Neighborhood haunts lose out in the restaurant renovation battle
By Jill Colvin
Late last month, Morningside Heights’ shiniest new restaurant, Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle, opened its double glass doors to the public. Where once stood Casbah Rouge, a locally-owned and run Moroccan restaurant and hookah bar with cushy chairs, live Middle Eastern music and the occasional belly dancer, patrons now line up at a steel counter for the same aluminum foil-wrapped burritos that are served at the chain’s 500 other locations. While Morningside Heights has never been strongly adverse to big brands—after all, the strip of Broadway that runs through its midst boasts two Starbucks in twice as many blocks—the neighborhood’s restaurant scene, once dominated by independent, locally-owned establishments, has changed dramatically over the past year.
Just two weeks before Chipotle’s opening, Nacho’s Kitchen, one of the most popular restaurants on the strip, shut without a whimper. Within days, a neighborhood mainstay had been demolished; in its place Community Food and Juice will soon stand, an organic restaurant and juice bar run by the same couple that now owns the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street Baking Co. In late 2006, just one block north, the historic West End—the famed watering hole of beat generation poets and a Columbia hangout since 1911—was purchased by the Havana Central chain. It has since been transformed into a Cuban restaurant and repackaged as the bright orange and white-faced, mojito-serving “Havana Central at the West End.” While new management promised to maintain the cheap pitchers and beer pong of yesteryear, the transformation alienated many students and long-time residents for whom the West End was a legend.
“It’s changing the neighborhood. It’s changing the atmosphere,” observed Sam, a longtime Morningside Heights resident and panhandler who has spent years of his life criss-crossing local streets and watching customers come and go. He said he is worried that Havana Central and other new establishments will drive people away and make them lose interest in the neighborhood. “Open a juice bar? What good is that going to do anybody?” he asked.
And the Upper West Side enclave is not alone. The term gentrification used to elicit images of working class sections of Harlem and Williamsburg being overrun by yesterday’s yuppies and today’s hipsters. But today, it seems that it is the few remaining pockets of affordable rents and Mom-and-Pop shops in already well-developed districts that are the latest stops on the gentrification express. From Yorkville on the Upper East Side to Astor Place in the East Village, the bar and restaurant landscape is becoming shinier and more corporate, and, as in the Heights, robbing residents of their cozy long-time local dens.
“I liked Nacho’s because it was an unpretentious place where I could get a couple of pints and an order of fries or chips without breaking the bank. The regulars at the bar were the blue collars who make Columbia and Bank Street College work,” explained Abel Vargas, an employee of the Columbia History Department, who frequented the establishment often. “The fact that it’s being turned into some nuts-and-twigs-raw-food-veggie-juice place is just a slap in the face... It’s a sin to have beer and not be able to buy tacos, or at least some fries.”
Kristof and Mariette, frequent tourists from Brussels, Belgium, said that they have watched the city’s neighborhoods change substantially over the years. “I think New York lost a lot of personality recently,” Kristof observed. He said he fears the city will soon “turn into an open-aired shopping mall” and lose its distinctive charm. Jill Morris, a writer and comedian from the East Village, agreed, adding that the influx of chain restaurants damages the character of a neighborhood, zapping its entrepreneurial spirit. “I think it feels much more like a suburban area. There’s a lack of energy, of creativity,” she said.
But former Nacho’s Kitchen owner Alan Phillips, for one, is happy to see the West End, along with Nacho’s sticky floors and frat-house atmosphere, wiped clean. “It wasn’t something I was proud of,” Phillips said of his restaurant. “I never really liked the segment it represented…One of the problems with the Morningside Heights scene is that there’s too much underage drinking, and I don’t want to be a part of that scene.” Phillips said he is thrilled that Columbia University, which owns much of the commercial space in the neighborhood, including the buildings where his restaurant and the West End are housed, has finally allowed him to gut the space and try a new concept. He will soon be opening one of the first completely green restaurants in the city, with all-recycled products and all-organic ingredients.
Jeremy Merrin, who owns Havana Central at the West End, insisted that it and other “multi-operator establishments” are fundamentally different from faceless brands and that the University would never allow larger chains like McDonald’s or Friday’s into the area. “Columbia’s very sensitive not to have chains come in. They’re looking for restaurant operators…They really want people to come in who know what they’re doing, people with a history, track record… They’ve got something to show.”
But Merrin said that he noticed that the neighborhood was on the cusp of change when he purchased his establishment last year. “The neighborhood was really gentrifying, so I kind of knew all this and that kind of played a part in my decision [to buy],” he said. At the time, he said, he believed the neighborhood was in need of quality restaurants, and he wanted to be part of that change. “We’re trading up,” he said. Phillips credits Carol Shuchman, Director of Commercial Leasing and Development at Columbia, for the transformations of both his restaurant and the West End. “She really understands the community and is really an advocate for—not gentrification—but really has representation of the diversified food group,” he said.
Yet most residents and visitors to the neighborhood that I spoke with disagreed with Phillips’ and Merrin’s assessments. Almost all expressed disappointment about losing the West End and Nacho’s, and most seemed confused about how the area would benefit from a juice bar. Several also lamented the closing of so many local bars—a total of five in the last year including the West End and the nearby Mona and Roadhouse bars on Amsterdam Avenue.
Now, Vargas said, he often bypasses the immediate Columbia neighborhood after work and heads uptown to Soundz Lounge, which has no kitchen. He has given up on the neighborhood’s sit-down restaurants and instead orders in when he wants something to eat. “I mean, fuck Le Monde,” he protested, referring to the French restaurant that stands next door to the future Community Food and Juice. “If I want to wait around and be treated like shit, I can go to the East Bronx DMV,” he said. It seems Sam’s predictions are, at least in this case, proving correct.