Café pops into Soda Shop space

By Julie Shapiro

Behind the darkened windows of the former Soda Shop on Chambers St., a transformation is underway.

Gone are The Soda Shop’s burgers and egg creams, which drew Tribeca families and Stuyvesant High School students until the shop closed at the beginning of December. In their place are a new wooden bar and coffee counter and plans for a Mediterranean-inflected menu.

The changes are the work of restaurateur Craig Bero, who wants to open a new version of his Cosmopolitan Cafe in the Soda Shop space by the end of this month. Now located around the corner on W. Broadway, the Cosmopolitan Cafe has to move because of upcoming construction on the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

“I thought I was going to be homeless,” Bero said last week as he made the one-minute trip between his old and new locations. Bero said he was devastated when he learned he would have to move his cafe, which he opened in 2007 in what was once the storied hotel’s ladies waiting room and tearoom.

But now, Bero speaks with irrepressible excitement about his plans, which include expanding the Cosmopolitan’s menu and physical capacity. Bero’s latest inspirations come from his recent visits to Corsica, the island where Napoleon was born.

“They do not eat food not raised on the island,” Bero said. “The only exception is the coffee. They’re so fiercely independent about that cuisine. That was profoundly influential to me.”

Bero likened Corsica’s locally sourced food to Tribeca’s heritage as the Washington Market butter-and-eggs district.

“I want it to be a historical repository down here, of the whole waterfront and what Washington Market represented,” Bero said. “I want to go back to what this area was.”

Just like at the current Cosmopolitan Cafe, the menu will be based on what Bero finds at local farmers markets. But Bero is unveiling new French and Mediterranean dishes, like a series of sweet and savory crepes filled with chicken stew, or ratatouille, or fruit and chocolate. The spigots that once pumped flavors into The Soda Shop’s milkshakes will now spill caramel and vanilla sauce onto crepes. (Bero may serve milkshakes as well, but if so, he’ll call them frappes.)

Bero is no stranger to The Soda Shop — he opened it in 2006 with local lawyer Linda Donahue, and many of the Old New York artifacts on display there belong to him. However, Bero and Donahue split ways shortly thereafter and Bero opened the Cosmopolitan.

“I didn’t want to do kids’ parties rest of my life,” Bero said.

Even after Bero left The Soda Shop, the relics he had been collecting for decades remained behind, mostly in the back room, which Bero plans to turn into a private events space for hotel guests and others. Once a brick courtyard, the opulent candlelit back room is filled with objects that look expensive but were actually headed to a dumpster until Bero rescued them. The floor and the bar are covered in white marble tiles that used to form steps leading to the old Marine Midland Bank building.

Many of the displayed items came from the Cosmopolitan Hotel itself, which opened as the Girard House in 1853. Mounted on one wall is the wheel from the vault where travelers used to store their money. Bero had hoped to display the entire door to the vault, but it weighed 22,000 pounds.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel has undergone many changes over the years, but none so dramatic as the one that was approved last year. In addition to displacing the Cosmopolitan Cafe to build a larger entrance on W. Broadway, the owners will demolish the adjacent two-story building housing Mary Ann’s Mexican Restaurant and build a six-story brick addition there. Mary Ann’s is moving to the old Yaffa’s restaurant and teahouse space on Greenwich St.

Bero said he sees architects on the site almost every day and he expects work to start in the spring. Jay Wartski, one of the Cosmopolitan’s owners, would not give a definite timeline but said it would be at least a couple months.

Bero will keep his current cafe open as long as possible, though he will scale back the menu once the new location opens. Community Board 1’s Tribeca Committee gave advisory approval to the transfer of Bero’s wine license at a meeting Wednesday night. Both restaurants will have the name “Cosmopolitan Cafe,” Bero said.

Bero, whose previous credits also include the Village’s Anglers & Writers and Bespeckled Trout, has not signed a lease for the new space but said he and Wartski have “a gentleman’s agreement,” which Wartski confirmed.

“He’s good for the hotel, and he’s good for the neighborhood,” Wartski said.

Roger Byrom, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee, was glad to hear the Cosmopolitan Cafe would stay in the neighborhood.

“To have an alternative to Starbucks is a good thing,” Byrom said. “We want more local business and less franchised big business.”

Since Wartski gave Bero the go-ahead about three weeks ago, Bero said he has hardly slept because there is so much to do, from testing recipes to curating the museum’s worth of materials on the walls.

One of the crowning moments came late on a recent afternoon, when Bero heard a pounding on the new cafe’s locked door: His double crepe maker had arrived.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Bero said as two workers wheeled it in. “This is…oh, man!”

The crepe maker, from a friend at Woolworth Tower Kitchen, can make two crepes at once. As Bero lifted it onto a table, he said he hopes to have so many customers that the two burners are necessary.

Bero settled the machine into place, then grinned at it.

“Don’t ask what I’m going to be doing tonight,” he said.