As the economy recovers and money becomes available, places that were long ago shuttered or recently deceased prepare for rebirth. Restaurants lay around like old chairs and sofas covered with white sheets like in an old horror flick. The biggest prize in my eyes is Plumm, that ripe spot on 14th Street with a ton of tradition. Nell Campbell had her infamous joint Nell’s there back in the day. It became famous for charging everybody — and I mean everybody — door admission. Cher refused, got turned away, and the little gimmick turned the place into a hit overnight. In later years, I would go and listen to jazz bands and eat good food before the mayhem of the dance halls. Noel Ashman took the joint over and called it NA. Some said it meant “Nell’s Again,” but most thought it was a tribute to his own dapper self. Noel eventually closed NA and transformed it into Plumm, with a gaggle of celebrity investors including Chris Noth, Damon Dash, Samantha Ronson, etc. Plumm proved to be a bitter fruit, never really catching on with a crowd that spent enough money to pay the rent.
Now the space is suddenly available, and investment entities are playing a game of musical chairs trying to snare it. The rub — or is it rubb? — is the rent. Noel was in at around $28,000, and the landlord was looking for $43,000. I hear now it’s at $38,000. That’s a high number in these times, and most of the smart guys have left it on the table. Still, there are a few groups looking. These operators, who I will name in the next few weeks, feel that they still have the bottle chops to make loot. The location on 14th Street just east of 8th Avenue has gotten a lot better, as the shift from West Chelsea and its 27th Street strip to the Meatpacking and the surrounding area has really stepped up. Still, Plumm or whatever it becomes is a real long block away from that action, making it too far to walk (especially in heels), but also uncomfortably close for a taxi ride. With a full kitchen, high ceilings, and cabaret downstairs, this place will be something soon. With its proximity to subways, a downtown location, and two floors, it’s ideal for servicing corporate parties if indeed the upturn brings them back. Noel told me that he still has the liquor license, and that should mean someone will need to deal with him, as a transfer from one group to another is easier than a new one.
The Tasting Room on Elizabeth Street folded rather quickly on the bones of quite a few other joints at the start of the recession. It’s easy to blame the economy, but eateries all around it have thrived throughout (although Rialto also failed and is now redecorated and renamed Elizabeth across the street). Still, it’s a half-hour wait at Habana and Gitane, and Le Colonial is always crowded. The blame for failure at Rialto and Tasting Room can be firmly placed on both places’ inability to embrace and cater to the hood. Now Jo’s opens, and the first thing out of management’s mouths is how they are going to be a neighborhood place.
I spoke with Jo’s owner Jim Chu. “I think the best way to describe what we’re doing here is to make something that is casual but professional, stylish, and laid back. Along with the rise of culinary culture in the U.S., there has been a really ugly sense that there is a limited number of people that get to hold the keys to what makes it and what doesn’t, or that you need to have three forks to make it a real meal, or that drinks need to be $14 to be good. Bullshit. It doesn’t matter how exclusive your plate of foodie-branded supper is, if it’s $49 and you can’t afford to eat it. We don’t subscribe to that, and we made a place we really love.”
Jim is joined by actor Johnny Santiago from Torch and Kevin Felker, who has had various roles from bartender to manager at such places as Pastis, Schiller’s, W Union Square, Tribeca and Soho Grand hotels, and Barmarche. He even spent time at Aureole making pastry because he “didn’t want to spend the money on cooking school.” With an eye on their bottom line and a recognition of the still-shallow pockets of their patrons, I think Jo’s is a model for success. The scene is rising from the carnage of the nuclear winter. My design firm is getting tons of inquiries from operators in similar situations, the banks are eking out money and groups ready and able but who have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for credit to become un-crunched, and everybody’s looking to fix up defunct spaces and bring new life and jobs back to the hoods.