Volume 22, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 28 - September 3, 2009

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Il Brigante is one of several restaurants on Front St. that is reporting that business is up. Below, Josefa Rubio and Maria Domingez enjoy wine bar Bin 220, which is also doing well.

Front St. restaurants say recession missed this block

By Helaina N. Hovitz

It’s not just happy hour that’s keeping proprietors and customers of the Front St. restaurants smiling.

Eateries in Lower Manhattan have been suffering ever since the Sept.11 attack, and coupled with the more recent problem of various construction projects driving business away, the recession was the final blow that caused many small businesses to close up shop for good. But paradoxically, many of the relatively new restaurants on Front St. between Peck Slip and Beekman St. say business is great.

Almost every restaurant on the cobblestone Seaport street is nearly packed by 8 p.m., and while patrons may have to hang at the bar for a few minutes on a particularly busy night, there’s almost never a wait. Weekends bring crowds in their evening best to special events or private parties, and as the crowds spill out onto the sidewalk, a passerby would think they had stumbled upon some sort of chic communal block party.

The Peck Slip proprietors attribute their success to the fact that their restaurants are less expensive and more casual. Many emphasize that their fare is top quality and that their tables are kid friendly. Whatever the reason, customers come out on top each week while restaurants all over the city are going bankrupt.

Adin Buhalis, who has lived on Front St. for two years and on Water St. for 10, says that the neighborhood has become the new Soho.

“It used to be all bugs and bums walking around,” he said as he ordered cheese at Barbarini. “Now there are places like this, which remind me of LA…stylish, with good food.”

ONDA, a Latin/South American restaurant, has a live band playing Spanish music and the atmosphere of a trendy destination spot, but it also attracts families.

“The kids love the cheesy bread sticks and fries,” said Alessandro Passante, general manager and partner. He said they don’t get many tourists, but the locals come back again and again.

Passante and his partners had already invested their money in the restaurant before the recession hit. He said they had a slow start when they opened in January, but have seen a 35 percent increase since the weather began warming up in May.

Passante is unconcerned about the nearing winter months, because he feels that they have established a strong rapport with their customers. “I trust that it will be a decent winter, and the regulars will be in,” he says. “We just have to keep building the reputation of a fun place where anything can happen on a given night.”

Il Brigante opened in February 2007, when the area was just picking up.

“The neighborhood was lacking good restaurants,” said Nicolas Berti, Brigante’s general manager. “The restaurants on Fulton St. don’t need to have good fare because tourists don’t come back.”

“We have exclusive rights on the lease to be the only wood burning pizza restaurant on the block. We’re doing very well,” says Berti as he knocks on the wooden table.

Il Brigante serves traditional Italian fare to Wall St. regulars for lunch and neighborhood regulars for dinner. Because they also deliver, the restaurant even saw an increase of 20 percent this past winter, which Berti attributes to the fact that “many people don’t go to the steakhouse anymore because its so expensive.”

Children are invited to stand over the counter and help make their pizza. “The chef is like a big kid, so they make a mess together,” laughs Berti.

Surprisingly, the summer months have been a bit slower, but Berti attributes this to the fact that many regulars are on vacation.

Calli Lerner and Sandy Tedesco, who live nearby in Southbridge Towers, opened cozy and casual Bin 220 three years ago and say business has always been good.

Unlike many wine bars, which can feel pretentious and intimidating, the wine list is split up into two clear, reader-friendly sections, “wines Calli likes and the wines Sandy likes.”

”We all opened around the same time, so we all help each other out,” Calli said of the other restaurants on the block.

Claudio Marini, co-owner of Barbarini, explained why he opened five months ago in the middle of a recession.

“The market space was the last space left on the block. We looked at each other and said, ‘let’s take a chance on this.” Plus, ”we got a good deal from the landlord.”

Wall Streeters order lunch and dinner regularly and still continue to book the room in the back for their private events.

As “gourmet aficionado’” Jesse Torres eagerly cut off slabs of cheese and salami for tasting, he said actress Eva Mendes loved his dinner at the restaurant the week before. “She was raving about how gorgeous it was,” he said.

Nelson Blue seems to be the only place on the block affected by the recession. Diane Honeywell, general manager, says that they lost 10 percent of their clientele when the recession hit because many of their customers had corporate accounts and were not allowed to use them anymore.

So what’s the secret to staying a cut above the rest?

“Our restaurants depend on their neighbors, so the customers are loyal. When given a choice, they’ll come back here,” says Sandy Tedesco of Bin 220. “I guess we’re doing something right…. Maybe we’re just lucky.”

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