While everyone was freaking out over the Stanley Cup, I attended a super Rasta-vibe dinner and drinks situation at the famous Miss Lily’s. The Marley offspring had taken over the restaurant to showcase the Marley Apparel collection launch — featuring a soccer capsule — and constructed it into a Jamaican paradise, with food coming out of the kitchen by the second, and everyone’s cup overflowing with sangria. Anything Bob Marley you could think of covered the space from top to bottom, and his best songs pleasantly played in repeat. They were even handing out delicious Bob Marley-named juices made of pineapple and ginger. The Marley-sphere paired really well with the location and the food hit just the right spots to place you in a mini paradise that would make anyone forget about the World Cup, at least until you had to walk outside for a cigarette and hear the whole block screaming.
Dennis Cornick, the maître d’ at Miss Lily’s, takes care of the many regulars and restaurant-hoppers who flock to the Caribbean spot in New York for its jerk pork burgers and party atmosphere. The secret to keeping everybody happy, Cornick explains, is sincerity. "Good feelings are generally reciprocated," he says. We caught up with Cornick to learn a few tricks of the trade.
Where are you from?
I grew up in the city. I’m from the Bronx. I’m a true New Yorker. I’ve lived in every borough of New York City.
Even Staten Island?
Okay, every borough but Staten Island.
Poor Staten Island. It’s the forgotten borough. How did you get into the hospitality business?
I began in fashion. I worked at Bloomingdale’s. I was a manager there. But it was a little constricting. I wanted something more free, so I started in the restaurant industry about seven years ago. It’s hands-on and personal, and I fell in love with providing outstanding service.
You are the maître d’ at Miss Lily’s? What’s that like?
I’m the first point of contact when a customer comes through the door. I welcome them, and decide where to seat them, and the placement of the tables. My job is to remember the guest and make them feel welcome.
You seat 200-plus people a night, but you’re able to recognize regulars?
Absolutely, remembering regular guests–and people who we want to become regular guests–is second nature to me at this point.
How do you make people feel welcome and special at Miss Lily’s?
I tell my hosts and hostesses, whatever you have to say to guests, have a genuine conversation with them. Have a genuine interaction that shows you’re enthusiastic about speaking with them. And not in a corny way, have a sincere conversation. Guests feed off that. Good feelings are generally reciprocated.
What’s the vibe at Miss Lily’s?
It’s an artist vibe, with all kinds of creative people. Celebrities and entertainers, neighborhood folks. The food is like five-star cuisine, but the atmosphere is very laid back. You’re going to dance, you’re going to talk to a stranger at a bar and talk to the DJ. It’s like you’re at your friend’s house having a good time.
Miss Lily’s gets very busy at times. What do you do to keep people calm and happy if they have to wait for a table?
You check on your guests if they’re waiting at the bar, make conversation and see how they’re doing. I might send a few drinks over if they’ve been waiting a while.
Do you enjoy your job?
I love my job and the people I work with. They’re all fantastic individuals, and they bring the energy every day.
I assume you’ve tried most of the food. Are there any dishes in particular you like?
The jerk pork burger and fried snapper are to die for. I always recommend them.
Any notable cocktails?
You’ve got to try the Tempted to Touch, which is made with plum wine, sake, and fresh mint. It’s a fun, party drink, and very popular with the ladies.
Sounds like a busy, high-energy job. What do you do to relax?
I’m a spiritual person, so I like to meditate. I go to a temple in Harlem sometimes and meditate and talk about spirituality. It keeps me balanced.
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Though the old saying, “Oysters should only be eaten in months that end in an ‘r’” was debunked by refrigeration and modern mariculture, the truth remains: oysters are the ideal fall food. “Oysters thrive in cold water,” says Adam Evans, the chef of Atlanta’s white–hot seafood restaurant The Optimist and the aptly named next–door oyster bar, The Oyster Bar at The Optimist. “So when the water starts to change, they get this rush of cold water, plump up, and get really nice.”
The Oyster Bar at The Optimist is just the latest of a slew of oyster bars opening across the country. In the trendy L.A. neighborhood of Silverlake, L&E Oyster Bar has been attracting crowds since it opened in January. They serve a menu of hot and cold seafood items, including a fantastic oyster po’boy and a grilled oyster platter alongside their always–changing raw oyster list, sourced from all over the country and Canada. “My partner and I love oysters,” explains co-owner Tyler Bell, “but we couldn’t find a great oyster bar like the kinds you find in New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Europe, so we opened our own.” The hankering for bivalves has been so strong, Bell recently doubled capacity by taking over the floor upstairs.
On the Eastern Seaboard, Serge Becker, owner of hipster havens La Esquina and Miss Lily’s, opened his Swiss spot Cafe Select in 2008, but it was just this summer that he converted the restaurant’s secluded back room (accessed through the kitchen) into Cervantes’ Oyster Shack and Bar. They serve schnitzel, Zurich veal, and Swiss bratwurst in the main dining room, but offer lobster salad, octopus salad, steamed mussels, ceviche, and raw oysters in the back. When deep winter hits, they’ll turn it into a fondue bar, but for now, it’s veal up front, oysters in the back.
In May, Evans and Atlanta chef–of–the–moment Ford Fry debuted The Optimist to crowds and rave reviews. The space features a large horseshoe bar, beachy decor, and a casual patio with a putt–putt course attached. A coastal region’s worth of oysters, lobster rolls, chowder, salads, and peel ’n’ eat shrimp fill the menu, and the cocktails, like the pink gin martini called The Truth As We Know It, are designed to pair well with oysters.
Though Baltimore is a seafood-centric town, first–time restaurateur Candace Beattie noticed there was a hole in the marketplace where raw bars were concerned. So after moving back home after a long stint in raw bar-heavy Boston, Beattie opened Thames Street Oyster House in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point. She serves a mix of New England and Maryland standards.
But it isn’t just that oysters are conquering new territory. Even in the oyster heartland, new oyster shacks flourish. The talk of Boothbay Harbor, Maine this year is The World is Mine Oyster: a new restaurant with a rustic, camp-themed interior, a patio overlooking the bay, and a lengthy menu of Maine-raised oysters, served raw, steamed, baked, in shooters, and topped with everything from sour cream and caviar to serrano ham or blue cheese and bacon. In nearby Portland, three–month-old Eventide Oyster Co. offers 18 varieties of oysters from Maine and “from away” to its coterie of salty regulars.
I was recently asked to give Hotel Chantelle a little kiss. You know, tweak the lighting, paint some walls, and pick out some fabrics for the soon-to-open rooftop bar. It’s been a nice little gig, as everyone involved is mad cool. After a couple of weeks, I decided to go there on a weekend night to see what’s going on. Frankly, I had heard mixed reviews: sometimes stellar, and sometimes less than great. I saw for myself. What I observed was actually fabulous.
It’s not hipster, but there are plenty of hipsters. It isn’t glam, but there was some of that rolling through. It wasn’t gay, but there were plenty of queens enjoying themselves. It was a mixed bag of mixed nuts of all races. In short, this little—but actually big— 3 floor joint “on the wrong side of Delancey street” was doing what so many proclaimed couldn’t be done: recreating the joints of yore, attracting and servicing people who love people. People who love people are, of course, the luckiest people in the world. It seems to be happening naturally, but things like this are rarely uncontrived. Tim Spuches, a club veteran, lurks in the shadows. Chantelle had great music on the 2 floors currently open and serious drinks. Familiar face Alex Sumner manned the door. The roof— which is fabulous—is being developed for brunch and early evening cocktails. It seems to be that unpretentious place where people who don’t want to hang out with clones of themselves are gathering.
Nightlife is vibrant, and the spring brings new hope to new endeavors. Most places somehow survived a winter like no one remembers (not even I), and an economy that has made unemployment a badge of honor. The rich clubs are printing money with gross receipts hitting numbers not conceivable in years past. The science of extracting loot from what is now called “table service” as opposed to “bottle service” has small venues ringing cash in on one night what the great spots of yore did in a week. Manhattan, counted KO for hipsters so many times, is resilient as new life brings it all back. My Home Sweet Home night, and my Chantelle night proves not everyone plays in Brooklyn, as that L train goes both ways. Maybe everything is moving a little south in Manhattan, or even a little west sometimes. Nightlife is probing the creases, occupying any and every nook and cranny. Downtown, as they used to call it, finds itself comfortable in a variety of locations. Williamsburg and Bushwick and poverty all has taught a generation that getting around via subway is way OK. Trains at 3AM-ish are filled with the dressed and ready as opposed to the traditional working class crowd.
A business lunch at Miss Lily’s had me glad-handing someone at most tables as the scene continues to flourish around the clock. Just a great place, as Sege Becker and family always get it right. As a designer I am always awed by his work. Miss Lily is perfect.
Shocking word comes that familiar man-about-town, Raul Barrera, who has has turned himself in after allegedly almost decapitating his gal Sarah Coit. A familiar face, not to mention a Facebook friend, Raul was supposedly enraged over a split in the relationship. I never suspected that he would be capable of such an act, and I generally look for the worst in everyone. Reports say he owned up to this horror and now faces an end to life as we know it.
My dear friend Kayci Ryan Rothweiler will perform this Wednesday at my favorite haunt for the last decade, Lit. Show starts at 8:30. Kayci is rock and roll as I know it. I caught her once before and I’m going once again.