Editor’s note: We’ve been following the renovations at neighborhood Austrian joint Cafe Katja, which has been closed since July for an expansion. The Orchard Street restaurant reopens this evening in its enlarged space. The following article originally appeared in the October issue of our print magazine.
A year ago, Erwin Schrottner and Andrew Chase, the proprietors of tiny Café Katja, could not have been happier with their four-year-old restaurant, except for one thing: they needed more space. Their loyal patrons regularly overflowed the two dozen seats, forcing them to turn business away, particularly on weekends, when crowds spilled out onto Orchard St. as the waitstaff squeezed and bustled among hungry diners waiting along a wall.
But last fall, an unexpected opportunity dropped in their laps. A store next to them shuttered; they pounced.
Using their combined experience in a variety of restaurants they’d worked in before opening Katja, as well as years of planning about how they would expand if they could, the partners designed a bigger, more functional restaurant that still retains Katja’s homey, intimate feel. They removed a 25-inch-thick brick wall, unifying the old storefront with the new, installing a much larger U-shaped slate bar, reclaimed-wood plank floors and custom metalwork that includes tall streetside windows they can fling open in nice weather.
“Basically, it’s going to be the same, but with more seats, another bathroom and windows that open,” Chase said in September, as workers put the finishing touches on the new floor. “Also, we have a real working kitchen now.”
The new Katja, which is expected to open in early October at 77-79 Orchard St., will accommodate more than twice as many diners, with 54 seats. Its new kitchen, which runs across the rear wall and is somewhat open to the dining room, will be much more functional, with a large gas range replacing the two tiny electric burners that used to serve for the whole menu.
“The reason the old Katja worked so well was because the menu was heavily edited,” Chase said. “We knew exactly what we could do — and what we couldn’t.”
For example, Schrottner said, the switch from electric to gas will enable the partners to offer weiner schnitzel, a traditional staple of Austrian fare their old kitchen wasn’t capable of producing. Additional storage, including a second walk-in refrigerator installed in the now much larger basement, will allow for a broader menu, including the addition of more vegetarian and lighter-fare options that Chase and Schottner hope will combat the stereotype that Austrian cuisine is heavy, cold-weather-only food.
“If you visited Austria, you would see that there is actually a lot of healthy, lighter food there,” says Schrottner, who emigrated from there as a young man. House favorites include spaetzle, meatballs and several varieties of sausages, but there are also salad and sandwich options that will be expanded now that there is room to store a wider range of provisions in the basement coolers. The larger kitchen also allowed for the addition of one large appliance whose appearance will be welcomed by many patrons: an espresso machine. Other than that, the beverage options will remain the same, with six beers on draft, a respectable wine list and signature cocktails. The staff is expanding as well, to cover the larger number of tables and provide backup for Chef James Fry, who would turn out plates of appetizers, entrees and desserts in a mad rush without moving his feet an inch in the old one-person kitchen.
The upfit will also enable an expansion of hours: After the new space is up and running smoothly, weekday lunch and weekend brunches will be offered six days a week. The lunch menu will feature salads and sandwiches, including quick take-out options for local workers on their lunch break.
“Being here, on Orchard St. during the daytime every day, it became clear to us that there was room for a lunch place,” Chase said.
Schrottner and Chase, who lives in the East River Co-op on Grand St., put in plenty of their own elbow grease on the renovations, designing and adjusting the floorplan using a cardboard cut-out of the bar as a model, and even doing a lot of the painting themselves. In addition to the slate bar, the dining room includes several banquettes along the exposed-brick walls, wooden tables with metalwork bases that Chase and Schrottner acquired from Metrazur, a restaurant in Grand Central Station that closed, and more slate counters for stand-up space adjacent to the bar. Downstairs, there’s a new second bathroom, a changing room for the staff and a new office cubby for Schrottner.
Down the road, the partners envision opening a second restaurant, a different concept than Katja, with a garden or other outdoor space. That project went on the back burner for a bit this summer. “We were very close to getting a second space when boom, out of the blue, this space became available,” Schrottner said.