[Note: I’ve found great solace writing during the current crisis. Hope what I’m able to share here helps others feel connected and maybe entertained. For the foreseeable future, where applicable, all links in articles will direct to relief funds, take-away and delivery menus, and other ways to help individual restaurants and their employees. I am also featuring links to various organizations I want to help call attention to as “ads” in the pieces. -AF]
One of the most important restaurants in modern New York history has closed. This is why it mattered.
The end came swiftly, at a time when everything was coming swiftly. We barely had time to notice, or let it register, and for good reason: People were sick. People were dying. People were scared. And still are.
Yet many of us had just enough bandwidth to be sad, for a minute, at the news that Gotham Bar and Grill was closing. It came in an email from the restaurant on Friday, March 13, with the most understated subject line of all time: “Update.” On opening it, we were informed in four brisk sentences, that the permanent closure would be the next day.
There wasn’t time for anybody to write a proper eulogy, or pay our respects. We in the industry and on its periphery, were, and remain, focused squarely on restaurant advocacy, employee relief funds, and other support measures. And rightfully so.
But, nevertheless, as somebody says near the end of Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.” It took me a week to find the time to get this done between pro bono writing, finishing a book proposal I dearly hope someone will still want to buy, and launching a daily podcast for an industry in crisis. But, I thought it was important, so here are some belated thoughts on Gotham Bar and Grill, for anybody who might want them, now or in the future.
In 1984, a quartet of first-time restaurateurs converted a lofty former drug rehab center and antiques auction house on East 12th Street in New York City into a restaurant–Gotham Bar and Grill.
Fashioned after an emerging trend of big-box contemporary destinations such as Café Seiyoken, Joanna, and Capsuto Frères, Gotham Bar and Grill defied the growing chef focus in upscale American restaurants. Co-owner Jerry Kretchmer, formerly the city’s Commissioner of Sanitation (Gael Greene used to refer to him as “Mayor Lindsay’s chief garbologist”) was the alpha of the pack and had zero interest in bringing on a star. Instead, they enlisted cookbook author, restaurant consultant, and former assistant to James Beard (who lived down the street, where the Foundation that bears his name is housed), Barbara Kafka, to develop a menu, with an on-site chef to execute.
Though it pulled down $60,000 in the first month, the restaurant was an unmitigated disaster, earning zero stars from New York Times critic Bryan Miller, at a time when a lousy review from the Grey Lady could put the lights out. Drugs were an open fact of life in 1980s New York, and Gotham was no exception–there was coke in the kitchen, the occasional whiff of marijuana at the bar, and Kretchmer routinely chased dealers out of the subterranean men’s room. There were unsightly black plates that are disdained by all associated with the restaurant to this day and the food, while well-conceived, often missed the mark–a chicken dish quickly attained notoriety for arriving at tables rare, if not raw, at the center.
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The owners decided to retreat to their other professions, and a deal was struck to sell the joint to Ark Restaurants‘ Michael Weinstein, who was becoming known for eateries of a similar size and sensibility.
That might have been the end of it, were it not for Jonathan Waxman (currently of Barbuto). The Berkeley-born chef had recently migrated to Manhattan from Santa Monica, trailing baby vegetables and roasted half chickens in his wake, to unleash his take on “California cuisine” on the East Coast at Jams. His sous chef there was Helen Chardack, Alfred Portale‘s now ex-wife, and a superb talent who gave up the professional kitchen for motherhood. (I only know her food from home meals, like an ethereal brandade that haunts my palate 20 years on.) Waxman rang up Kretchmer, asked him if he “had the stomach” to stay in the business a little while longer, and recommended Portale as somebody who could revivify Gotham Bar and Grill.
Portale and Kretchmer met, then Portale drafted a few sample menus, but amazingly never cooked an audition meal. The menus included dishes that endured for Portale’s full thirty-four year tenure, such as a goat cheese ravioli and a steak paired with a marrow-mustard custard. (I don’t think it included another Gotham stalwart, the pyramidical seafood salad.)
Kretchmer and partners Jeff Bliss and Rick and Robert Rathe no-showed for the closing with Weinstein, and hired Portale–a sudden, impulsive Hail Mary that quickly made a dent in the future of American restaurants and New American Cuisine.
Portale, a former jewelry designer from Buffalo, New York, had grown up in an Italian-American family that prized good food in the traditional vein–pasta always figured into nightly meals, the Portales canned tomatoes every August and stored them in the basement, and so on. In this regard he was part of a rarely remarked-upon subset of Italian-American chefs who didn’t need to travel overseas to discover the glories of good ingredients and time around the table–Larry Forgione (An American Place), Michael Romano (Union Square Cafe), Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia), and many others shared a similar background.
Portale took over the Gotham kitchen at a young age, but he already had a style in mind. He learned great technique in France, but retained the populist orientation of his upbringing. So his food was exciting, but always relatable. There were also dishes and ingredients that seem perfectly at home on an American or even French menu today but were radical at the time: risotto, cous cous, ginger, cilantro, and so on. Part of Portale’s genius was the ability to seamlessly weave these elements into options that always seemed cohesive, never veered into the silly or indulgent, and that anybody could enjoy.
He also, after his mother’s example, offered a nightly pasta–my favorite was the farfalle with parmesan, pea shoots, prosciutto, and herbed garlic butter. It was so beloved that for years after it went out of rotation they kept the ingredients on hand for a high-roller customer who had to have it to go with his 4-figure bottles of wine.
As the late, great Jonathan Gold wrote in an appreciation in Gourmet years later, “There is not a large city in America without a restaurant operating in a Gothamesque mode.”
Gotham was also, far as I can tell, the only restaurant other than Jeremiah Tower’s Stars of which food writers routinely said you could visit in blue jeans or black tie and be equally appropriate. Again, not remarkable now, but unprecedented then.
This was 1985, which paired with 1984, was one of the most consequential stretches in the development of modern American restaurants and cuisine. In New York, it brought the opening of Jams, Union Square Cafe, Montrachet (now home of Bâtard), and long-forgotten influencers like the Southwestern leaning Arizona 206.
To Portale’s eternal chagrin, his arresting visual style often dominated media coverage. In addition to designing jewelry, he had been a member of the Japanese Bonsai Society of Greater Buffalo, and brought his gift for three-dimensional beauty to his dishes: Gotham’s seafood salad was piled high, the tuna tartare had baguette croutons protruding from it like the Twin Towers, a salmon dish presented the filet halved and stacked. (The roots of all this went way back; when staging for Michel Guérard in Eugénie-les-Bains, Portale was screwing around with a salad during prep one afternoon, arranging the leaves to attain height; the chef asked him, in French, if his father was an architect.) It became known as “tall food,” and while it drew a volume of coverage most chefs could only dream of, to casual observers, it overshadowed the intelligence of the dishes. (Were Instagram around at the time, Portale would have had well over 1 million followers.)
Gotham also was an early home to some of the most accomplished and influential chefs of the last thirty years: Tom Valenti (Oxbow Tavern) was Portale’s first sous chef; others included Tom Colicchio (Crafted Hospitality), David Walzog (Wynn Las Vegas), and Bill Telepan (recently installed at the Metropolitan Museum). Others who cooked there include Diane Forley (Flourish Baking Company) and Gale Gand. Joe Murphy, who’s been Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s on-again-off-again corporate pastry chef, was in charge of sweets at age 24. And for years, the dining room was presided over by Laurie Tomasino, a name most of you probably don’t know, but who was influential in her own right, starting systems that are commonplace today, before they could be computerized, such as tracking what gifts from the kitchen were sent out to friends of the house so they wouldn’t be repeated on the next visit.
My first memory of Gotham Bar and Grill was around 1990. The restaurant was already six years old by then, when the uncle of my girlfriend at the time–a well-heeled dandy–took us to the bar there for a nightcap one Saturday night. I was in the film business, earning a paltry salary as a producer’s assistant, and didn’t know anything about food or restaurants of Gotham’s price tag or sophistication. I’m pretty sure I’d never even heard of it before that night, and had no idea of its import. I do remember being almost dizzy at the scale of the room, the parachutes dangling from the ceiling, the multi-levels, and the rush of guests and servers. It was overwhelming, in the best way.
Before the decade was over, I got to know a lot about Alfred and the Gotham. [I’m briefly shifting to first-names here.] In the mid-1990s, in order to focus more on writing, I took a gig with a public relations firm that specialized in restaurant and food accounts. The idea was to have a true “day job” that would allow me to mentally detach at night. I had no idea that I’d wandered into the world were I’d spend more than 20 years of my professional life. My clients included Aquavit (with Marcus Samuelsson at the helm), Union Pacific (Rocco DiSpirito), and Gotham Bar and Grill. Alfred and I got on well, and he knew I was pulling all-nighters at home banging out screenplays.
Alfred and I became friends, and I ended up ghosting the Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook, the first thing I ever got paid to write, and something I thought would be a one-time lark. It was dumb luck that I found myself plunged into a partnership with one of the most important chefs and restaurants of the time, and I’m proud that I got to help create a document of its heyday, that suddenly–with last week’s closure–has become more meaningful.
Ghosting for Alfred in that book, I had the privilege of persevering memories like this description of the dining room that never failed to dazzle me when it was operating at full tilt:
“During the day, sunlight sparkles in through the back windows, washing the room in a soothing, natural brightness. At night, the room is lit sensationally with a combination of bulbs embedded in the recesses, glowing through the furled parachute fabric, and even atop the torch held high by the replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands proudly beside our western wall. In the evenings, a cumulative glow hovers like a blanket over the dining room, much the way street lamps seem to meld into a river of light when viewed from apartment balconies overlooking the streets of New York”
The book was a success. We won an IACP/Julia Child Cookbook Award, were nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award, and for years, every time I visited a chef’s office anywhere in the United States, the book was among those on the shelf. I ended up shifting professional gears: Alfred and I wrote a total of three books together, and I collaborated on about two dozen chef cookbooks over a period of about 15 years, becoming an accidental expert on the profession.
Fast forward to thirty-four years after Portale came on board: In 2019, having earned an unmatched five consecutive three-star reviews from The New York Times, he left the Gotham, and the owners, as they had done three and a half decades earlier, lobbed up another Hail Mary–hiring chef Victoria Blamey, who’d deservedly made a huge splash at Chumley’s, in hopes of reinvigorating Gotham Bar and Grill.
This will sound unbelievable, but I swear it’s true: I’m not exactly sure why Alfred and the Gotham partners split last year, or the exact reasons for the timing. I know and am friendly with most of the players, including, in addition to Alfred, the original partners, operating partner Bret Csencsitz, and Victoria Blamey, who gave a strong accounting of herself, earning three stars from the New York Times, upholding a Gotham tradition. The restaurant also made Jeff Gordinier’s Best New Restaurant list in Esquire, where he named it Best Comeback; the magazine even held the issue launch party at Gotham.
A few of the original Gotham partners were at the friends and family dinner for Blamey’s menu that I attended right after Labor Day last year, gleeful and giddy, like the protagonists of a septuagenerian heist comedy. And Victoria’s food was terrific. After that dress rehearsal, I enjoyed it a few times both at the bar and in the dining room. It felt like the restaurant was poised for a second improbable resurrection.
But a funny thing happened—Portale, who decamped to open his own Portale on 18th Street, was reinvigorated. Gotham, meanwhile, for all the acclaim, never quite gained enough traction to fill its enormous dining room–and the nightmare COVID-19 era we’re all now subsumed by, was the death blow.
The self-titled Portale, unsurprisingly, has a smart, New York City vibe, welcoming decor, and Alfred’s palate remains as sound and assured as ever–in it’s own fancier way, it’s as timeless as Waxman’s more stripped-down style. If Waxman is Hemingway; Portale is Fitzgerald.
In a different time, I’d say everyone will be fine, but at this moment I have to woefully say they’ll be as fine as anybody else. Portale seems to have found its groove quickly and is modestly scaled; once reopened, I think it has as good a shot at survival as any restaurant. Victoria has earned rave reviews in her last two at-bats, and presumably will be a prime candidate for any new project. Managing partner Bret Csencsitz, according to a comment he made on social media, is partnering with longtime pastry chef Ron Paprocki, to continue the Gotham name in a line of chocolates. The partners all have other main sources of business and income, and I imagine could retire tomorrow if they wanted.
Which leaves the space. Will it remain a restaurant, or revert back to something akin to an antiques house? In a post-pandemic world, will it be dark for months, or years? Personally, no matter what happens, I think the plaque on the wall outside should remain forever. Most restaurants don’t last five years; thirty-five is Hall of Fame stuff.
Time will tell. But regardless of the fate of the location, those of us who were here for it will never be able to walk along 12th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place, without remembering the glory days of Gotham Bar and Grill, and the way it helped change how we dine out and what we eat when we do.