Bistro owner adapts to patrons and economy


BY Helaina N. Hovitz

It was Christmas Eve and a party of ten decided to come in for dinner at 5:30 p.m. For the owner of Stella Manhattan Bistro, Fernando Dallorso, that meant putting his own holiday on hold.

Dallorso owns four restaurants, but spends 80 percent of his time at Stella, making sure that everything at the downtown eatery is running smoothly. He sets up shop in neighborhoods that have charm, personality, history and heart, and that’s what drew him to Front Street.

The Battery Park City resident bought the restaurant in April 2008, after his friend’s haunt, Stella Maris, spent a year struggling to stay afloat. Latin for “Star of the Sea,” the ocean-themed eatery was just missing the mark, and Dallorso had a different vision for the restaurant. He saw a Downtown bistro, influenced by French cuisine, with an atmosphere that was elegant, chic, and warm. What he envisioned was Stella Manhattan Bistro.

“You can come to Stella in your pajamas on a Saturday morning or in formal wear Thursday night,” said Dallorso. “It’s an all-purpose place.“

Stella saw booming business during its first year, but that changed when they lost the majority of their customers in the winter of 2008.

“We used to see a huge business crowd, but now we only get some of Wall Street, mostly for lunch, on a budget,” explained Dallorso. “Some of our old regulars will stop in for a drink to let us know they’re thinking of us, but they just can’t afford it anymore.”

Now, Stella’s getting a menu makeover, adding Argentinean and Asian flavors to the mix. They’re also adjusting the menu to fit a more economy-friendly budget. As Dallorso points out, most restaurateurs in this economy are lucky to walk away with even a 10 percent profit. He could easily start charging customers for use of the restaurant’s lounge, which they can reserve for a small business meeting — for as few as three people — or for an entire wedding reception; but additional charges, he said, are not an option, even though most of the time, he makes almost no profit on such events.

“We are a restaurant, and we’re going to make money off of food and drink only,” said Dallorso. “We’re in a recession, and we aren’t going to start charging our neighbors other fees.”

Dallorso is a regular at almost every monthly Community Board 1 meeting, and knows the importance of being a good neighbor. “We allow those who use the lounge to have a DJ, but after a certain point, we ask them to turn it down,” he said.

Dallorso arrived in Queens from Buenos Aires in 1991, and has come a long way from the Forest Hills Ice Cream Shop he managed as his first gig. He opened his first restaurant, Novecento, in 1995, followed soon after by Azul and Industria Argentina. Only a few of Stella’s menu items are prepared with a South American flair, but those left wanting more can take free tango lessons at the restaurant on Wednesday evenings once the weather warms up.

Dallorso said he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Stella Manhattan Bistro from sinking, which means appealing to a wider demographic, staying kid friendly, and offering stellar service.

“Today’s crowds want everything when they go out to eat; good service, good food, good prices, and a good atmosphere,” explained Dallorso. “And I want to give it to them.”