BY YANNIC RACK |
It was the sound of no hands clapping.
Buddha Bar, a worldwide franchise of pricy Asian Fusion restaurants from London to Manila, was unable to transcend earthly concerns last week when dozens of Tribecans showed up to a Community Board 1 meeting to oppose the swanky chain’s plan to open an outpost in their neighborhood.
The global chain wants to open a massive 12,000-square-foot outpost on Thomas St. later this year — but its liquor license application was shot down by CB1’s Tribeca Committee on Apr. 13, because locals contend its owner plans to create a noisy nightclub instead.
“This bar is so obviously a nightclub, even though you’re not getting a cabaret license. People dance in this club, there’s plenty of evidence on social media,” said Thomas St. resident George Rush, one of dozens of incensed locals who said its existence would mean suffering for its neighbors.
The discussion focused on the planned establishment’s method of operation, which the owner and his honchos insist will be that of a “high-class restaurant” serving an average bill of $100-plus — but which the residents, citing the franchise’s other locations, fear will lean more towards a flashy bar and event venue attracting a rowdy clubbing crowd.
“The Buddha Bar experience is nightclub with some food. You can shake your heads — go online, it’s out there,” said Carolyn Bekkedahl, another neighbor on the block.
But even if the spot turns out to be nothing more than a restaurant, its potential neighbors fear that an establishment that can hold almost 300 people and is open until 2 a.m. will undoubtedly wreak havoc on their block, with honking, loitering and smoking shattering the inner peace of their quiet side street.
“The general concern from all these neighbors here is that people will spill out of your restaurant — it will be rowdy, late hours, drunk people,” said committee chair Elizabeth Lewinsohn.
The location doesn’t help the restaurateurs’ case either — the same space was previously occupied by two other restaurants, Obeca Li and Megu, which turned into noisy neighbors that drove the community crazy.
“This is symptomatic of a problem in Tribeca, where on many streets residential peace is shattered by clubs that come in, claiming that they’re restaurants and have nothing but the best intentions,” said Rush. “But we have lived through 15 years of lies from Obeca Li and Megu, who resorted to party promoters and became the reason many people could not go to sleep.”
The future restaurant’s operators countered that they had already demonstrated their good will by reaching out to a handful of neighbors, putting a security plan in place to mitigate customers spilling into the street, and commissioning a noise impact study.
“We want to run a clean, nice operation,” said Nicolas Barthelemy, who will be the restaurant’s director of operations. “We’re not here to ruin your life and make it a nightmare. I reached out to the neighbors. I think we’re being proactive about addressing some of these issues.”
“Megu started out as a clean, nice operation, it was well loved by the community,” countered CB1 member Bruce Ehrmann. “But the space was so large and the street was so obscure that they couldn’t make it, so they took desperate measures to try to stay in business — which was so disruptive that we closed them down.”
Ehrmann pointed out that that Wikipedia describes the Buddha Bar’s flagship location in Paris as popular “among foreign yuppies and wealthy tourists.” And the chain heavily promotes its lineup of music and DJs.
But the restaurant’s representatives at the meeting — backed by a phalanx of lawyers and other employees — seemed to intentionally obscure the connection between their establishment and other Buddha Bar franchises around the world.
Although they insisted there was no relationship with their namesakes in Europe and elsewhere, Stefan Stefanov, the Bulgarian investor who said he is putting up the money for the venture, has actually run the Buddha Bar in London for the past four years, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Similarly, Barthelemy lists on his online resume that he was in charge of the franchise’s overall operations in North and South America and Eastern Europe — and also helped run the Buddha Bar that operated in the Meatpacking District until it lost its franchise license a few years ago.
At one point, Barthelemy even went so far as to call the Meatpacking location “poorly operated,” without disclosing his own involvement as assistant to the CEO who “took part [in] all major operational decisions,” according to his LinkedIn profile.
“They took the brand away from them,” Barthelemy said of the former spot on Little W. 12th St.
The team’s lawyer and spokesman also brazenly denied any connection at the meeting. “We have no relation with the prior Buddha Bar in Manhattan,” he told the residents.
The CB1 members voted 7-0 against the application in the end, but its vote is only advisory.
In fact, one board member pointed out that it might have been a smarter strategy to approve of the license with certain stipulations about opening times and noise levels — since the State Liquor Authority might give Buddha Bar the go ahead anyway, which would leave CB1 completely powerless.
“It’s a double-edged sword. If they do get approval from the SLA, you run the risk of giving them exactly what they want, because they will no longer have to fulfill the conditions under which they came before us,” Adam Malitz explained to the crowd. “You might get something even worse.”
The Tribeca Committee is already dealing with another restaurant-cum-nightclub in the neighborhood — M1-5 Lounge on Walker St. — which got a slap on the wrist last month, when CB1 denied an application to amend its liquor license because residents say the place is violating the law by operating a rowdy nightclub without a cabaret license.
Combined with the history of the previous tenants of the Thomas St. space, some CB1 members think the lesson learned is that once an establishment — whatever kind — is up and running, there’s little that neighbors can do to stop them from turning into a neighborhood nuisance.
“There’s definitely the experience of having a few places that started out saying they’re one thing and becoming another,” said committee member Jeff Ehrlich. “But once things start to go wrong, we have no control. It can go on for years.”