As Barbuto Closes Its Doors, Industry Leaders Remember a New York Institution
You see garage doors on all kinds of restaurants now, but there was a particular kind of magic back in 2004 when Barbuto’s rolled open to West 12th and Washington and café tables filled with all of the beautiful weirdos of the far West Village. As the neighborhood gentrified around it, Barbuto matured as a hangout for a loyal swath of regulars: neighborhood families, models, celebrities, writers, and chefs, sharing bottles of rosé and family-style platters of salsa verde–slicked roast chicken. There was no brigade system at the old car garage, just one short horizontal line with three meritocratic stations: pasta/sauté, a plancha and fryer, and a grill and oven. There was also nowhere to hide; the kitchen was open to the dining room, and the food was too fresh and simple to sauce over any mistakes. For those of us lucky enough to cook there under Jonathan Waxman (including Lynn McNeely, Upland chef Justin Smillie, Ginger Pierce of Jams, il Buco Alimentari’s Preston Madson, Roel Alcudia of Mandolin, and Andrew Curren of Elm Restaurant Group), and for those leading the front of the house (including wine director Michael Kelly and general manager Jennifer Davidson), Barbuto became our second home. The restaurant’s success, in some ways, paved the way for its demise: On May 31, after 15 years, it closed its garage doors to make way for what could become three very expensive residences. Waxman may reopen elsewhere, but in the meantime, to honor Barbuto’s legacy, Food & Wine convened a group of chefs, writers, and editors to discuss the state of restaurants now. Here is our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.—Hunter Lewis
Barbuto Then and Now
HUNTER LEWIS: Jonathan, your logo is a bearded dog. If restaurants were measured in dog years, what would 15 years of Barbuto be?
JONATHAN WAXMAN: We’re probably 40 years old at this point. Fifteen years is a long time for a restaurant.
VICKI FREEMAN: That is a long time. For me, the hardest is the first year. Every year you’re open, you’re grateful.
WAXMAN: In 2003, things were different in [the West Village]. I took Jimmy Bradley from the Red Cat to look at this space with me. He said, “I wouldn’t touch that dump with a 20-foot pole.”
JUSTIN SMILLIE: Barbuto opened when this part of the Village was still under-explored.
WAXMAN: This neighborhood gentrified in a heartbeat. In 1983, you could buy an apartment around the corner for $60,000. Now they’re $25 million.
COLMAN ANDREWS: When Jonathan opened the first Jams in 1984 on the Upper East Side, it was hailed as revolutionary California cuisine. Twenty-three bucks for a roast chicken. Custom-made cutlery from France. White tablecloths.
WAXMAN: That was a huge part of the transformation [after closing Washington Park in 2004], that I didn’t have to do tablecloths anymore. I wasn’t going to have any of the trappings of a normal restaurant. For Barbuto, we wanted one glass fits all, one fork fits all, the cheapest plates possible. The menu needed to be stripped down of all its pretense. The cooks didn’t have to make stocks. I threw away all of the rules. The deconstruction of a restaurant happened here.
LEWIS: Barbuto is a neighborhood hang. An industry hang. A see-and-be-seen place. What’s the secret?
MARCUS SAMUELSSON: It starts with Jonathan. And then the street, and dining room, and kitchen—they’re all one. Now, almost all restaurants you look at have that open kitchen. But this is really the coolest one.
WAXMAN: I always thought that doors of a kitchen made chefs seem like second-class citizens. Alice Waters took me to Vanessi’s in San Francisco in 1977. Sitting at the counter and watching the chef cook was transformative for me.
MISSY ROBBINS: At Lilia, we put the kitchen in the middle of the restaurant to allow people to really feel it. It also makes chefs behave. You can’t get mad. You have to be respectful.
ANDREWS: Open kitchens mean transparency. You get this real connection between what you ordered and what’s going on back there.
WAXMAN: I felt that’s what chefs needed: exposure to the public. If somebody doesn’t like a meal, you can see it on their face. But when they do have a good meal, the familial quality of dining becomes more transparent.
The Battle For The Soul Of New York
LEWIS: Three old-school French restaurants closed in 2004: La Côte Basque, Lutèce, and La Caravelle. Now we’ve got the Red Cat closing, and this iteration of Barbuto. Is this the end of a different era?
SAMUELSSON: If you think about Jimmy [Bradley] and Jonathan, both of their restaurants are extremely soulful. Red Cat and Barbuto, it’s all about the spirit of the West Side. These two restaurants closing, it’s like losing Bowie and Prince. You’re going to have other music, but you’re not going to have that.
DOROTHY KALINS: I think I’m in the cynical camp. There are two New Yorks now. On the one hand, there’s the inevitability of the Hudson Yards phenomenon, which I take very personally. But I think what counteracts it is these pockets of soul.
LEWIS: Is the Hudson Yards mall-ification of restaurant culture where we’re at right now?
ROBBINS: I don’t think so, speaking as a person who made the choice not to go to Hudson Yards. The definition of success is no longer just Manhattan. I remember standing inside Lilia [in Brooklyn] talking on the phone with the Hudson Yards guy, when a neighbor walked by and waved to me. And I was like, I can’t be in a mall again. I did that for five years [in Columbus Circle] at A Voce. For me, it was really about asking, “Do I want to get off on that subway stop? Do I want to walk on that block?”
HELEN ROSNER: Hudson Yards has restaurants that you go to because you made a reservation ahead of time because you’re planning to be at the shopping mall in the middle of nowhere. It feels existentially wrong.
KALINS: When we were growing up, we had stars in our eyes about the restaurants that one day we would go to because they were good. And now, they’re just expensive.
ROSNER: But isn’t it great that it used to be a single line, cheap and expensive, and it was the same line as bad and good. Now it’s an actual matrix. It’s not about, “Is it $200?” It’s just, “Is it f—ing good?”
Creating a Better Culture
LEWIS: With chefs and restaurateurs making the news for the wrong reasons, are we at a place where change is occurring, or are we regressing?
FREEMAN: I think I’m in a bubble because I own restaurants. I had to wake up a little. I had to realize that when someone complained to me about the dishwasher, somewhere inside, I was like, “Deal with it.” But something happened to me and made me ask, “Why should you have to deal with it?”
SAMUELSSON: Think about the industry. Up until the 1970s, chefs were considered domestics. During my first 15 years as a cook, I was abused. I threw up every day. And I even had a mechanism to deal with it: Get my apron off, run back to the station, be back within six minutes so chef wouldn’t notice.
WAXMAN: I had a woman who worked for me a while back. And she got pregnant and had a wonderful son. And afterward, we were talking. She goes, “I didn’t want to tell you that I was pregnant.” And I said, “What the f—?” Where does that come from? And it really hurt me. [I wondered] what I had done incorrectly in the situation that she didn’t feel comfortable about coming to me and telling me about her pregnancy. It caused a lot of sleepless nights. She and I talked about it, a little bit. And she said she felt that something weird would have happened if she had said she was pregnant. And it angered me because maybe I had done something wrong. That was my first reaction. My second was: Have I created an environment where people couldn’t have lives and couldn’t be who they were? And then, I started thinking: Maybe it’s bigger than me. Maybe it’s that the whole thing is f—ed up, that we have perpetuated a mediocre system of social injustice. And we’ve perpetuated it by ignoring it. And I think the ignorance of that is what we’re all guilty of. Marcus and I, we have hours of conversations about this. We always say in the business that we want [to treat others] the way we want to be treated. And that’s a hard thing to establish. I never was told that when I first got in this business. “Keep your head down and work hard.” That was it. There was no individual behavior. It was, “You are part of this,” and we were part of this craft, and you had to act a certain way. And I hated that. I despised that. I wanted to get us out of that. And then, to have that woman tell me that, it was like I got defeated at my own game, you know? But I just have to learn more, I guess.
KORSHA WILSON: I think in those moments, it’s really important to de-center your feelings. She’s coming to you to hear your opinion. It’s about being afraid of losing her job, of hundreds of years of what people have said to women, of all these horrible things that happen to people in restaurants. In order to listen and actually move forward, you kind of have to pull yourself back.
LEWIS: Is there a restaurant group that you’re jealous of when it comes to their culture?
SMILLIE: Hillstone. They’re the best-trained managers; they work every station, bottom to top. Whenever they’re asking someone to do something, they’ve already done it themselves. That’s who we [Starr Restaurants] look to.
ROSNER: But they also have the advantage of massive corporate structures and economies of scale.
SMILLIE: But it starts small. It’s delicious and consistent and someone smiles at you at the front door.
WAXMAN: I think the tragedy is that there aren’t a lot of places like Hillstone. Why is that not happening more often? The magic is the creation of a culture. That’s the most difficult thing. You have to be lucky. You have to be patient. You can’t sweat the small stuff.
LEWIS: Every chef I talk to talks about finding cooks or a great bartender. Is there a labor shortage, or is this a failure of recruiting and retaining?
ROBBINS: There are so many restaurants and just not enough people. When I started cooking in the ’90s, if you wanted to get to a certain level, there were 20 to 30 restaurants that were on the list. Now, you can cook at Roberta’s or Lilia or Daniel and your resume is equally as respected—as long as you’re working for someone who has passion and soul and technique and skill. These young cooks get their pick of where they want to go, and that’s not always your place because now you’re 1 of 1,000 restaurants they want to work at instead of 1 in 30.
ANNIE SHI: Front of house, people enter the service industry to make money. There’s a lot of bouncing around to the restaurant where you make the most tips. That’s a really hard thing if you want continuous service, guest recognition, and a relationship with the customer base.
WAXMAN: You have a lot of people who are bursting with energy to cook. Front of house people who are bursting with energy to create great restaurants. But there’s not a lot of business methodology involved, so we end up doing it by the seat of our pants. I’d like to see the restaurant business attracting people from many different disciplines. I think we’re afraid to bring in other ideas because we think we might have to learn something new. That’s exactly what has to happen. You can’t grow an industry the way we’re doing it.
SAMUELSSON: Leah Chase has been in business since 1946. She’s my hero. She had to break the law to create a diverse dining room. That says everything. She never moved.
ROSNER: Because she owned the building, right? Look at a list of New York’s oldest restaurants and it’s all folks who own the building. That’s the secret to survival.
WAXMAN: It’s a very difficult period in terms of restaurant leases and restaurateurs.
SHI: There have been spaces on Bleecker Street that have been empty for years, and they still refuse to lower the rent.
FREEMAN: We shockingly had the opposite experience. We just signed a new lease at Cookshop. We were absolutely positive we were gonna have to leave, and we had this anxiety on our shoulders for the last five years. And they’re like, “We just want a steady tenant.”
ROSNER: Places like Lilia, King, Cookshop, and Barbuto are all of their place. They’re in their neighborhood, they reflect the neighborhood, and they create the neighborhood. There’s this vicious cycle where a restaurant can create a place so successfully that it gets priced out, which is the ultimate f— you of New York City.
SAMUELSSON: Great restaurants cannot be produced in New York if everything gets too expensive.
Why Are We All Not In Los Angeles Right Now?
LEWIS: Jonathan came from California in the ’80s. Now, L.A. is being talked about as the culinary capital of the country. Is this about going back to where it all began?
WAXMAN: Product-wise, L.A. is pretty remarkable. Forty years ago, when I opened Michael’s, there was nothing. We ordered endive from New York; Joe from Citarella flew fish out to me once a week. Things have come full circle in L.A., but also it’s a place where young people want to be. It’s vibrant. You go to some of these places where half the restaurant is outside and you sit with a cocktail on a picnic bench and the stars are out and it’s 72 degrees at midnight. It’s not a bad place to be.
ROBBINS: So you’re moving to Los Angeles?
ROSNER: Why are we not all in L.A. right now?
FREEMAN: I go to L.A. and London every single year to eat. That’s where the most exciting restaurants are now. But I have hope for New York.
SAMUELSSON: Can we do a toast to Jonathan? To Barbuto and all of the great memories. Thank you.
WAXMAN: Thank you all, really.
HUNTER LEWIS; Editor in Chief, Food & Wine
COLMAN ANDREWS; Founding editor, Saveur
DOROTHY KALINS; Founding editor, Saveur
HELEN ROSNER; Writer, The New Yorker
ANNIE SHI; Partner, King
KORSHA WILSON; Food writer