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Astoria Has Become an Incubator for NYC’s Best Restaurants
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Restaurants & Bars

Astoria Has Become an Incubator for NYC’s Best Restaurants

Pamela Vachon
Published 7 months ago

Imagine, if you will, an evening through the lens of a few New York City restaurants: A sprawling Greek taverna replete with sea-scaped murals, whose authenticity can best be measured by the sheer number of people waiting on the sidewalk for an unreservable table, the aromatic char of the indefatigable grill mingling with the sweet sting of garlic, while the hostess passes out complimentary jars of a zesty Greek wine for those who are patient.

Over a couple of avenues is a cafe/bar/market that could be a case study in putting one’s finger on the pulse of a neighborhood and intuitively delivering what it evidently craves, no matter how improbable the concept. Amid the white-tiled walls and hum of the industrial coolers, mostly local craft beers share the stage with the world’s best cheeses, where as many people rifle through their bottle selection and grab-and-go gourmet fridges as sit at the bar chatting up the knowledgeable beer-tenders, enjoying a draft and a cheese plate.

Amicably sharing the neighborhood is a beloved, diminutive panini shop. That it eschews a traditional kitchen in favor of a simple counter in full view of diners with little more than a handful of excellent homemade components and a couple of sandwich presses hasn’t stopped it from topping the list of the neighborhood’s favorite restaurants for the past five years. Imaginative panini, crostini, and salads fly out into the modest dining room where diners sip from selections on a well-curated, eclectic wine list.

Just across the street, the bustle is felt from a cheerful, mission-driven, faux-rustic burger joint of the sort that helped shaped the way that New York City approaches that holy grail of singular dishes, the burger.

These four restaurants, Taverna Kyclades, (pronounced chee-CLAH-dess,) Astoria Bier and Cheese, Il Bambino, and Bareburger (yes, the Bareburger) all exist, and were born in Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood of New York City just across the 59th Street bridge from Manhattan’s East Side. But they also all exist in Manhattan, largely in one of the Villages (East, West, or Greenwich,) below 14th Street, synonymous in New Yorkese with that which is still cool/interesting/relevant. In a city where the notorious failure rate of new restaurant ventures meets staggeringly high commercial rent, Astoria would appear to be an excellent incubator for local restaurateurs, much like an out-of-town tryout for a Broadway show.

A closer look at the four restaurants in question reveals recurring themes in terms of developing beloved neighborhood places, the boon that is Astoria for restaurateurs, and translating the vibe of a neighborhood favorite into a much larger playground.

Passionate, Chef-Driven Concepts

Ardian Skenderi, chef/owner of Taverna Kyclades, hand picks every fish daily “without fail,” even on the eve of managing not only an Astoria and Manhattan location, but a soon-to-be third location in Bayside, Queens.

Perhaps it would seem to go without saying, but the strongest tie between these outer-borough-to-Manhattan success stories is that the impetus for each was deeply personal, and less motivated by individual ambition or notions of grandeur than for just wanting to do something simple, lovingly, at an excellent level: sandwiches, burgers, beers, cheeses, and Greek seafood. A glance at any of Astoria’s numerous Euro-cafes where older men can be seen keeping court en masse with their frappes on a given afternoon is evidence as to why Astoria is sometimes referred to as “little Athens in the Big Apple.” But amid dozens of Greek restaurants in Astoria, from 24-hour diners to white tablecloth affairs, Taverna Kyclades maintained, even prior to its move into Manhattan, a reputation as a destination restaurant even for Manhattanites, due perhaps to what would seem a fierce commitment to a one-page menu mostly highlighting grilled and fried seafood. “The fish brings out the family,” Skenderi explains. “I cannot describe the sincere gratitude and humbleness I feel when we are visited by a new TK family recommended by family members that have dined with us for years!” It’s much easier, it would seem, to put one’s heart into a menu that doesn’t require a table of contents. Similarly, Il Bambino and Bareburger were forged from the inside out by lifelong cooks who wanted to simplify, rather than diversify, their fare.

Simple But Innovative Offerings

“All I ever wanted to be was a sophisticated sandwich shop,” says Darren Lawless, chef/owner of Il Bambino, a cook who had toiled his way around a number of Manhattan restaurants, establishing numerous culinary influences.

“Just” a sandwich shop, yes, but a shop whose sandwiches, beyond the traditional selections of various meats and cheeses, include components such as dirty chips, romesco sauce, apricot butter, spicy pickle slaw, and no fewer than eight different flavors of aioli, precisely hitting that elusive interplay between sweet, salty, tangy, and spicy with any given sandwich. “Our flavor profiles are different than anyone else does” confirms Lawless. And this creative approach to simplicity is perhaps what started urging people over to what was almost entirely a residential corridor in 2006 when Il Bambino first opened, with little else to offer the intrepid passerby beyond a couple of laundromats and a failing commercial bakery. Now, thanks in part to the success of Il Bambino, a five-block stretch of 31st Avenue in Queens is almost a model United Nations of small but successful restaurants with Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Balkan, Italian, and omakase Japanese populating the storefronts.

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There must be something in the water then, as kitty corner from Il Bambino sits another storefront whose sandwiches, in this case, burgers, are now known nationally. Bareburger followed just behind Il Bambino, opening its doors at its original location on 31st Avenue in 2009. A small paper sign with a cartoon bear hung in the window ahead of its official opening declaring that they would be serving organic and all-natural burgers, so, “naturally everyone in the neighborhood thought (we were) a group of California hippies.” But owner Euripedes Pelekanos was anything but—a homegrown Astoria boy whose father was of the Greek immigrant population, he simply strove to take the most successful item from the menu of a music club he was running in Brooklyn and bring it home, then double-down on the creativity by offering a mix-and-match approach to toppings, bread, and even meats, offering not only beef, turkey, and veggie options, but also elk, bison, and duck. And Astoria responded by bringing in business that would eventually lead to expanding the space by one storefront, opening a second location in Astoria, one in Manhattan, and then it was off to the races into enfranchisement.

Neighborly Spirit

“It’s all about relationships,” says Rick White, co-owner of Astoria Bier and Cheese/Milk and Hops, and store manager of two out of the five locations, one in Queens and one in Manhattan. “People are interested in staying local. They want to be a part of that.”

As with rents, commercial space outside of Manhattan can often get you double the space for a fraction of the cost, but it’s not as simple as relative affordability; all of the chefs and owners in question were also residents of Astoria at the onset of their projects, whether from childhood in the case of Bareburger’s Pelekanos, or as working young adults forging a New York existence. In any case, everyone had a true stake in what was wanted or needed from local businesses.

Astoria Bier and Cheese was born in this neighborly climate, in response to questions that Yang Gao, the owner of local business Astoria Wine and Spirits, constantly fielded from neighbors about where they could find craft beer or gourmet cheese in the neighborhood. In 2010, Western Queens was not the craft beer mecca it is today. The first of the eight or so breweries that now call Queens home was yet to open for another two years and only a small smattering of bars may have even carried Brooklyn Brewery products. So when Astoria Bier and Cheese entered the picture with 10 rotating drafts and and dozens of craft beer bottle selections, a majority of which represent the northeast U.S., it was an immediate hub for younger Astorians who were flocking to the neighborhood after being priced out of Manhattan and even parts of Brooklyn.

Other owners echoed these sentiments. “The community itself is close knit and supportive of one another,” says Skenderi; “From the beginning, the area businesses and the Astorians individually rooted for our success.”

“It has a tremendous amount to do with people who live in the neighborhood,” Lawless declared, who he describes as being a lot of hospitality workers who are not only young and diverse but who crave diversity.

Moving to Manhattan

“Taverna Kyclades Manhattan was an act of hope. We knew what TK Astoria meant to its community, and wanted to see if we could bring that family and community experience to the largess of Manhattan,” says Ardian Skenderi.

With the local success of each of the neighborhood spots comes the impulse to want to prove it on a bigger stage. So then how does one translate the familiarity of a beloved neighborhood spot into a new neighborhood, one with more competition for the attention of its residents and at least the reputation (founded or unfounded) for being the kind of atmosphere that stares a new restaurant in the face and says, “oh yeah? Bring it.”

Given the case of the restaurants in question, the answer would seem to be: stick with what you know. But maybe glam it up just a touch. I myself am a staunch Astorian with a healthy infatuation for the restaurants in question, who maybe felt a complicated mixture of pride and betrayal when each of these restaurants was able to open outposts in Manhattan. But, having visited all the locations of Astoria Bier and Cheese (renamed “Milk and Hops” for Manhattan,) Il Bambino, and Taverna Kyclades, and at least a few of the Manhattan Bareburgers, I am happy to report that they have maintained the vibe—they all felt like home. Menus were largely untouched, save for a few special items here and there, dining rooms were reinterpreted from a country cousin to a city cousin—“fancier” and “sexier” were repeated terms used to describe the desired outcomes—but hadn’t lost their soul, and echoed the integrity of the spaces of their other borough. Some lunch specials were introduced to meet the needs of Manhattan’s 45-minute lunch crowd, and in the case of Il Bambino, two magic words were added to its window to further encourage its new neighbors: “wine bar.” But at this point, all have nearly passed the five-year mark: that benchmark where purportedly 90% of new Manhattan restaurants close.

“Of course there’s a healthy fear, Lawless explains, of taking his concept into Manhattan. “What happens if it’s not successful? But I knew if I could get you in the door, I could win you over.”

Il Bambino

34-08 31st Avenue, Astoria

48 W. 8th Street, Manhattan

Taverna Kyclades

http://www.tavernakyclades.com/

33-07 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria

228 1st Avenue, Manhattan

Astoria Bier and Cheese/Milk and Hops

34-14 Broadway, Astoria

35-11 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria

779 Broadway, Manhattan

166 9th Avenue, Manhattan

1159 1st Avenue, Manhattan

Bareburger

33-21 31st Avenue, Astoria (original location)

23-01 31st Street, Astoria (2nd location)

535 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan (1st Manhattan location)

30+ locations worldwide

Bareburger,
IL Bambino,
Astoria Bier & Cheese-Ditmars,
Milk & Hops,
Taverna Kyclades

About the Author

Pamela Vachon

Pamela Vachon is a culinary-school trained bartender, sommelier, and lover of cheese and microphones.