Volume 21, Number 1 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | May 16 - 22, 2008
Downtown Express photos by Milo Hess
Mei Chau, co-owner of Franklin Station Cafe, chats with a customer. One of Tribeca’s last affordable eateries is closing in June.
Franklin Cafe heads in for its last stop
By Sebastian Kahnert
After 15 years, the Franklin Station Cafe, a French and Malaysian bistro at 222 West Broadway, is closing — another falling domino in Tribeca’s affordable restaurant landscape.
“It’s awful,” said Jim Stratton, a bistro regular and neighborhood leader who was eating a mozzarella hero there last Friday. “They’re going one by one.”
A refuge for many Tribeca artists and residents, the Franklin Station Cafe is suffering the fate of Magoo’s, the Liquor Store Bar, Socrates diner and the Greek restaurant Delphi — all of which once defined the unique character of Tribeca, Stratton said, but had to leave in recent years because of rising rents.
“If they wanted $20,000 [a month] I could probably pay it,” said Mei Chau, who owns the corner bistro with her husband, “but it would be too stressful.”
Last month, Chau received a letter from the building manager, Clarke AJ Management Corporation, which declined to comment for this article. The letter stated that the landlord was not interested in negotiating the price for the renewal of the lease, leaving Chau and her husband with no option.
“Our customers asked us to raise our prices so we can stay,” said Chau, expressing a thought that her husband Marc Kaczmarek quickly dismissed.
“Affordability,” Kaczmarek said in a thick French accent, “that’s what a bistro is all about.”
And that has always been the mantra since the bistro’s opening in 1993 across from the Franklin St. subway station. Moving into the storefront space at the corner of West Broadway and Franklin St., the bistro succeeded where others had trouble. A barber and three restaurants — one Italian and two Japanese — all closed soon after opening. But Franklin Station Cafe with its charm, French music and cuisine looked like it was here to stay.
“When we opened we had so many artists — working artists — that was the trend at that time,” said Chau, who studied at Parsons School of Design.
“There was a need for that kind of restaurant [in 1993],” Kaczmarek added. “People were looking for a place they could call their own.”
And the unassuming presence of the bistro did not only attract local artists over the years, but also famed guests such as Paul Newman and even chef David Bouley, a driving force behind creating Tribeca’s reputation as a high end culinary center and whose next neighborhood foray will be a Japanese restaurant in the old Delphi location.
“We created a family atmosphere,” Chau said, sipping tea on a wooden bench in the far corner of the bistro, “and that feeling has paid off.”
But the homey atmosphere was put to a test twice — once from the crowds that came to Tribeca after the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999, and once after 9/11, when many small businesses Downtown suffered.
“We survived those times because we had a base,” Chau said. “It takes time for people to find us.”
But as much as the bistro has remained the same inside — much to the delight of its customers — the couple couldn’t help but notice the change of clientele as well as the change around Tribeca.
“A lot of artists moved out and the rich moved in,” said Chau, who lives only a few blocks away from the bistro. “We still have our regulars, but it’s down.”
On a recent Monday at lunchtime, however, Franklin Station Cafe was buzzing as the usual crowd and newbies shuffled in to sit under the giant gold-framed mirrors on wooden tables, indulging in exotic dishes and drinking in the atmosphere as long as it was still there.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t happen in Tribeca,” said Dana Sottile, 48, who just finished her Tom Yam Shrimp soup. “There are only few places where you can get nice food at really good prices.”
Most items on the menu, which is filled with an abundance of gustatory delights reflecting both Chau’s Malaysian and Kaczmarek’s French decent, hardly ever break the $10 mark. The curry chicken soup, a favorite among frequent visitors, comprises a steaming bowl of exotica filled with lemony coconut curry broth, chicken, and bean sprouts for $7.95.
“I never tasted food like this,” said Jason Kliot, 44, a Tribeca resident who works as a filmmaker for Open City Films.
Kliot visits at least twice a week and said he is currently hooked on the curry chicken soup.
“It’s not just some recipe, it’s their invention,” he said.
Chau’s recipes will soon be compiled in a book as the couple is looking forward to taking some time off.
“After 15 years I need a break,” Chau, 44, said. “I feel like I need some inspiration.”
The couple has been approached by restaurant owners from San Francisco, Colorado, Long Island and New Jersey, all looking for a joint venture, but have not made any deals.
“It’s not our goal to become a chain restaurant,” said Kaczmarek, 65, who plans to devote his time to filmmaking and photography.
They both seem at ease with their current situation and are confident that their 15 employees will find jobs as well.
“Maybe it’s good for us,” Kaczmarek said. “Maybe it’s good for everybody…It’s a new window of opportunity.”
Kaczmarek gazed out on the street where umbrellas were blooming and people with glossy bags from high-end designer stores rushed in and out of the subway station.
“It’s not the landlord that changed,” he said. “It’s the whole city that changed.”
The restaurant is having a finale party on June 10 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., featuring free food and drinks, a cooking show and musical jam.