracksuits and had a fucking scimitar hanging on his wall, and this is where we learned another important lesson in the New York restaurant business: every restaurant opens based on a real-estate deal. Eventually we’d open places just because we could get the location, before we even had a concept. When it comes to you, you don’t say no. Like George Costanza and parking spaces. You see it, you take it, because it’s not apt to happen again. Not only did we get the lease, but we were able to sneak in this option-to-buy-the-building clause, because the landlord thought we were just a couple of mooks, doomed to fail, who were never going to have the money to close the deal, so he put it in there at a fixed price. A few years later, we bought it.

It’s a good read what I read thus far and a good New York story. It’s a lit-tle strange that he refers to himself as “the Restaurant Man.” ? But anyway, in 1998, when Babbo first opened, Mr. Bastianich told the New York Times, “We plan a restaurant that will be elegant but not expensive.'”

On Yelp, Babbo has the highest price rating $$$$ – $61 and up.

Anyone who experienced the Coach House out there? Would love to hear your recollections.

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A bonus — Recipe: Coach House Chocolate Cake from Bon Appetit

Last Call, Bohemia?

Greenwich Village, 1960

Will New York City recognize the importance of “Bohemia” in societies, including its own?

In a July ’08 Vanity Fair article titled “Last Call, Bohemia”, Christopher Hitchens observes how London, Paris and San Francisco — renowned for neighborhoods which foster climates of creativity and culture, havens for “the artists, exiles and misfits” — have “learned” and adopted a hands off policy towards building un-affordable, big box monstrosities in these areas.

What will it take for real-estate-obsessed New York City to do the same?

Hitchens’ focuses on these havens as places for people who “regenerate the culture.”  He targets the St. Vincents/Rudin Management “plan” to remake a large swath of the West Village for “luxury housing” and a new medical building as exactly the type development that should be stopped. He explores what it means not just the Village, but for the City at large.

Hitchens writes:

It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals.

This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.

In her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued for the need for “the old” amidst “the new.”  She wrote:

To be sure, city areas with flourishing diversity sprout strange and unpredictable uses and scenes. But this is not a drawback of diversity. This is the point, or part of it. That this should happen is in keeping with one of the missions of cities.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there is the homogenization factor going on in our city… certainly our bland Mayor doesn’t get that “mission” that Jacobs refers to.  And our NY City Council, led by Speaker Christine Quinn, just falls in line with her friend and benefactor, thereby eliminating any protection or preservation of the unique in our city.

The City’s redesign plans for Washington Square Park further illustrate no understanding or acknowledgment (perhaps, indeed purposefully) of the “strange” (Jacobs’ term for something worth preserving) or the unique, bohemia or diversity.  The design, by landscape designer George Vellonakis, seems to purposefully gloss over – almost sneers at – what made the Park unique.

Instead of Mayor Mike’s emphasis on protecting Wall Street, real estate interests and tourism, wouldn’t we like to live in a place where the historical buildings throughout the West and East Village that NYU has subsumed would be off limits to being altered … forever

Hitchens concludes:

Those who don’t live in such threatened districts nonetheless have a stake in this quarrel and some skin in this game, because on the day when everywhere looks like everywhere else we shall all be very much impoverished, and not only that but-more impoverishingly still-we will be unable to express or even understand or depict what we have lost.

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*This is a revised and edited version of a post first published on June 18th, 2008.*

Photo: Ed Yourdon

Last Call, Bohemia. Or, As Jane Jacobs wrote, the benefits of the “strange”

Greenwich Village, 1960Will New York City recognize the importance of “Bohemia” in all societies, including its own?

In “Last Call, Bohemia” in this month’s (July) Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens observes how London, Paris and San Francisco – also renowned for neighborhoods which foster climates of creativity and culture, havens for “the artists, exiles and misfits” – have “learned” and adopted a hands off policy towards building un-affordable, big box monstrosities in these areas. What will it take for real-estate-obsessed New York City to do the same?

Hitchens’ focuses on these havens as places for people who “regenerate the culture.” Within the article, he targets the St. Vincents/Rudin Management “plan” to remake a large swath of the West Village for “luxury housing” and a new medical building as exactly the type development that should be stopped. He explores what it means not just the Village, but for the City at large.

Hitchens writes:

It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals. This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.

Jane Jacobs in 1961 argued for this same importance: the importance of retaining some of “the old,” buildings which allowed for greater diversity of uses (and lower costs), amidst the “new,” construction which would need high end and less unique businesses to support it.

When your whole city begins to look overrun with the “new,” then what do you do?

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote, “To be sure, city areas with flourishing diversity sprout strange and unpredictable uses and scenes. But this is not a drawback of diversity. This is the point, or part of it. That this should happen is in keeping with one of the missions of cities.”

Yet how do you regulate that? And should you have to?

Certainly, under Mayor Bloomberg, there is the homogenization factor.

The City’s redesign plans for Washington Square Park illustrate no understanding or acknowledgment (and, perhaps, purposefully) of the “strange,” the unique, bohemia or diversity.

Shouldn’t we live in a society that values places like Washington Square Park as is? Instead of protecting Wall Street and tourism, wouldn’t we like to live in a place where the quaint and historical buildings around Washington Square and throughout the West and East Village that NYU has subsumed wouldn’t be touched?

Hitchens continues, “Those who don’t live in such threatened districts nonetheless have a stake in this quarrel and some skin in this game, because on the day when everywhere looks like everywhere else we shall all be very much impoverished, and not only that but-more impoverishingly still-we will be unable to express or even understand or depict what we have lost.”

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Photo: Ed Yourdon