Couple realizes dream of vegetarian/organic wine restaurant


By Tien-Shun Lee

Sitting by the buttery black leather seats against the wall of her East Village vegetarian restaurant, “Counter,” Deborah Gavito recalled the days when she used to sneak 50-pound bags of flour up to her West Village apartment for the homemade bakery business she ran on the sly.

Gavito’s “Body and Soul” line of baked-goods was her first entrepreneurial venture, which she started in 1993 with some help from her partner, Donna Binder. It was the couple’s dream to one day open a second business – an organic, vegetarian restaurant.

“We wanted it to be comfortable and beautiful. We wanted great music, and we wanted the food to be delicious,” said Gavito.

With a glass and silver front, brick red bar stools and candle-lit tables, Counter, located at 105 First Ave., has a light, airy atmosphere. The owners describe it as “simplistic, chic art-deco meets 30’s diner sensibility.”

The architectural focus of the restaurant is a glowing organic wine bar that is highlighted by half-circle structures on the ceiling.

The wine bar features 28 organic wines, some of which are made from grapes that are biodynamic, meaning they are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.

“About a year ago we started tasting wines,” said Gavito. “There were so many good organic wines that the whole concept changed to a wine bar.”

Instead of the usual complimentary appetizer of bread or chips, customers at Counter receive a frozen sangria pop to whet their appetite for wine and food.

For $8, customers can sample three organic white wines or two roses. For $10, they can sample three pinots.

“The wines are from all over – California, the Finger Lakes, Spain, Italy, France, Australia,” said Binder, who put together the wine menu. “The wine sampler is fun. It lets people do different tastings and all together it equals more than a glassful.”

One of the most popular items on the food menu is the $12.95 “Blue Plate Special” – a French lentil and wild rice loaf with red gravy, garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed vegetables and confetti cole slaw.

Other popular dishes include the $8.95 seitan barbecued mesquite burger, served with smoked onions, confetti slaw and French fries; the special portobello mushroom studded with peppercorn and served with sautéed vegetables; and the $15.25 Napoleon – a meal of polenta layered with grilled vegetables, served with basil sauce, sundried tomato salsa, sautéed kale and roasted garlic.

“We wanted the menu to be accessible to people, so we have a lot of comfort food on it,” said Binder.

For dessert, the restaurant offers sorbets and a home-made green tea ice-cream served in a filo-pastry basket with a mango sauce.

Before opening Counter on March 4th of this year, Gavito had struggled to make her Body and Soul baked goods business successful. She first baked in the Manhattan Plaza, an apartment complex for actors. Next she baked out of her home and eventually in a commercial kitchen on West 10th Street, which she rented for the last eight years. She sold her baked goods, which included muffins, pies, tarts, sandwiches and savory turnovers in the farmers’ markets on 57th Street and in Union Square.

The couple’s quest to open a restaurant was not easy. They first hoped to open their restaurant in a building on 7th Street between First and Second Avenues, which they purchased in 1997. But half-way through construction of the restaurant in that building, the city Department of Buildings told the architect that the building was not zoned for a restaurant, and ordered work to be stopped.

The couple then applied for a zoning variance, but with opposition from a back yard neighbor, who hired lawyers to fight the construction of the restaurant, the variance was never granted.

It took the couple a few years before they could regain strength to continue pursuing their dream. Then in the beginning of this year, they saw a sign up on what used to be a hardware store. They talked to the landlord, rented the space for $7,000 a month, and turned the space into their vegetarian restaurant/organic wine bar.

Gavito and Binder now live with their two-year-old daughter, Rafaella, on the first floor of their building on 7th Street, where their restaurant was originally supposed to be.

Gavito continues to bake her “Body and Soul” goodies from her restaurant’s kitchen. She sells the goods at a table in the Union Square farmer’s market.

“Basically, it’s a lot of fun but a lot of work running the restaurant,” said Gavito, as her partner prepared to head home to take care of Rafaella.

“I think the best part is feeding people and having them leave happy.”