Happy hours and dinner dates are commonplace for corporate America, signifying the time to transition out of work and into play. But what about the people who are mixing the drinks and cooking the dishes, who are just starting their workdays, when everyone else is ending theirs?
Hospitality workers’ own version of happy hour is likely to occur closer to midnight than 5 p.m., especially for those in the kitchen and behind the bar in the city that never sleeps.
From restaurants that continue serving food well into the morning to events geared toward a community on the same atypical schedule, NYC food industry workers have their own subculture of relaxing after work — it just occurs eight hours after the rest of us.
Open (late) for business
Since chefs, bartenders and servers usually finish their days in the wee hours of the morning, the first challenge is finding somewhere that is still open — and not just open, but serving food.
Blue Ribbon Brasserie in SoHo is now a staple for the late-night crowd, since it’s open until 4 a.m., seven days a week. But brothers, and founders, Bruce and Eric Bromberg weren’t overtly trying to cater to the restaurant night owls at first; instead, it happened rather organically.
“We knew that there were basically no real quality dining options late-night in NYC in 1992,” said Bruce of when they opened. “We knew we wanted to make a place where we would be happy going to after work, but we didn’t realize the scope of what was to come and how it would really become the epicenter of the culinary scene in the city.”
Devon, on the Lower East Side, which has also become a hot spot for industry locals getting off shift, has an open kitchen until 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. But, “if the place is full and people are hungry, we will push it,” says co-owner Oliver Zabar.
Zabar’s business partner, Sean Saunders, had a big influence on the relaxed atmosphere of the bar.
“He’s been in the NYC bar industry for a long time, and I know he wanted Devon to be a place colleagues could come hang out before or after their shifts,” Zabar said.
“Finding a late night bite below Delancey (Street) can be tricky! So keeping the kitchen open later especially on Friday and Saturday was important to both of us,” he continued.
Zabar’s other uptown bar, also was heavily inspired by the late-night crowd, as you can tell from its name: “Night Shift.”
“The concept was built around the image of my father [Eli Zabar] leaving his bakery at midnight and heading out for a bite and a glass of wine or beer,” he said. “The kitchen there is open until midnight regularly and the menu is filled with dishes people crave post-10 p.m.”
Items like wood-oven pizzas, sourdough grilled cheese and chicken tortilla soup are bound to comfort any servers or chefs getting off work.
1 a.m. bites
Speaking of food, feeding a group that works within the industry itself, and has been handling food and drink all day (or night) long, takes a special talent.
“I think there is a simple honesty to what we do,” Bruce Bromberg said of the brasserie menu. “The food is essentially what chefs want to eat. Not overly fussy but fun, cool food that relaxes and lets people revel and feel special.”
“Cool food” includes grilled sardines, beef marrow and oxtail marmalade, and a roasted duck club.
“Our menu is a mishmash of our childhood culinary adventures with our dad and our favorite foods and experiences,” he said.
“Eric and I both trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu and there were tons of brasseries that were open late, and some even 24 hours. We definitely derived some inspiration from that basic concept, but I think that most of the food on the menu works at any hour but takes in a special festive feel after midnight for sure.”
Kevin Borges, a current bartender-in-training at the George Washington Bar in the Freehand Hotel, who has worked in the New York restaurant industry for years, said gauging what he is in the mood to eat is based on the feel of the shift and what kind of food his workplace serves.
“It depends … when I used to work on the East Side and they would only serve [foods] like burgers and fries, I wouldn’t really want to eat that anymore, even if that was the only place that was open,” he said. “You just get tired of eating that stuff.”
Borges often finds himself heading to a falafel cart in the West Village post-shift as a change of pace, and either way, is usually looking to escape being around lots of people after interacting with customers for hours.
“If I decide to go out, I want to get away from the crowds, and just relax and chill,” he said, which is why Devon fits the bill for him.
Paul Donnelly, head chef at Chinese Tuxedo in Chinatown, says that not getting as much sleep as nine-to-fivers is not the only thing that differentiates him from the crowd.
“It does turn out that you end up having a lot of friends in your same industry, since you live relatively the same way,” he said. “It’s a pretty tight-knit community because we all understand each other on a level that a lot of other people who don’t work in the ‘biz’ can’t necessarily relate to.”
Since Donnelly works in the back of house, he’s ready to enjoy himself, see friends and socialize when he gets off.
“I’m probably feeling accomplished and ready for a good whiskey or something to relax,” he said. “A lot of the time I go to a friend’s bar or local spot to kick back.”
One such spot he and fellow food professionals frequent is The Beatrice Inn in the West Village, which recently hosted a series called The Sexton Midnight Club, a “late-night for chefs, by chefs concept.” Chef and owner Angie Mar created a custom menu for her chef friends including whiskey braised oxtail pasties, morels on toast with whiskey and cream and whiskey braised onions (everything incorporated the new single malt, “The Sexton”).
Donnelly called it “an ideal night in NYC,” but when there’s not an event, he’s still craving those filling bites.
“I typically don’t get too sick of my own food but it’s always nice to have someone else cook for you,” he said. “Late night I’m just in the mood for something good that’s going to satisfy. A chicken sammy from Mother’s Ruin always hits the spot. pair that with a good whiskey and you’re golden.”