In the third episode of Restaurant Roots, F&W sits down with restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone to discuss how he revived the West Village speakeasy and why he tapped rising chef Victoria Blamey to bring on sophisticated bar food.
Some things haven’t changed at Chumley’s, the legendary writers’ speakeasy, since Lee Chumley opened it in the West Village 94 years ago.
There’s still no sign over the entrance at 86 Bedford St.—just a festive wreath indicating the cozy cocktail den inside. Framed book covers line the walls, and the bar’s archivist James DiPaola takes the floor nearly every night, sharing with guests little nuggets of knowledge about the space and the people in the past who, just like them, were drawn in for a drink. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s corner still stands, but with a cushy booth instead of rickety wooden chairs.
DiPaola's research was guided by hours studying photographs of the original space, which for years was a hideaway for writers like Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norman Mailer. It was forced to temporarily close in 2007, however, after the dining room chimney collapsed.
You’ll smell change once you drift past the heavy curtains at the door, beyond the newly restored chimney with a portrait of Chumley himself on display, and into the kitchen, where chef Victoria Blamey has taken the helm.
“Some people have asked, ‘Why did you need a Michelin-starred chef for Chumley’s?'” says Alessandro Borgognone, one of the bar’s new owners. “My answer is, that’s just me."
Borgognone has an eye for talent: He famously discovered Daisuke Nakazawa after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Now he's found Blamey. A native Chilean, she had spent time at Mugaritz and New York fine-dining institutions like Corton and Atera, but she had never made a burger.
“He told me about the project and I said, ‘Well, that’s a bar. I don’t want to do bar food,’" Blamey said. "'He said, ‘No, it’s not a bar.’ He showed me the kitchen and I was like, ‘Oh boy.’”
By the time she saw the space last year, there was nothing. Just white walls and that spare kitchen. The contractor he was working with on the Nakazawa restaurant space tipped Borgognone off to Chumley’s—but also the obstacles that came with it, from the NYC Department of Buildings to the neighbors, some of whom wanted the noisy dive bar closed and others who wanted to preserve this iconic watering hole. After a week of contemplation, Borgognone decided to buy it as a co-owner with current owner Jim Miller.
“Over time, Chumley’s has switched owners and switched concepts. Now we’re finally at a point where we have this opportunity and we are lucky enough to revive it,” says Borgognone. “This is our version of that. Our modern day version of Chumley’s.”
Borgognone took the long road of bringing a landmark to life, cropping the space with lower ceilings and a narrow dining room to get it up to code. Despite her initial reaction to the space, Blamey didn’t need any additional convincing to come aboard for the food: “A lot of it came from my gut and believing in it.”
She and DiPaolo pored over menus from 60s-era Chumley’s, and Blamey was enchanted by the beautifully written artifacts offering escargot and steak frites, as well as by the generations of Chumley’s customers who would stop her as she was coming and going to tell her about their memories there. That led to her much-talked about 86 Burger, crowned with bone marrow and named after the kitchen term for running out of something, a term born out of Chumley’s.
It’s been only 10 weeks since Chumley’s has been back in business, but Borgognone is always fixated on the same thing: consistency.
“As they say, this isn’t our first rodeo—so as we go forward, we become much more educated in what we do,” Borgognone says, about the process of opening a new restaurant. “My biggest satisfaction is when I walk in that dining room and see that person enjoying their time, then walking out and saying to their date, ‘That was really good.’”