My first apartment in the East Village, my first independent apartment where I lived alone was when I was seventeen years old, at 329 East 12th Street. It was a one-bedroom apartment, brand new renovation for $695 a month, rent stabilized. I lived here while I was putting myself through Hunter College and waiting tables.
Towards the end of my third year of college, my boyfriend at the time was a Swiss pastry chef and we decided to open a bakery. We started looking at bakeries in the neighbourhood. I had several jobs at different bakeries, learning the front of the house and the back of the house. My last job was at a place on 2nd Avenue, 141 2ndAvenue, between St. Marks and 9th Street, across from Veselka and it was called Encore Bakery. I landed a job there as a salesgirl for $7 an hour and I worked there for three months before I found out that the bakery was for sale. I told my boyfriend, who, like I said was a Swiss pastry chef and he approached the owner. We ended up buying the bakery and running it for seven years.
What was the name of your bakery?
The bakery was called Patisserie Encore. It was the first French bakery on a very desolate part of 2nd Avenue. It was very quiet back then. There were not many other stores around. It just was Veselka, Baczynsky Meat Market, St. Marks Cinema, which is of course, legendary, and besides that it was pretty much tumbleweeds. Our big rush was in the morning when everybody came from Avenue A, B and C up towards the subways, and we would be hit with this mad rush in the afternoon. It was the only bakery in the neighbourhood that served anything other than knishes and bagels. We were very busy, and the neighbourhood loved us. The rent was cheap, so we did very well and were very happy.
One day I was walking to the bank on Astor Place and I passed a restaurant on St. Marks Place called The Center Pub that had a sign that read, fully fixtured restaurant for rent. It had me thinking that after two years of running this bakery I was feeling all full of myself and why stop at one. I spoke to my partner and I said, “I think we should do it, why not, it could be fun.” He looked at me like I just grew a pair of horns and he said, “No wayI’m not doing a restaurant, I know nothing about restaurants.” I said, “So we’ll learn!” After a bit of back and forth he said, “Look if you really want to do it, you go ahead. I’ll give you half the money, but I don’t want to know about it. You just run both places.” He meant the bakery and the restaurant because I was the business end of things and my partner was the pastry chef. I ran the front of the house and I did the whole sale end. We had a truck and we delivered to all the restaurants: Leona Helmsley at The Helmsley Hotel and cakes for Madison Avenue. We did very fancy, high-end, special-order cakes, wedding cakes etc. We did replicas of The Intrepid for The Museum of the Intrepid opening and cakes for Rockefeller Center. We didn’t have brownies and chocolate chip cookies – that was not the kind of place we had. He really knew the bakery business and I knew not much of anything except I knew that I wanted to do something else.
I called about the restaurant and it was fantastic, except I had no idea what kind of restaurant I wanted to open. I decided to rent it, understanding that it was all on me. We needed suggestions from people on what kind of restaurant this neighbourhood needed. We decided to have a big party and we invited all our friends from the neighbourhood and all our customers, and we had all this beer and wine and music. It was like a suggestion box and a whole bunch of people said Brazilian. That’s what ended up happening.
I interviewed a whole bunch of designers and architects to design this Brazilian restaurant at 29 St. Marks Place, right down the street from what used to be The Electric Circus. That was a crazy block. Trash and Vaudeville, The Sock Man was right next door, Search and Destroy, Manic Panic was still there on the other side of me. It was just an awesome block. I was reading this article in New York Magazine one time about these party planners, Mitch and Bruce, and I wish I remembered their last names or company name. They were these party planners that went around and designed balls and created these mad crazy designs that would go down the next day. Hot glue guns and feathers kind of stuff. So, I had them come in and they said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do here, but it’s going to be great”- and it was.
They went to a junkyard in upstate New York and picked up a bombed-out Cessna airplane. They brought it into our backyard through The Cloister Café on 9th Street, which has a big garden and there’s a wall that separates 9th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue on the south side. They tossed it over the wall, and they created this big jungle in the backyard with a burned-out skeleton of a pilot with strobe lights flashing, Spanish moss hanging everywhere, lanterns, and a jungle sound system of elephants, jaguars, and tropical animals. One of the neighbours complained that it gave him PTSD, ha! Inside the restaurant everything was Trompe -l’oeil. We had a black light mural of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio and an awning with a terrazzo pattern painted on with fringe handing down. The floor was the Amazon River with people drowning and piranhas and lady’s upside down with just their legs. It started out on St. Marks Place and there were coconut heads with fibre optics and cigarettes. There was even a bamboo ceiling inside. The restaurant was called Bananas Tropical Lounge and Garden Dining. Everything was so over the top and so crazy and the line stretched out to 2nd Avenue when we first opened. The painted river ran out towards 2nd Avenue as well. They painted the sidewalk and everything.
One rainy afternoon, Shane, my husband of thirty years walked in to look for a job. He was from Australia, then London and had hitchhiked across the country. He started in California, then Alaska and came all the way across. He ended up in New York and was planning a short stay here before going back to London because he lived there. He went to buy an airplane ticket and he was declined. They took his visa card and cut it up in front of him. He had no funds, and he was staying in this flee bitten hotel in Times Square called The M hotel. It was like a hostel situation of single room occupants who shared a bathroom. He would go out and look for jobs and he didn’t eat for three days. One afternoon he walked into my restaurant and dropped to his knees and said, “Please help me. I’m stuck in New York and I’ll do anything. Please give me a job.” My manager Kim hired him on the spot. He was the cutest thing, just an Australian surfer boy with blond Shirley temple locks down to his shoulders, wearing pink pants and a Hawaiian shirt. I came into work that afternoon and she said, “Ania wait until you see who I hired. I hired the cutest Australian bartender.” That’s how we met.
Of course, l almost fired him because the first few nights I was standing at the end of the bar at the service end and one of the waitresses said, “I’ll have an Absolut on the rocks” and he said, “How do I make an Absolut on the rocks?” He had no idea what Absolut was!
He learned pretty quickly and didn’t get fired. We became really good friends and after a year or so he became my boyfriend. So that’s how I met my husband, on St. Marks Place, he was my waiter and my bartender. He ended up moving in with me and we’ve been together ever since. We spent about five years living together where I didn’t have a business. Within four years, I sold the French bakery, I broke up with my pastry chef boyfriend, I sold the restaurant, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. I wanted to go into the nightlife/ bar scene because I was done with food. Shane was working as a bartender in Midtown. We traveled a lot at the time. Actually, Shane’s first gift to me was a...
Read the full interview in poché Vol.1 An East Village Apartment