Diners at newly reopened Gotham will enjoy a little more elbow room than they did at its predecessor, Gotham Bar & Grill — and it’s not just because of social distancing.
It turns out, even at one of the doyennes of the downtown dining scene, it’s hard to find first-class help after COVID shutdowns sent streams of wait staff back to their hometowns and immigrant workers left the industry for more steady work: So the new owners of Gotham on Tuesday will reopen the space at 12 E. 12th St. with a limited staff and limited seating.
The restaurant comes with a new chef, a new menu and a new look after six weeks of renovations — with strong ties to its past. The new chef is the former pastry chef. The new menu references the old and the new look streamlines the old. But it has only 47 staffers, new owner Bret Csencsitz, the restaurant’s former general manager, tells Side Dish. He’d prefer to be operating with 100, but it’s hard to find employees, he said.
Snarled supply chains making headlines around the world also are affecting the Greenwich Village eatery, which before its March 2020 shutdown had been a neighborhood mainstay for 37 years.
“We can’t get plates. I don’t know why. We’ve been told they’re on a ship. It happened three times with different brands,” Csencsitz said.
Other basics — like toilets — were also near-impossible to get: “There were constant delivery delays, so we found another solution. Then we got all of these deliveries of toilets at once.”
Ordering trout was also inexplicably fishy.
“Chef wanted a specific farm in the Catskills for trout. He’s a fisherman, and we sourced it. The farm agreed, and then too many people wanted trout, and so they couldn’t do it,” Csencistz said.
That chef is Ron Paprocki, now the restaurant’s executive chef. He’s not the only nod to the old Gotham, where Paprocki was once pastry chef.
Tuna tartare and steak are still on the menu — but so is a celeriac dish with Brussels sprouts, portobello mushrooms and shaved black truffle. And the dishes are a little smaller, more in line with how people eat today — with less butter, cream and sugar and more plant-based options. There’s also a sourcing director who works with local farms.
“We are staying true to Gotham,” Csencistz said of the original iteration of the restaurant, which had garnered a Michelin star since its 1984 opening. “There’s nothing too avant garde or out of left field. We are using familiar products, but sourcing more meticulously,” Csencsitz said.
Gotham had been on shaky ground since its founding star chef, Alfred Portale, left in 2019 to open Portale in Chelsea. A new chef, Victoria Blamey, came aboard, with a new spin on the menu. But the famed eatery would soon shut down for good during lockdown. Still, Csencsitz wasn’t ready to quit.
“When we announced the closing, I knew immediately that I wanted to bring it back,” said Csencsitz, who was at the restaurant late Saturday evening even though he was running the New York City marathon Sunday morning.
“We had a highly recognizable, well-loved place, with a large clientele and an international reputation. It seemed like a good opportunity and I wanted to put my stamp on something that I wasn’t the owner of before.”
As for the lack of staff, Csencsitz said the restaurant will just have to power through. Other restaurants have reported trouble finding good workers with a super-tight labor market leading to escalating salaries — and the aftereffects of pandemic stimulus money and a bump to unemployment benefits still having the effect of keeping some people from work.
“We are completely understaffed. It’s a whole new challenge,” Csencsitz said. “We need to achieve a certain level of business to break even or make a profit, and we just don’t have enough employees to do the volume we need.”
One bright spot: New Yorkers who know and love the restaurant, like landlord Stephen Green, of SL Realty, one of the biggest landlords in the city.
For now, the eatery, like many, is on a limited run, Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner only. And they will only “feel comfortable” taking reservations for 100 to 120 seats, even though capacity is for 165. Eventually, they’ll hope to open for lunch.
“We have been the only tenant for 37 years,” Csencsitz said of the restaurant. “Stephen is incredibly fair and saw the value in having us here. He offered us very favorable terms tied to revenue. If we don’t have any revenue, we don’t have any rent,” Csencsitz said.
Some of the loyal New York regulars at the restaurant even became investors.
“Many of the investors were friends or people I had done business with over the years. My main investor, environmentalist Kevin Conrad, is someone who became a friend and offered to back me. He recognized there was value in the restaurant. Others were customers,” Csencsitz said.
In one case, a customer left a comment on an article about Gotham’s closing. Csencsitz contacted him, and he, too, became an investor.
“I looked up his name in our reservations, and sent him an email,” Csencistz said.
One of the original architects, James Biber, also returned — older and more experienced, with his own firm — and a mission to spruce up the “indiscretions” of his youth. That meant streamlining some of the design, and rounding the sharp corners of the bar. At 40 feet long, with five people on each end, the bar can accommodate 200 Manhattans, according to Gotham’s spokeswoman.
Csencsitz is also working on “evolving” the restaurant business model — with health insurance, 401K offerings, and a profit-sharing model for the employees.
“We are talking about it with our employees, though it’s not on the books yet. I’m big on creating a different culture in the restaurant,” Csencsitz said.