When I recently ran into my old friend Alan Obsatz, we reminisced on how quickly the years flew by since the time he and his father-in law bought Butterfield Market back in 1974 when it was a small grocery on Lexington Ave between 77th St & 78th St. I met Alan when I opened Samantha Restaurant in 1978. My restaurant was located on the corner of 78th St and First Ave. Alan’s market was only a few blocks away. Our common bond was that we both served food primarily to Upper East Siders, but we weren’t competitors. I would do my shopping at Butterfield’s and he and his wife Ann would often dine at Samantha. That’s how it remained through all the years. Alan went on to build the small grocery store into a major UES gourmet market and catering operation. I went on to own several very high profile New York restaurants.
I was surprised to learn that Alan and his two kids Evan and Joelle had just opened a Butterfield Market on the corner of Madison Ave and 85th St. where Dean & DeLuca was located for several years. They did a great job. It’s well-designed and accommodates the new reality of wider aisles and social distancing with markers along the white-tiled floors. They signed the lease for that space before the pandemic hit and decided to open even though it was in the middle of the lockdown. With no one on the streets and storefronts boarded up, they chose to have a quiet opening during COVID and test the waters.
Not knowing what to expect in terms of business, they thought they would sell frozen yogurt at the express window on 85th St., but people wanted more. And they got it. Butterfield began serving their to-die-for prepared foods, smoked fish, and all manner of appetizing and gourmet dishes, baked goods, fruits and vegetables. Alan and his kids were pleasantly surprised when over 220 people showed up throughout the first day and the numbers kept improving as the days went by. By the time they fully opened just before Labor Day last year, 400 customers a day had been served and the numbers keep growing. A great New York story.
The day I went to get a photo of Alan and me at the Lexington Ave location, I couldn’t help noticing a pizza among all the gourmet items the market has to offer. The pizza was definitely calling out to me - a flatbread margherita topped with roasted asparagus, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and goat cheese. It looked so good, I couldn’t resist and just couldn’t leave the store without it. That evening my wife and I devoured every morsel, and loving every bite. Clearly it is one of the best pizzas we’ve had in quite sometime. Butterfield’s is a reminder that the NY food and restaurant business is resilient and will make a comeback.
Let’s face it. It’s no secret that keeping restaurants up and running is not going to be easy these days. As an old time restaurant owner, I know you can’t make up for lost revenue. Just staying in business and keeping your restaurant open is a hardship, and we know the stories about how the strains and constraints of staying open during COVID has been a daily struggle for survival. Sadly, two of my long time favorites had to close - Our Place China Chalet and Le Steak Bistro. I’ll miss not only the meaty spare ribs at Our Place but also seeing my old friend Dewey Wong who was the manager. We’d swap stories from the old days when he owned Dewey Wong’s which was one of the city’s most popular Chinese restaurants in the 60’s and 70’s.
But I think there’s a bright spot at the end of the tunnel for the restaurant industry. As I take my daily walk around the UES, I see old time favorite restaurants still open along Third Ave in the 70s - EJ’s Luncheonette’s still turning out their Challah French Toast and the Nova Salmon Benedict for Sunday brunch, and J.G. Melon’s great burgers are hot off the flat top grill and can’t be beat with an order of fries and beer. Over the years I must have eaten over a thousand of those comfort burgers.
For something more upscale I’m thinking about the very very tender mini veal Milanese at Mezzaluna’s outdoor café where you can sit, sip a glass of wine, and catch the passing street scene. For a New York night in Paris, you sure can’t beat a bowl of classic French onion soup, followed by a delicious boeuf bourguignon, at Orsay’s on Lex and 75th. And thankfully there’s still Due where Ernesto the host was always there to greet me and make sure the linquine alle vongole had plenty of succulent clams. He also made sure to introduce me to Mayor Bloomberg (during his first term), who was dining at the next table from me and my wife. Fortunately, lots of the old places are still here. And new ones are opening.
So, til next time as this old-time restaurant pro pays homage to those restaurants still here and remembers those that are no more.
Bobby Ochs, restaurant partner to celebrities, owned Mulholland Drive Cafe with Patrick Swayze.