Last month we brought you first word of an ambitious new restaurant project on historic Doyers Street. In the former home of the 1900-era Chinese theater at 5 Doyers St., two entrepreneurs plan to open a 192-seat, two-level venue called “Chinese Tuxedo.” The other day we got a chance to visit the raw space (there’s not much to look at now) and to speak with partner Eddy Buckingham.
In an 8-page brochure, the project is described as “a new brand of venue for New York’s Chinatown neighborhood.” The restaurant, Buckingham and partner Jeff Lam explain, “will honor the ancient traditions of Chinese cuisine whilst innovating and challenging industry standards.” When we spoke last Friday, Buckingham said it would be a traditional Cantonese menu, including dim sum service, and featuring very fresh, top quality ingredients. The idea is not, he said, “to reinvent the wheel,” but to prepare traditional Chinese food really well. Unlike most restaurants in Chinatown, there will be a cocktail program revolving around herbal teas and traditional Chinese herbs, as well as authentic Chinese spirits. The main dining room will be on the ground floor with banquet-style private rooms in the cellar (an earlier plan called for an 80-seat cocktail bar downstairs).
Buckingham, originally from Melbourne, Australia, has been in New York for six years. He opened The Liberty near Herald Square three years ago, a 4,000 sq. ft. bar/restaurant with craft cocktails and a large selection of beers in a restored “old world” setting. Jeff Lam has a consulting business located on Allen Street. The pair began talking about doing a project together after Lam, who builds restaurants, finished designing The Liberty for Buckingham. They originally planned to take a space on Spring Street near Bowery, but encountered opposition from Community Board 2.
In retrospect, Buckingham, said, it’s much better to be in the heart of Chinatown. A restaurant called “Chinese Tuxedo” opened on Doyers Street in 1897. Through the design of the new spot, the partners hope to pay tribute to the neighborhood’s historic roots. They’ve been making the rounds in the community, meeting with local leaders such as Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership, Justin Yu of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a Doyers Street mainstay.
The team will pitch their concept to Community Board 3’s liquor licensing committee next Monday evening. They’re likely to face some pointed questions. One skeptic is CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li, who lives nearby. Speaking only for herself and not for the board, Li said, “I am concerned about the fact that the applicants do not have a history running other establishments in the neighborhood and also because (Buckingham) operates a venue in Midtown that seems more like a bar than a restaurant.” Doyers Street, she added, already has two substantial nightlife establishments (Apotheke and Pulqueria). “It’s a narrow, one-way Street,” Li said, “and just not an appropriate location for a venue of this size.”
Wilson Tang of Nom Wah, which has been a fixture on Doyers Street since 1920, also has some concerns. Tang said he thinks it’s generally a good thing for new businesses to open on the block, but agrees with Li that the narrow street could become overburdened. He’d like to see some operating restrictions limiting the hours of the new restaurant.
Buckingham said he and Lam are listening to community feedback. He offered reassurances that “Chinese Tuxedo” will not be a nightlife-centric “bottle service” style operation. “We’re the antithesis of that. It’s about the food,” he said. After hearing feedback from various quarters, they have offered to close at 11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday. Buckingham said they’ll ask for a 1 a.m. closing time Thursday-Saturday. The goal, he concluded, is to create a restaurant that feels like it’s part of Chinatown’s unique culture. Buckingham made the comparison with Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem project that draws from the neighborhood, while also attracting diners from all over the city.
Community Board 3’s committee meeting takes place Monday at 6:30 p.m. at 59 East 4th St.