Anselmo “Chemo” Bello saw a future for upscale dining in El Barrio when opened his Mexican-French bistro, Itzocan at 1575 Lexington four years ago. He recognized the possibility for residential change and commercial growth in the area.
“When I opened there was not a lot of restaurants in this area and I saw change here in the next three years or so,” Bello said.
And he was right. In four years, over five restaurants have opened on Lexington Avenue between 101st and 102ndStreets. The block, once barren of places to eat with only a Pizzeria across the street, now flourishes with new restaurants from Joy Burger to a coffee shop that will open next month, and also Giovanna’s Restaurant Pizzeria. A commercial real estate development that faces Itzocan, is also in the works.
Itzocan is not the only new dining establishment in El Barrio bridging the gap between old and new residents of the neighborhood by providing a higher quality of food and more attractive, well-lighted places to eat. According to residents, 10 years ago one could only spot a handful of higher-end restaurants in a sea of greasy take-out joints in East Harlem. Now dozens of restaurants that offer upscale food and a trendy environment are emerging all over the neighborhood.
Development of new condominiums and apartment buildings, such as Mirada at 161 E 110th St. where apartments start at $899,000, are bringing in people from all over Manhattan who expect the kind of service and high-end businesses they were used to in other neighborhoods around the city. As the demographics of the neighborhood continue to change, local restaurants are as well.
Divino Sena started Giovanna’s four months ago and has seen an overall 40 percent increase in profits. Sena chose this location at 1567 Lexington Ave. because he lives nearby and the rent was only $9,000 a month for 1400 square feet. This is almost half the cost of the $17,000 location of equal size he looked into on 93rd Street and Third Avenue before settling here.
“When I saw this place here I thought, that’s the place to be,” Sena said. “The rent is not crazy rent for my first restaurant.”
Brian Ghaw, 27, opened Savoy bakery, in December of 2006, and saw promise in the convenience of the space, located less than one half block from the No. 6 train and situated between the New York Public Library and the U.S. Post Office. Rent was three times less than where he looked downtown, but, he said, he had no idea Mirada would begin building apartments across the street just months after he opened his modern bakery that serves coffee, soups, sandwiches and pastries made to order.
Ghaw said he has made additions to his menu such as banana custard and cheesecake at the request of many of his Hispanic customers. And because of his low rent, he is able to charge $2.85 for a slice of cheesecake when a much older bakery just three doors down charges $3.00.
But price is still an issue for some restaurateurs trying to build business in the area. Paul Alvarado, a manager at Amor Cubano at 2018 Third Ave., says his clientele is a mix of roughly 40 percent new residents, 50 percent old residents and 10 percent from outside of the neighborhood. Like many of the other restaurants, Amor Cubano’s business and popularity continues to grow as a whole, but they do get complaints from some older residents that prices are too high.
Felipe Colon, has lived in El Barrio for over 60 years and had to close down his Puerto Rican restaurant, El Fogon, two and a half years ago due to an increase in rent. Colon, who eats at Amor Cubano at least once a week, says that although the food and entertainment here is great, there is still a large number of residents that cannot regularly afford an $18 entrée.
“In this neighborhood you can’t have high prices because this is a working man’s neighborhood,” Colon said.
But the new working men and women of El Barrio are beginning to change. Erik Selakoff, a personal trainer who just bought a $470,000 one-bedroom condo at the complex Aura at 330 E. 109th St. said he starts and ends his day at Savoy. Selakoff moved to El barrio from the Upper East Side four months ago because he was able to purchase his first home here for a reasonable price. Although there is a bakery just a block away from his condo, Selakoff travels the extra four blocks to Savoy for the sense of community that the coffee shops and bakeries in his old neighborhood did not provide.
“ On the Upper East Side there was not a neighborhood feel at these types of places. You could go into a place and it would take a number of weeks at least before the person behind the counter would remember what you order. At a place like Savoy, I went in two or three times and they remembered my order.”