Return of a New York Bar Legend: Can Alessandro Borgognone Make Chumley’s Cool Again?
Chumley’s attracted the literary great and good, and now it’s been reborn as a restaurant. Starry ghosts are still very present.
There will be no sign outside, announcing Chumley’s rejuvenated presence. The storied speakeasy, freshly transformed into a restaurant, stands at 86 Bedford St. in Greenwich Village and was for many years the favored haunt of writers and artists, including Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, William Faulkner, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
From 2007—when a chimney of a neighboring building smashed into Chumley’s—to today, the restaurant has been closed. But on Sept. 26, under the dedicated eye of its new operator, Alessandro Borgognone, Chumley’s will reopen.
A few days ago a reporter found the 36-year-old Borgognone inside the dimly lit bar, smoking a cigar, dressed in his gym kit (after a workout at the nearby Equinox), and talking with a supplier about when the venue’s espresso would arrive.
During our conversation, the door swung open to reveal a passerby, curious as to what is happening with Chumley’s reopening. “I’ve heard parents stop in front of the door with their kids and say this was where they came when they went to NYU,” said Borgognone. “If these walls really could speak, what they could say could probably shock both of us.”
The vibe is of a literary Cheers: a secret world of warm wood, distressed leather seats, and antiquated literary starpower spread between two rooms. The flock-wallpapered walls still feature rows of book covers and portraits of authors, like Hemingway and St. Vincent Millay. The visitor’s eye alights upon an illustrative literary treasure trove: John Dos Passos’s Airways, Inc., Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me The Waltz, and Theodore Dreiser’s Dreiser Looks at Russia.
The feel is of a clubbable, upscale hideaway, with a few prime-positioned brown leather banquettes, where—presumably—the influential and starry will set up camp for the night to gossip and observe.
More than once, Borgognone emphasized this will not be a bar, but a restaurant “with classic American fare that has a bit of innovation: a classic hamburger (its special, spicy ketchup will be available to accompany other dishes), steak for two, steak for one, beef tartare, and fois gras terrine.” To keep the rough, homey vibe, there will be no tablecloths.
That Borgognone also operates Sushi Nakazawa, which The New York Times’s Pete Wells granted a rave review to, portends well. “It’s very important it keeps the same feel it had before it closed, although at that point it was a bar that had food—and food wasn’t its main purpose,” said Borgognone. “You came in, had a cold beer, and that was that.”
Borgognone walked me through the bar, and described how the visitor will first hear the hubbub of voices and clink of silverware, before entering the room proper.
In the middle of the first room on the right hand wall is the portrait of Leland Stanford Chumley, who opened the venue in 1922. Next to that is a cutely sequestered table where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald would apparently sit.
The new Chumley’s, which will seat 65, is already taking reservations. Opponents of the bar who live in the neighborhood no longer present a problem, said Borgognone. “There are no worries. I’m an operator who runs a smooth ship, and a maker of very respectable restaurants. We take our neighbors into consideration, and we also want to maintain the West Village to its standards. They should put away all their concerns of what the old Chumley’s had going on—they shouldn’t worry about us.”
Borgognone also insisted he would not be courting celebrities. If they come, they can expect to be treated like everyone else, he said (except, perhaps, President Obama). At Sushi Nakazawa, celebrities seeking to jump the queue are told they can expect to wait like everyone else. The same will go at Chumley’s. So Beyoncé can wait? “She doesn't have to come,” said Borgognone. “She can stay home or go to any other restaurant. Our philosophy is everyone should be treated equally.”
Borgognone says “love and passion” informed the choices he makes when building and backing a restaurant. He knew Chumley’s history, and did not want to re-create that. His is an aesthetic and atmospheric mix of old and new, and he realizes the “incredibly important responsibility” he now has “to conserve Chumley’s for ourselves and New York City. It will be a tremendous honor if we can pull it off. I don’t want to be the gentleman that failed at Chumley’s. I want to be the gentleman that revived it, and hope that it carries on living for a great many years, so I and my children can experience it.”
Growing up in New York City, Borgognone wanted to be a lawyer. His father was a baker, who presided over Veniero’s on East 11th Street when Alessandro was growing up; his mother’s side of the family were restaurateurs.
“We never saw them during the holidays or Christmas,” he recalled. “I never wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be something different. We spent the majority of our time in restaurants. It was fun, but so much stress for my parents.”
He laughed, and added that he was “a horrible baker,” but “a great cook as far as it goes.”
Borgognone gives chefs “a ton of credit” considering all the stress they operate under. He has come to realize he is best “flirting” in the front of house, by which he means checking that every detail is just-so: how a dish looks, whether there is a hole in the wall or carpet, and—most important—ensuring his customers are happy. “Wherever I go I’m always looking for mistakes, nothing is perfect,” he said.
The restaurant world is “what I know and what I love,” Borgognone added. “What I know best is how to make someone feel extra-special. We want everyone at our restaurants to have the best kind of experience, and feel at home.” His maître d’s introduce themselves by their first name.
His dedication has its own consequences. Borgognone has three daughters, Patrizia, 10, Olivia, 8, and Stella, 3. Anna, his wife, does get upset, he says, by his attachment to working, but opening restaurants is what he does, “and as a good dad, I strive for more. I don’t do it for me, I do it for them.”
Borgognone said he doesn’t want to be working at “65 or 70,” hoping he can stop to enjoy that time onwards with his family.
Patrizia is already quite the foodie, and has already said that “maybe” she would like to do what her father does. “I don’t want her to, but if it’s going to make her happy, that will make me happy.”
As well as Chumley’s, Borgognone is planning two further restaurant openings, details of which he declined to give. “I continually move on,” he said. “I can’t stop. It’s my drug. It’s my addition.” He said he liked being involved in everything: contracting, carpentry, and “building with building blocks” in the adult, commercial extension of what he did as a child.
“The New York restaurant scene is a very complex scene. You’ve heard that the majority of restaurants go out of business in the first year, and that is due to a number of factors. People don’t realize what you have to prepare before you open up. I walk into spaces, and know what’s going on for what per square foot.”
All the decisions he makes, he said, he knows are grave not just for him, but the people who work for him and who depend on him to provide for their own families.
“I’m a conservative person, and I play very conservatively,” said Borgognone. “If a place is trendy it will go out of trend. I don’t do ‘trendy.’ ‘Trendy’ isn’t my cup of tea. I do ‘classic’—something that is wanted both today and 20 years from now. I’m not in this because I want to be cool.”
He laughed. “I mean, look, I’m doing an interview in my gym outfit and smoking a cigar.” But Borgognone is really as serious as Hemingway also looks, peering down from the wall as I leave. And the very serious, as yet unanswerable question is, can Borgognone really make the good times roll at Chumley’s again.