Gone are the days when Westchester residents had to head into Manhattan or one of the boroughs to experience the cachet of upscale metropolitan dining. A number of restaurateurs have tweaked the saying “Go West, young man” (attributed to Chappaqua resident Horace Greeley, btw) and have headed north.
While there are noticeable differences in suburban and urban restaurant customers, chefs and owners say operating in Westchester brings them a new customer base, recognition in all their locations, and a chance to build relationships with longtime neighbors.
A sense of community (along with the ardent petitioning of future business partner Ann Mara Cacase) is what drew Executive Chef Raffaele Ronca to the moneyed city of Rye to launch Rafele Rye in June 2018. “The town reminded me of the energy in the West Village,” says Ronca, whose Manhattan location is in the downtown neighborhood.
The idea, he says, is to give Westchester residents “a little Manhattan ambience and attention to quality.” He ticks off the differences in the pacing and ordering patterns between his city customers and their suburban counterparts. “Everybody in Westchester wants to eat dinner between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.; there is less drinking, as people are driving; the crowd skews older; and diners are more diet-conscious.”
Executive Chef Roberto Paciullo of Zero Otto Nove (Armonk, the Bronx, Manhattan) and Roberto’s in the Bronx echoes that sentiment. “In the Bronx, everybody eats pasta at lunch; in Armonk, we see salads and grilled chicken or vegetables.” Many of his Armonk customers were familiar with the Bronx restaurant, having either grown up in the boroughs or through word of mouth. “But people don’t want to make that long drive on the weekend, and parking is easier in Armonk,” he says.
The Livanos Family owns Moderne Barn and City Limits in Westchester, plus four Manhattan restaurants.
Photo By paul johnson
The Livanos Restaurant Group operates a number of locations in Manhattan, as well as Armonk’s Moderne Barn Restaurant and City Limits Diner in White Plains, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019. “So many of our Westchester clientele work in Manhattan that we get to see them in our restaurants there during the week and then in Westchester on weekends,” says Nick Livanos, partner in the group. He sees “freer spending” in the city, as customers are often dining on expense accounts.
On his side of the equation, the cost of doing business in the city is higher. “Many of our entrées run almost 15 percent more [in the city], to offset our [higher] rents,” Livanos says. Ronca also cites some lower price points at his Rye location. “We want people to dine here multiple times a week,” he says.
While Goosefeather in the Tarrytown House Estate, which opened in September, is Executive Chef Dale Talde’s only restaurant, his name may be familiar from former ventures in Brooklyn and New Jersey. “We’ve been hearing genuine words of thanks for opening up in the suburbs and for opening something different,” Talde says. “[In more urban areas], there are fantastic restaurants on every block, and as a chef, there’s a grind to operating in a city.” He’s found that in a community such as Tarrytown, “people are rooting for you.”
Helene Godin, owner of gluten- and dairy-free By the Way Bakery, went the other way in her journey — first opening in Hastings-on-Hudson, followed by two locations in Manhattan and one in Greenwich. “I have three times the real estate in Hastings at one-third the price, and labor costs are higher in the city,” says Godin, who adjusts for the lower rents in Westchester “to a point,” noting that what she sells is a “luxury-food item.” All four locations are in family-oriented neighborhoods, and Godin says she loves recognizing customers in the stores.
Chef Raffaele Ronca has locations in Rye and NYC.
photo by ken Gabrielsen
The ability to build relationships and become part of the community proved attractive to John Solo, owner of Cantina Taco & Tequila Bar in White Plains. He also owns a restaurant in Astoria and is involved with other Cantina locations in Manhattan. “The people who dine [in White Plains] are likely going to live here for 10-15 years; it’s a much more transient population in Astoria and Manhattan,” says Solo, who, like Ronca, is looking for that recurring customer base.
Rye House co-owner Rob Lombardi, who opened a location of his Union Square restaurant in Port Chester in 2015, says, in the suburbs, customers skew toward ordering the “whole package… a meal from appetizers to dessert.” He was attracted to the town for its “urban feel in the suburbs” and notes that when there’s a show at the nearby Capitol Theatre, Rye House experiences a “pre-Broadway-style rush.” Like the NYC location, Rye House in Port Chester is known for its whiskey selections, though Lombardi has a more detailed inventory in Manhattan, where prices are a little higher.
The one major drawback of operating in the suburbs: staffing. A number of restaurant owners initially brought staffs from the city with them to Westchester to ensure a smooth opening. Paciullo went so far as to hire a van to transport staff from Yonkers and the Bronx to Armonk. At Rafele, “Staffing was very challenging; it was hard finding qualified workers,” says Ronca. “Kitchen staff is the hardest to find and retain,” agrees Solo. “But, the people who live in Westchester have made an investment in their community, and so have I.”
Abbe Wichman is a Katonah resident who writes about food and drink.