Death & Co. is frightening some neighbors on Sixth St.


By Julie Shapiro

Death & Co., an upscale new nightspot that serves drinks and appetizers, has attracted glowing reviews and throngs of patrons since it opened at the beginning of January. But the bar and restaurant at 433 E. Sixth St. has also attracted sharp criticism from several neighbors and Community Board 3. In fact, with its ominous name and décor, Death & Co. actually has some neighbors scared, dredging up their worst nightmares — while other neighbors say their nights are literally haunted by the bar’s din.

At a Feb. 13 meeting, the State Liquor Authority & Economic Development Committee of C.B. 3 recommended to deny renewal of Death & Co.’s liquor license. The committee also recommended that the S.L.A. investigate Death & Co.’s proximity to a nearby synagogue, Anshe Meseritz.

At the heart of the conflict is the question of whether Death & Co. is a full-service restaurant, as owner David Kaplan initially told C.B. 3.

“We feel we were deliberately misled into thinking it was going to be a quiet restaurant,” said Joe Hurley, who lives above Death & Co. “The people on the block don’t want another bar.”

Jack Sal, of 431 E. Sixth St., said he phoned Death & Co. — pretending he wanted to make dinner reservations — and was told that the restaurant didn’t serve dinner.

“They have literally undermined the [licensing] process to create a bar under false pretenses,” Sal said. “They should have a license to match what they’re doing or they should do what matches the license.”

However, Kaplan said food sales account for 45 percent to 50 percent of his revenue, and added that the average table time at his restaurant is two hours. Death & Co. serves appetizer-sized “small plates,” including fish and chips, duck a l’orange and filet mignon, he said. The venue also serves cocktails and wines by the glass or bottle, he added.

Kaplan brought menus to the meeting, but the committee voted 5 to 2 against license renewal.

Kaplan purchased the space less than a year ago, when it was an Indian restaurant called Raga. Since the former owners remain shareholders in Death & Co., Kaplan was able to keep Raga’s liquor license.

Concerns about Death & Co.’s real nature weren’t the only complaints at the meeting. Members of Synagogue Anshe Meseritz, at 415 E. Sixth St., object to Death & Co.’s name and appearance.

The windowless bronze facade stands out from the surrounding buildings, and features 100-year-old cedar planks, cast-iron columns and a black flag. Inside, gold-flecked wallpaper catches light from chandeliers and candles, and a long mirror reflects plush booths and the bar’s marble countertop.

“We don’t need another bar on the block,” said Les Sussman, an Anshe Meseritz congregant who attended the meeting but has not been inside Death & Co. “We don’t need one with Nazi devil symbolism, [with a] gothic satanic door and a black flag flying.”

The facade looks like a boxcar used to transport Jews to concentration camps, Sussman said, and disturbs elderly synagogue members who survived the Holocaust.

“They don’t want to pass a place that is frightening,” he said.

“I have a Holocaust relative myself,” Kaplan responded. “I am Jewish, and I never considered it offensive in that way.”

Death & Co.’s name comes from the title of a Prohibition propaganda poster, and “has nothing to do with anything dark or gothic, and nothing to do with death itself,” Kaplan said.

The synagogue’s proximity to Death & Co. isn’t just unpalatable to congregants — it also could be illegal, Alexandra Militano, the C.B. 3 S.L.A. Committee’s chairperson, said at the meeting. Bars cannot operate within 200 feet of a house of worship, and there are no exceptions to the rule, she said.

After last Thursday’s service at the Orthodox synagogue, Sussman counted 139 careful steps from Anshe Meseritz to Death & Co. — which would appear to be well under the 200-foot limit.

However, Kaplan has a copy of a six-year-old letter from an architect to C.B. 3, stating that the distance between the synagogue and Raga, the former restaurant at the spot, was at least 202 feet.

The C.B. 3 committee voted unanimously to turn the issue over to the S.L.A. for investigation.

Kaplan was surprised by the outcome of the meeting.

“Four people from the community can speak out against a place they haven’t stepped into, and that can affect closure,” he said. “Hundreds of people love us, but they had no reason to go speak up in our favor.”

Kaplan called the meeting an example of “modern-day McCarthyism” and said “you’re guilty until proven innocent.” He hired a lawyer to help him prepare his case for the upcoming C.B. 3 general meeting on Feb. 27, at which the full board will consider the issue.

Sal was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, but said, “I’m not going to let down my vigilance in making sure things are followed through.”

After the meeting, Hurley reiterated his complaints against Death & Co. The construction was loud and disruptive, he said, and the owners installed lights that poured into Hurley’s window. These lights are no longer on during the night, but Hurley is still bothered by noise from the music and patrons talking out in front on cell phones, he said.

“In order to sleep at night, I use earplugs and white noise,” Hurley said.

Yet Kaplan said that the bar is so quiet he could fall asleep in it.

“The loudest thing is people’s background chatter,” he said. He plays only jazz music from before 1940, and he has installed soundproofing, he added.

According to Hurley, when he approached Kaplan about the noise of the metal gate that Kaplan closes nightly to protect Death & Co., Kaplan told him, “Get used to it — you live in New York.” Kaplan said Raga had three such gates, and he reduced the number to make the process quicker.

Hurley, a singer, performs in bands including Rogue’s March and The Gents at local nightclubs and bars. Kaplan admitted he has e-mailed the owners of the Avenue A cabaret club Mo Pitkin’s, where Hurley plays, to tell them about Hurley’s opposition of Death & Co.

To Hurley, Kaplan’s actions amount to harassment.

“I have as much right as any musician to quality of life and respect from new establishments,” he said. Hurley also said that Kaplan has threatened him in person, over the phone and in online postings.

Kaplan said the harassment goes the other way. Hurley left a dead rat on Death & Co.’s doorstep, Kaplan said, and has verbally threatened Death & Co.’s owners, charges Hurley denies.

“Ridiculous,” he said of the rat accusation.

Kaplan added that he has made his cell phone number and e-mail address available, but that Hurley and other Death & Co. opponents haven’t contacted him and don’t return his calls. Other neighbors have stopped in to see what his restaurant is all about, and have become regulars, he said.

“The only thing I can offer is an open door,” Kaplan said. “If no one opens my door, I can’t be a good neighbor.”

At the meeting, Militano told Kaplan to be more proactive in addressing his neighbors’ complaints — even if they do not amount to official violations. Death & Co. has received only one ticket — for not displaying the name on the building’s facade — which Kaplan quickly changed, he said. The name had been on the doorstep, but that was inadequate.

“There has to be awareness that residents are experiencing problems that patrons and the police are not aware of,” Militano said.

Sal agreed that the problem extends beyond Death & Co. being up to code.

“Just because things are O.K. for you does not mean that they’re O.K. with the community,” he said.

Kaplan, though, said he is a good member of the community. Death & Co. passed an underage sting operation by police, and the surveillance camera that Kaplan installed outside of Death & Co. caught a graffiti artist on tape as he was scrawling his tag, “KCR.”

“Not only are we being quiet, closing on time and in good standing with the community,” Kaplan said, “but we got someone arrested.”