The Strange ‘New Normal’ of Reopening My Beloved NYC Restaurant
If you want to test the limits of your friends’ and family’s patience, start your own small business. If you want to test your own resilience, sanity, and perseverance past any reasonable limit, do it in the same year as the worst pandemic in a century and your first pregnancy. And if you want to learn what true love is—for yourself, for your personal community, and for a new community that you will create out of thin air—make it a small food shop in Manhattan, the hardest and most competitive place in the world to “make it” as a restaurateur.
Open it in the West Village, one of the most beautiful urban neighborhoods in the country, where neighbors cram themselves into irrationally misshapen and often comically small decades-old apartments because it’s worth it for the cobblestones and the slanting sunset light in the evenings, and the scores of flowering trees on quiet streets. And then watch what happens when you open the doors and the magic that pours inside.
I opened Three Owls Market in April of last year with a deceptively simple goal: to create a modern neighborhood corner shop—a place simultaneously made for and in defiance of New York City’s bustling, impersonal, electric energy. A shop where you could just as easily idle over a breakfast sandwich in a banquette as you could buy pasta, craft beer, and ice cream in your pajamas, stock up on roast chicken and pesto pasta salad, or gossip with the staff over a latte and a griddled corn muffin.
When people ask what made me open a restaurant (as if not by choice, because it is a curious choice indeed), my stock answer was always the same: insanity. And while that always elicited a chuckle, it’s at least half true. While many New Yorkers harbor escapist hospitality fantasies of “opening an inn upstate” or a “small coffee shop in the Hamptons,” the biggest difference between them and me is I was actually crazy enough to go for my dream.
I’ve been in the food world for most of my career and had touched every single other corner of the business except the great white whale of brick and mortar. There was something too irresistible about playing the role of proprietor, clucking around a busy kitchen and dining room like a mother hen, obsessing over the crispness of each rotisserie chicken, the rotation of each playlist, the height of each gourmet grocery display, reaping the rewards of those daily in-person interactions with the people you work so hard to feed. I knew that if I could be lucky enough to make that my life, every single day, I had to try.
So I quit my perfectly good job as a culinary director, registered an LLC, and went off in search of spaces. I fell hook, line, and sinker for a spot at one of the most scenic corners in the city, the home of a 20-year-old bodega that had decided to pack up and go, at Horatio and Washington Streets, across from a park, down the street from the Whitney Museum and the High Line, a segue from the Meatpacking District to the West Village. It had sky-high ceilings inlaid with remnants of the original High Line railroad tracks and floor-to-ceiling windows. The location was a 10-minute walk from my apartment and marked by a scarcity of other neighborhood businesses to serve the multiple family-filled buildings in every direction.
I was so proud to have created a New York City neighborhood spot—and fearful of what it would look like on the other side of the virus.
Fellow restaurant owners will agree with my earlier assessment: You have to be part nuts to open a food establishment, especially in New York City. While the hospitality fantasy for many conjures some amalgam of a Nancy Meyers movie, an Ina Garten show, and Central Perk, the reality is of course far less glamorous. I prepared myself for this as best as I could, but another restaurant owner maxim held true: Everything you think will go right will go wrong, and everything you think will go wrong will work out fine. The brick-and-mortar food business is a brutal, irrational one, relentlessly subject to the whims of outside forces—customers’ moods, tourists’ appetites, the weather, the health department, the calendar, the popularity of the current Whitney exhibit, the lure of second homes outside the city on a hot summer’s weekend—in a way that makes the fate of your company feel entirely, maddeningly, out of your control.
So why do it?
Because even after a year of the highest highs and the lowest lows, now that I’ve finally caught up on sleep, I can easily say I could never imagine doing anything else. I love it too deeply, too intensely; it has taken up permanent residence inside my bones as the Thing I Am Meant to Do.
I prepared for broken equipment, broken mental states, upsides, downsides, and curveballs, but nothing prepared me for the sheer tidal wave of love that washed over me each and every day of the past year in that space.
When we celebrated our first birthday this spring, our doors were closed due to COVID-19, but I was so proud to have created the living, breathing organism that is a New York City neighborhood spot—and fearful of what it would look like on the other side of the virus.
How will we return the love from behind a mask, a piece of plexiglass, a closed door?
Pre-COVID-19 we had a tightly packed space filled with staff, diners, children, pets, and strollers, each of them with their arguments and their smiles and their laughter. The greatest joy came from the smallest moments—not the press, nor the catering orders, nor the celebrity visitors. It was the customers who would thank me for opening, who would come wandering in midday specifically for our chocolate chip cookie, who would tell me they couldn’t live without our tahini kale salad or the solace of a table they could drink wine at with their stroller alongside. What would knock me off my feet every time was the simple but overwhelming compliment of a repeat customer. Here in New York, a city heaving with its crowded landscape of food establishments, knowing that someone gave us a try and decided to come back, to make us a part of their day, and sometimes even a part of their daily routine, perpetually blew my mind.
As the deafening silence of the pandemic spread throughout the city, we closed our doors in mid-March. As we said goodbye—temporarily—I felt a profound loss. We would come back, sure, but who would we be without the people that crowd our space? Who are we without the three different customers who eat breakfast with their dachshunds and their newspapers? The couple that eat the same breakfast sandwich at the bar every day? The Whitney staffer who starts his day with an Americano on our bench? The after-school gaggle that cleans out our candy supply?
As New York City slowly relaxes social distancing guidelines, we are open in a strange new normal. What plagues me is not what we’ll sell but how we’ll return the love from behind a mask, a piece of plexiglass, a closed door. How do you welcome in a neighborhood without allowing them to gather? It’s certainly one of the curveballs I didn’t plan for, but I will continue to find a way nonetheless. I have no choice—I’m in too deep. From the moment I first opened my doors to this community, I was a goner.
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