By Caroline Benveniste
We ended our March 2016 WestView article on Chumley’s with: “Only time will tell whether or not there is a spring opening of Chumley’s.” Chumley’s did not open in the spring, but it did finally open on October 18th.
In the intervening months, WestView News was in the middle of a battle between the pro- and anti-Chumley’s forces. BarFreeBedford took out a full-page ad in WestView that began with: “NO MORE BARS ON BEDFORD” and then listed six reasons, the fourth of which was “No Local Support”. The letter included an exhortation to write to the State Liquor Authority (SLA) opposing the application.
In response to this ad, Steven Monroe Smith, a Barrow Street resident, wrote a letter, which was published in the April issue. He referred to BarFreeBedford as a “faceless group” and countered their “No Local Support” claim by pointing out that a pro-Chumley’s petition circulated by the Bedford Barrow Commerce Block Association (BBCBA) had garnered 350 signatures, 85 of them from people living in the immediate neighborhood. He also reported that a campaign by the BBCBA prompted by the BarFreeBedford ad had resulted in 125 people writing to the SLA in support of Chumley’s.
But BarFreeBedford successfully managed to delay Chumley’s liquor license. In late March, the SLA stated that the application “needs to go to the full board for review, due to opposition we have received.”
In the meantime, the lawsuit, Matter of Kearny vs. New York City Board of Standards & Appeals filed in 2014 by BarFreeBedford, was still percolating through the courts. BarFreeBedford was petitioning the court to revoke Chumley’s nonconforming zoning permit. Chumley’s received this permit in 1961 when the area, which had previously been zoned commercial, was changed to residential. According to the law, such a permit could be revoked if there was an interruption in business operation for two years or more. However, an exception to this rule exists when the business closed because it was compelled to perform repairs. On April 12th, the New York County Supreme Court found that this exception applied and, therefore, denied BarFreeBedford’s petition.
On April 28th, the SLA approved Chumley’s application for a liquor license, and with all the regulatory and legal battles behind them, the Sushi Nakazawa team, led by Alessandro Borgognone promised a September 6th opening. By August, reservations were live. Then on September 7th, the opening date was changed to October 6th. Some people who had managed to get reservations went to the restaurant only to find it closed. One day, on a lark, I checked on Opentable and was able to reserve a spot for October 18th. My husband and I headed over that evening and, much to our surprise, we found out that it had in fact opened a few hours earlier.
Alessandro Borgognone was there himself at the door greeting customers. For now, the restaurant is reservations-only (the Vice President for Public Relations told me that this was done to allow the kitchen to grow their sea legs) but you can still walk in and get a drink at the bar. The front room is lined with tables and is fairly quiet, but the back room, which has the bar, can get quite crowded. Because of changes to the building that were required to bring it up to code, the current space is smaller than the original. So, when there are people standing two-deep at the bar, the wait staff can barely navigate between the bar and the tables.
The space is lovely. It has been redone to generate a 1920s feel, and, in a nod to the past, book jackets still line the walls. The night we were there, we heard other patrons talking about how they used to be regulars at Chumley’s. But this is not the old Chumley’s: The small menu features crudo, a “little greens” salad, and a $25 burger. Inventive cocktails hover around $16, in line with neighborhood prices, but it’s not the way it used to be.
I was hoping to connect with Jim Miller and Stephen Smith to gauge their viewpoints during the process. However, Miller, now a minority investor in Chumley’s, has not returned any of my calls or texts since April. (He has not spoken to any other members of the press either.) I also tried contacting Smith but he did not reply either. Perhaps they are bemused that, after all the efforts they made to reopen Chumley’s, they have ended up with something that is not Chumley’s.
And probably the BarFreeBedford folks are not happy either. They did not want Chumley’s to reopen, not even a fancier and more sedate version. I ran into the BarFreeBedford representative I had interviewed for my last article walking her dog on Barrow Street. She told me that they are selling their apartment and moving out of the neighborhood.