It is a tale of two closings. For most, New Year’s meant renewal, a fresh start, but for at least two popular haunts it meant the end. Word comes that Nolita mainstay the Kitchen Club will not reopen and neither will Aspen (not to be confused with Aspen Social Club). Both closings are due in part to an anti-business atmosphere at the community board level and in NYC and state political circles. Political cronies like Daniel Squadron are pushing for more restrictions on liquor licenses, while businesses are forced to close or are denied licensing. The results are that more people enter the unemployment ranks or are unable to make ends meet with secondary hospitality jobs. Neither spot was a “problem spot.” Complaining neighbors were not an issue. Both places are shuttered and more will likely follow. The jobless rate is unprecedentedly high, yet restaurants and bars are unable to function because of the special interests of community board members and real estate backed politicos.
Marja Samson ruled the Kitchen Club on the corner of Prince and Mott. Many would disagree, pointing out that Chibi, her ever present French bulldog, was actually in charge. Long before Northern Little Italy was renamed Nolita by realtors seeking to purge visions of mobsters for yuppies buying condos, Marja was pushing quirky fare to an intelligent crowd. A meal here cost a bit more than the other local haunts like Cafes Habana and Gitane, and there were a few more sports jackets in the dining room, but that’s how she liked it. She served quality fare and felt her crowd would pay for it. The thing she didn’t serve was alcohol. As she was in the proximity of a church and the church school across the street, a license to serve liquor was not allowed.
Why the church has influence on the lives of individuals or businesses that march to the beat of a different drummer is beyond me. I thought that there was separation between church and state. That separation does indeed exist and it is measurable. Right now, a liquor license will not be issued to a joint if it is within 200 feet of the entrance of a church. It’s called the 200 foot rule. Squadron wants to change that to 200 feet from any part of the church or school. As the normal business hours of schools and churches don’t often overlap with bars, this seems silly and unconstitutionally harmful. It’s a throw back to what were called the blue laws. It used to be that liquor stores couldn’t be open on Sundays as well, but that was changed, as that separation of church and state thingy was put in by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and that crew and still carries some weight.
Kitchen Club didn’t sell liquor and when the rents were raised to a level only a Gap or Starbucks could pay she couldn’t survive. Liquor is where the money is at. Make no mistake about it, without cocktails most places can’t survive. Kitchen Club was a big part of the fabric of the Nolita community. Four doors east, 24, celebrity chef Nicki Cascone’s place, has a full bar. Two more doors east at Jacques people are enjoying cocktails. We’re talking 60 feet. Now a bunch of waitresses, kitchen help and a couple of maitre d’s are looking for work and bread isn’t being delivered. Garbage isn’t being picked up and the folks of Nolita are without Marja and Chibi.
Aspen is a different story, but more of the same. The location, 22nd street between 5th and 6th is less than ideal. There isn’t much around it, little foot traffic and few neighbors. I designed the joint and knew that if it wasn’t striking and romantic, people wouldn’t come. Word comes from reliable sources that a clerical error in the license renewal process forced a hearing at the community board level. The delay cost the restaurant its Christmas season and that was that. More people out of work. Aspen was victim of the mindset of a community board that wants fewer licenses. 21st street between 5th and 6th is a targeted area with constant police harassment, similar to what destroyed, for all intents, the West 27th street club corridor. On a map it’s a short distance, but in reality Aspen is far away from the goings on one block south. Greg Brier is a seasoned operator. He moved the holiday parties to his other locations, but Aspen is done. Go to any community board hearing and see a condition where due process, common decency and logic fall victim to unelected local yokels who do not have any idea what the people in the community desire, nor do they care. Businesses have a right to function within parameters of decency. Politicians prioritize creating jobs while they regulate businesses out of existence and create unemployment. I guess that’s business as usual.