Thirty-five years is a long time to run a restaurant, and the pandemic presented more than a few challenges to opening a new place.
Produced by Zagat with
By Alfred Portale as told to Chris Mohney
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.
Alfred Portale was executive chef and partner for 35 years at New York’s legendary Gotham Bar & Grill. In 2019, he struck out on his own as chef and owner of the new Portale restaurant. Gotham closed down for good in March 2020.
Our first anniversary from opening Portale was November 15th, 2020. It’s been an exciting time, a stressful time.
We originally got the restaurant built very quickly. We took over the space in May 2019, and we were ready to go by the middle of that October in terms of the complete design and the kitchen and everything else. We had a team lined up. It came down to the wire because we, like many other restaurants, were waiting for our liquor license. The process was terribly delayed last year.
Because of the uncertainty of when we would get the license and when we’d be able to open, we weren’t able to plan terribly far ahead. We didn’t have a big Thanksgiving plan in place last year, nor did we have lots of parties booked for our private dining room. So we got it open, we had a really good end of year, and then January and February and March were just fantastic.
We’re on 18th Street. Gotham was on 12th Street. I never really thought much about being in the same neighborhood, but it became clear that hundreds and hundreds of our regular guests from Gotham were all from the neighborhood and were thrilled that we were still here. It was like a party every night.
The pandemic was not the reason Gotham shut down. At the time the owners didn’t claim that, but now I think they are. It wasn’t a shock to me. I had seen it coming for months and months and months. I had a certain number of front-of-house staff that worked for me and continued to work at Gotham, so I knew what was going on there, and some of the challenges they had. It’s really, really too bad. It was not a surprise, but nevertheless it was very unfortunate.
As early as 2017, when Gotham was 30-plus years old, my partners and I talked about keeping the restaurant relevant, and how we might change and update it, to move it into the present. It was a big, grand space, a beautiful space, but it was starting to feel a bit dated. We could have tried to make it feel fresher and newer, because the current generation of diners found it to be a little stuffy. We had multiple conversations about what to do and how to update it.
The challenge was how to change Gotham enough to make a difference without alienating all of our customers. I had lots of ideas, but none of them were borne out, unfortunately. It was a lot easier for me as a chef to pivot in terms of the food. I can keep up with the trends and how people are dining. But to change the music, the design, the service, and all of that—my partners just held that too closely. It was much harder to move any of that into a more modern situation.
When I left and they radically changed things, then the handwriting was on the wall. They lost their entire customer base. The way I look at it, I was at Gotham for 30-plus years. They were very, very good years, very rewarding on just about every level. I feel like the team and myself, we accomplished a tremendous amount there. It was very successful, both professionally and financially. After 35 years, some things have to come to an end.
That experience very much drove all of my decisions about Portale. I was intimately involved in every aspect of the design of the restaurant. I worked with INC, the design firm here in New York. We shared exactly the same idea—to link the design with the food concept—which started out being sort of Italian-French Riviera, but morphed more into just Italian.
I love midcentury modern design furniture. I’m actually an amateur furniture maker. I have a big woodworking shop that I built up in Connecticut. One of my favorite designers is Gio Ponti, and we took inspiration from his work in the design elements of the restaurant. Keeping it kind of cool and informal and sexy, yet chic. Intimate lighting is critical. The music creates the vibe. It’s all in an effort to make the experience accessible and new and young.
What’s exciting and different for me about Portale is that it’s an open kitchen, so I’m very much a part of the dining room. I’m walking through the dining room. I can survey it, I see guests, I’m interacting with guests every night. I had always wanted an open kitchen. I feel like it’s interactive in a way. When I’m entertaining at home, people always gravitate to the kitchen. Everybody wants to see the action. An open kitchen in a restaurant like having an action station right in the middle of the dining room.
Portale isn’t a small restaurant—it’s about 110 seats divided into two small rooms. It’s an 1876 carriage house that has been joined together. You can easily see every table, which is a big benefit when you’re trying to put out covers. You can see when people are being cleared or need to be cleared. You’re able to interact with and greet all your regular customers, or your new customers, and friends and family.
Word started to seep out about the pandemic coming at the end of February or beginning of March. I know that a lot of restaurants immediately saw this big downturn in business, and people were wary. We were very, very busy in March—in retrospect, probably not a great idea. Once they announced the lockdown, we quickly shut the restaurant. There were just a couple of staff members, and we did it all in a couple of days. And we remained closed all the way from March up until the third week of August.
During that time, I had regular meetings with my management staff and my director of operations, David Schneider. He and I spoke several times a week. It was a weird time because there was so much uncertainty, and so much that was unknown. You’d make a plan, and then it would change two days later because things just kept changing at such a rapid pace. David kept in touch with the whole front-of-house and back-of-house staff through a series of emails and checking in with everybody.
This was, for the most part, a staff that either I had worked with for years, or David had worked with at one of his various restaurants. He came out of the Altamarea Group, so he was at Marea and all those places. We cared about them and stayed in touch and kept them informed as to what the plan was. But we just hunkered down, tried to shut down as many services as we could, and immediately went to the landlord to see if we could make some progress with him.
Our landlord has worked with us from the beginning. A few months ago, we made what we thought was a tenable rent structure going forward. I’m now back talking to him again because we’re not going to 50 percent indoor occupancy anytime soon. The mayor of New York is talking about reassessing the current 25 percent. But our landlord has been extremely supportive. I’m not sure he has much choice in the matter. This is a unique building. It’s a small, two-story landmark building, and it’s basically just a restaurant.
I live in the city on the Upper East Side. I always have. I’ve got two young boys, age 6 and nearly 4, and a wife. I also have a home up in the country, up in Connecticut—northern Litchfield County, very rural. We packed everybody up in March and moved out there for five or six weeks, before I would begin coming into the city for a couple of days and then going back out. It was bittersweet. My boys really were a bright spot. They were the one thing that kept me very, very happy. I got to spend a lot of time with them. They’re two wonderful, wonderful, happy boys.
When they first opened up restaurants for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining, I personally wasn’t ready to get back into the kitchen. It just didn’t feel safe, to me at least, so how could I expect my team to work as well? And the timing of reopening—even under the best of circumstances, you don’t want to open up a restaurant in New York City in July or August. And then things kept changing. The deadline for opening restaurants for indoor dining, it was just a moving target.
I started coming in early July and working with my director of ops. We got the restaurant to a place where we felt comfortable bringing staff in. Takeout and delivery were platforms that we had never worked with, or I had never worked with, so there was a learning curve. I was really hopeful that September would bring not a big uptick, but at least some uptick in business, given that people would be back in the city and public schools would hopefully be open.
After Labor Day, the city definitely felt a bit busier, so we planned an after-Labor Day opening. We’d get some operational experience, build a little bit of takeout, and also build up a presence on the street and in the neighborhood. That all factored into the thinking about opening when we did.
We’re fortunate that Portale is a new restaurant, so all of our HVAC systems are state of the art, very new. Retrofitting them with the MERV filters was an easy thing. Not an inexpensive thing, but easy. I designed these dividers and had them built. We have air filtration with UV lights all throughout the dining room. The tables are spaced really comfortably. We keep the door open.
Certainly there are a number of people that still, given the choice, would prefer to be outdoors, but we’re seeing more and more people choosing to dine indoors. We get customers who come back a couple times a week to eat here. We’re just hopeful—like everybody else—that with the weather getting colder, we can maybe increase our capacity indoors.
We have a really nice outdoor setup—beautifully landscaped, with dividers as well. We built a permanent structure that is enclosed on three sides. We have electric heat, but we can only heat 20 seats. So we’re going to lose the sidewalk seating because there’s no effective way of heating it. The mayor said that we could have propane heaters, so everybody, including me, went out and bought them. Then the fire department confiscated all of our tanks.
Depending on how your restaurant is situated—if you’re on a corner, if you’ve got empty neighboring storefronts, or if you’ve got a good relationship with the neighbors—some of these restaurants have got more seats and were doing more business outside all summer than they ever were. But those restaurants are the exception. I’m not sure what’s going to happen once it really gets cold out. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all trying to remain optimistic, doing everything we can to gain customers’ confidence in eating indoors. We’re trying to manage our costs as best as we can, as hard as that is. But I think we’ll get through it.
I talk to my collection of chef friends all the time about all this. It depends on what day you catch somebody, how positive they are. I tend to think things are going to be okay. We’re doing everything right here. The confidence level of our New York diners is strong and getting stronger. I know there’s a rise in cases. I’m just feeling confident that New Yorkers, unlike most of the country—we’re going to keep the infection rate down. There’s a vaccine on the horizon. We’re going to probably have a tough three or four months, and then if we can figure out how to get through that, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. That’s my feeling.
We’ve lost a lot of really good restaurants, really important restaurants. This business is fragile. In the last three years it’s become very fragile, from laws regarding the tip credit, the rising cost of rent, insurance, and so on. There were a number of restaurants that were limping by prior to the pandemic that simply couldn’t sustain this type of hit. I think it’s going to have a major impact. To what extent exactly, I can’t speak to. But there’s no question that we’re losing a lot of neighborhood places and a lot of good places. Just to quickly drive through Times Square is frightening. And it’s not only restaurants. I mean, retail is taking a beating. It’s frightening, it truly is.
The restaurant industry is going to have to adapt and adjust and pivot. That’s going to become critical going forward for restaurants to remain relevant and remain profitable. We’re just trying to be very strategic about moving forward, taking very cautious and careful steps for what we know is going to probably be a long, cold winter.