When Shalom Chai pizzeria closed in June, many lamented the departure of the last full-service kosher restaurant on the Lower East Side, saying it was not only a loss for the neighborhood’s dwindling Orthodox Jewish population, but also a significant marker of the changing nature of the community. Those laments, however, may well have been premature.
Nathan Sklar, a lifelong Seward Park Co-op resident and local businessman, is proposing a new kosher eatery in the double storefront at 357-359 Grand St.
“Our concept is a cafe where everyone can eat,” said Sklar, who would be making his first foray into the restaurant business, in partnership with other investors and a chef who lives in East River Co-op. Sklar is the executive director of Comprehensive Companies, a collection of businesses that includes Comprehensive Kids, a developmental school.
Sklar’s proposal is one of four competing applications presented last month to the board of Seward Park Co-op, which owns the one-story commercial strip running from Essex Street to Clinton Street. The other three options include a Spanish restaurant by Grand Street residents Alex Raij and Eder Montero, who recently shared their plans with The Lo-Down, and have already secured a liquor license there. Ned Baldwin, the chef de cuisine at East Village restaurant Prune, is proposing a third restaurant. The fourth applicant is a well-known Essex Street store: The Pickle Guys, whose owners are seeking to relocate around the corner into bigger space.
A vote by the co-op board to choose the tenant has not yet been scheduled, but will likely occur within the month, General Manager Frank Durant said.
“The board still has some open questions that they are trying to work out,” Durant wrote in an email. “After further discussion and negotiations, I am confident they will make a decision the community will be pleased with.”
Speaking in his office high above Delancey Street yesterday morning, Sklar detailed his vision for a menu centered on fish and vegetables, including vegan and gluten-free options, salads and pizza. He’s exploring the idea of sushi as well, he said, noting that kosher sushi is a rare find in NYC. The restaurant, which is very tentatively titled Grand and Essex Cafe, would serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. He plans to have outdoor seating on the sidewalk in front, as well as in a small garden area in the rear. Catering, takeout and delivery options are all in the plan, along with a full bar license. The restaurant would close an hour or two before sunset on Fridays and reopen shortly after sunset on Saturdays in observation of the Sabbath.
The Lower East Side’s Jewish community has actively campaigned for the kosher proposal via letters to board members and a petition of more than 100 signatures, Sklar said. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has also voiced his support, Sklar said.
“The Jewish community is fighting for this, because they want a nice place where they can eat, and have a drink,” Sklar said. “This is the last hurrah for a kosher restaurant in our community.”
It’s the second time this year the Seward Park Co-op board has grappled with choosing a new tenant to replace a kosher eatery. In March, the board chose the non-kosher Comfort Diner over a kosher proposal from the team behind Holy Schnitzel, a small chain. That space, at 399 Grand St., was formerly occupied by Noah’s Ark Deli. Both Noah’s Ark and Shalom Chai were evicted after lengthy legal battles prompted by tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, and both restaurants had run afoul of the city’s health department inspectors at various times in their histories. Those factors, Sklar acknowledges, have unfortunately affected locals’ opinions of kosher restaurants. As more successful models, he points to restaurants like Reserve Cut, a steakhouse in the Financial District and Solo, a Chinese restaurant in Midtown that’s currently closed for relocation, but has drawn rave reviews from critics for “taking kosher cuisine to bold new heights.”
“We’ve never had anything like that here. People need to know that kosher doesn’t have to mean dirty, or unfriendly,” Sklar said. “The neighborhood is changing, and we want to change with it.”