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James Barron | August 7, 2016
[fusion_dropcap color=”” boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”0″ class=”” id=””]I[/fusion_dropcap]t is a question that has been asked before: Whatever happened to Chumley’s?
You read that very same question, in those very same words, in these pages four years ago, and that was not the first time it had come up since an attached chimney gave way in April 2007, leaving a wall unstable and a little building in the West Village unsafe and unusable. No one was injured — the collapse happened in the middle of the day, long after last call. Chumley’s never reopened.
It has been closed for so long now that it needs an explanation. It was a restaurant with a reputation — a former speakeasy, a literary haunt. Even after the wall collapsed, the place remained popular with tour guides. They sounded so knowledgeable, pointing it out, because Chumley’s never had a sign.
Now, after not quite nine and a half years, there seems to be an answer to the will-Chumley’s-reopen question. There is a date, Sept. 6, set by a new operator, Alessandro Borgognone, the owner of Sushi Nakazawa, an upscale sushi restaurant nearby with a celebrity chef (and a four-star review from The New York Times). And while Chumley’s figured in many pasts, some best forgotten, it did not figure in Mr. Borgognone’s.
“I never went to Chumley’s,” Mr. Borgognone said before talking about how the new version would be different. Very different, he said, but mindful of the past he never knew.
“It will never be the Chumley’s it used to be,” he said. “We’re at a different point. We’re in a different era. The rents are different. That plays a part in what you sell.”
He said Chumley’s would also be different from Sushi Nakazawa, where dining-room omakase is $120 (omakase at the bar is $150). Mr. Borgognone said he did not see it as a place with “the $200 steak.” He is aiming instead for a tab of about $50 per person, not including drinks, with the idea that regulars would come a couple of times a week. The menu will be the work of Victoria Blamey, a former sous-chef and chef de cuisine at the restaurant Atera.
Leading the way through the almost-finished space, Mr. Borgognone said the restaurant would be “Chumley’s on steroids.” But some things will not be changed. It will still be a place you have to know to find. There will still be no sign.
“You’re not allowed to have a sign,” Mr. Borgognone said, explaining that the building is in the Greenwich Village Historic District, and that the front door is the same heavy wooden one in place when the wall collapsed.
The interior will mix and match old and new. The patterned wallpaper, leather banquettes, French-oak tables, even the long, dark bar all are new. “What Chumley’s in the ’20s should have looked like,” Mr. Borgognone said.
But the book jackets are back. Chumley’s had a reputation as a hangout for writers — some famous, some not — and no doubt it served its share of literary hangers-on who hoped to overhear what Edna St. Vincent Millaywas saying. Or John Dos Passos. Or Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs.
The walls at Chumley’s became a gallery for the regulars’ book covers. The collection was removed after the wall collapsed, and the book jackets have now been remounted. Some are originals, some reproductions. There are also larger-than-life portraits of larger-than-life types like Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck.
Some barroom etymologists say the expression “eighty-six” was coined at Chumley’s, whose address is 86 Bedford Street. In the days of Prohibition-era raids, the bartender would magically get word whenever the police were coming. Chumley’s also had an entrance on Barrow Street, and when officers rushed in that door, the bartender would yell “eighty-six” — meaning, leave through the 86 Bedford Street door.
Sadly, the Oxford English Dictionary gives Chumley’s no such credit for “eighty-six.” Perhaps it is even sadder that the old Barrow Street door now has an emergency-exit alarm.
“Chumley’s, 20 years ago,” or even as recently as just before the wall collapsed in 2007, “was a bar that served beer,” Mr. Borgognone said. “It wasn’t a place people went to for dinner. We wanted a place you’d be comfortable coming to on a date.”
Maybe there really are no new ideas. If so, the idea of Chumley’s as a place to go on a date is one of them. Michael Kilian, who went on to be a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune and to write the comic strip “Dick Tracy” with the cartoonist Dick Locher, once explained that he was introduced to Chumley’s in 1957, when he was 18. Chumley’s, he wrote, came well recommended when he was seeking a place to take “a ‘nice girl’ instead of the rattraps I usually patronized.”
“One of the things about Chumley’s that has never changed is that it has continued to attract mostly ‘nice girls,’ ” Mr. Kilian wrote. He mentioned Edna St. Vincent Millay, adding: “You almost never find Courtney Love or Madonna wannabes. I do not believe Barbra Streisand ever darkened the darkened doorway.”
He wrote those passages in 2000, a couple of years before the owner at the time described a distressingly gritty neighborhood scene, with people smoking crack cocaine or having sex in nearby doorways.
And then, that night in 2007, the bartenders locked up for what turned out to be the last time. Days turned into months and months turned into years as repairs dragged on to the little building that housed Chumley’s and to the adjacent structures.
Mr. Borgognone is a latecomer. He entered the picture just last winter, introduced by the contractor of Sushi Nakazawa, who knew Jim Miller, a firefighter who had started as a part-time bartender at Chumley’s and ended up in charge.
“What Chumley’s was missing was a guide,” Mr. Borgognone said. “What I mean is, someone who could say, ‘We’ve built restaurants before. Here’s the first step, here’s how we start.’” Of Mr. Miller, he said, “I think he needed help. He needed someone who wasn’t doing this as a part-time job.” (Mr. Miller did not respond to telephone messages or emails inquiries sent over the last couple of weeks.)
Mr. Borgognone said Chumley’s was facing a tight deadline to build out the interior space before the Buildings Department permits expired, but he plunged in. He said, “Everyone told me the same thing my wife said before Sushi Nakazawa: ‘You’re crazy.’”
Well before he stepped in, neighbors tried to stop Chumley’s from reopening, even winning concessions (earlier closing times and a promise to provide security were written into the restaurant’s liquor license). Mr. Borgognone said they need not worry.
“We don’t do bars where people are drinking in and flopping all over the floor — that’s not our kind of business,” he said.
As for the neighbors, he added: “Once they understand this is not a problematic establishment and it’s not what they thought, it will be all right. They’ll see.”