In 2010, Cru Restaurant shuttered. Robert Bohr, who had been a partner in Cru and who had worked in acclaimed New York City restaurants for a number of years before that, found himself closing down a restaurant that had previously received a lot of attention for its extensive wine program. Subsequently, he focused on several other aspects of the wine business, but spent some time away from restaurants. Now Robert is back with a different approach. He has teamed with chef Ryan Hardy and brought on board 24-year-old sommelier Grant Reynolds, who was previously at Colorado's Frasca Food and Wine, to help him achieve his goals for Charlie Bird, which will be located at 5 King Street in Soho. The projected opening date is May 15. Eater recently chatted with Robert and Grant about their plans for Charlie Bird in the run up to the opening, and about how those plans were shaped in part by the restaurants they worked at previously.
What will the cuisine be like at Charlie Bird?
Robert Bohr: It's Italian-influenced American cuisine. It is very ingredient-driven, which is kind of the soul of Italian food, so it kinds of represents itself as Italian food, but with American ingredients.
What were your motivations in getting back to the restaurant side of the business?
Robert Bohr: I identify myself as a sommelier more than anything else. It's the part of the wine business that I enjoy the most. It's the part that I feel I'm best at and best suited for. I like to be on the dining room floor. And Ryan Hardy I met while he was at The Little Nell in Aspen, and we have been talking for two years or so about opening a restaurant. When he moved to New York, it was about the time that I was finishing up my tenure at Colicchio & Sons, and we were looking for spaces. It took us longer than we had hoped it would, but we kind of always knew we would work together. We share a lot of the same likes.
What sorts of items should we expect on the Charlie Bird food menu?
Robert Bohr: There's going to be some raw fish, salads, vegetables, etc. Pasta, both fresh and dry. Proteins simply roasted. Sides of vegetables. Simple is the wrong word, but not overly-wrought. The style of dinner that you could eat every day.
Do you feel more comfortable working with this sort of cuisine having worked in the past at Lupa?
Robert Bohr: Yeah, Lupa is one of our favorite restaurants. Rome is a favorite city for both of us. We both have spent a lot of time there. Ryan has spent more time there than I have, believe it or not. We've both worked at fancy restaurants, but in the end, we are just getting back to what we are most comfortable eating.
And how is Charlie Bird going to be different than Lupa?
Robert Bohr: Lupa is unabashedly Italian, and rightfully so. Charlie Bird is not going to be that. It's going to draw on influences from a lot places that we have travelled, but it is really going to be an American restaurant, a New York restaurant, with an Italian sensibility. We are not by any means competing with Lupa for Roman authenticity.
Robert, will your wife Jordan Salcito be helping with Charlie Bird?
Robert Bohr: Jordan is a partner and an investor in the restaurant, but she has a great job and a great career of her own. So, she isn't going to be on the floor, present in the restaurant as much as we had originally thought. But she is a great resource and someone I look to a lot about different wines that I may not know about and tastings she has been to.
What direction will the Charlie Bird list be going in?
Grant Reynolds: The idea behind the wine list is that we are not going to focus on a particular region, but instead on a style of wine that we enjoy. We aren't really trying to do anything new, and instead we will have the wines that we have always loved that work well with the food. To say that the list will be predominantly French and Italian is to say that we like to drink those wines. That's not to say that we won't have some wines from California, Germany, Austria, and who knows, other parts of the world, but it will be predominantly Old World. Those are the wines we love, and we want to have wines that we want to drink.
What is the price point and format that you are designing?
Grant Reynolds: The idea is to have about 100 selections, and the price points should be around $200 or less. And what are hoping to do with those 100 selections is offer them as half the bottle as well. To take a 750ml bottle and serve it as a half bottle and then at that point by the glass as well. So an idea that we are blatantly taking from what John Slover did at Bar Henry and Ciano.
Robert Bohr: We are going to footnote Slover on the wine list for his idea.
Grant Reynolds: The by the glass options will originally be very concise and inexpensive for the most part, but we hope to have a lot of bottles open by the half bottle from among the 100 selections.
Are there going to be wines available for customers who may know Robert from the Cru days, and associate him with higher end, pricier bottles?
Grant Reynolds: Absolutely. We will have one wine list, the 100 selection list, which will be printed with the menus. And then we will also have several selections that won't be available as a half bottle. There will be certain wines that aren't everyday drinking wines. We'll definitely have those wines as well.
Robert Bohr: What we are trying to do is to create the focus of the wine program based upon the concept of a neighborhood restaurant. But we also know that there are people who want to have special wines for either special occasions or just because that is the only stuff that they really care for. So we will have that stuff. But we don't want to intimidate someone who really loves an $80 bottle of wine but they see $2,000 bottles of wine and then they feel uncomfortable about placing their order. We don't want any of that awkwardness. We want people to drink wine in our restaurant.
What will the sommelier presence be like on the floor during service, in terms of staffing?
Robert Bohr: It is a pretty small restaurant. It's only 60 seats, so it's not that big. So we are thinking we are going to try to hire so that all of the staff are wine knowledgeable. And either Grant or I, or Grant and I will be on the floor. Also we have Shin Tseng, our General Manager, who was the General Manager and before that the Wine Director at Lupa, she'll also be on the floor. So we will have a lot of specialty wine knowledge. But we'd like to encourage our service staff to be involved with wines as well.
What will the style of service be like?
Robert Bohr: Our idea is to remove some of the transactions that happen in restaurants. When you sit down, the menu will already be placed there. Someone will come over and place down a bottle of filtered still water and a bottle of sparkling, and you can serve yourselves, and it is free. There will be a short menu of cocktail suggestions on the coasters that the water bottles sit on. The wine list will be in the menu. All the information you want will be in front of you. We want people to enjoy the company of their table mates, rather than be forced into having interactions with a lot of the staff. If they want to have interactions, of course we will be friendly and helpful. We are trying to be really sensitive to our guests. We are going to allow them to engage us, rather than forcing that engagement upon them.
Grant, do you see the Frasca experience as influencing what you are doing with Charlie Bird, and if so, how?
Grant Reynolds: I do absolutely see the connection. Frasca wine service is as much about being a host or maitre d', as it is about knowing wine. I want to bring the same balance of enthusiasm for wine and respect for the guest experience to Charlie Bird. And the wines there, yes we had classic stuff, but we were focused on Italian whites, Austrian wines, a little bit of French, but very much Italian. I hope to take what I learned there and apply it as much as possible at Charlie Bird.
The list will be 100 selections. Does that mean that you will be moving the choices around with the seasons to give you more leverage on what people want to be drinking at a certain time?
Grant Reynolds: Definitely. The list will be changing every day. The idea is to have a very well curated list. Keeping it at 100 selections is to take all the time and energy that we would use on a large list, but to hone that down to those 100 selections based on wines that are aged and drinking really well right now, as well as things that make sense according to the seasons. And that means it will be changing all the time to keep it fresh.
Who are specific producers that you intend to be working with as selections on the list?
Grant Reynolds: Classic producers and wines like Vincent Dauvissat Chablis and wines from Jean-Louis Chave come to mind. But a lot of my experience at Frasca was working with producers like Bucci and Miani. Also a whole range of Sangiovese, like Stella di Campalto Rosso di Montalcino, things like that. They will probably be there to begin with.
Robert Bohr: It will be a combination of some classics that you know that I like. I am a big fan of Burgundy. I am a big fan of Barolo, Tuscany, and Friuli. We will definitely have Dauvissat and Raveneau, and we will have Roumier, Bachelet, and Roulot. Grant brings an experience and a curiosity about wines that I don't know quite as well or that I used to know much better. For example, Borgo del Tiglio. They had that in Colorado, and Grant was like "we should get some for our place." So we are trying to do that. Barbera from Mascarello, rather than Barolo. Rosso di Montalcino, instead of Brunello. Schioppettino. Wines that aren't all the blue chip versions, but come from blue chip producers who work at many levels. We are trying to give the guest as much value as possible. And we will be very open to people bringing in their own wine.
Will you be open to people bringing in their own wine?
Robert Bohr: Absolutely. We are thinking about $30 per bottle with no bottle limit, served in great glassware. We are going to have Zalto glassware for everything. We want people to come in and have a great time. It's not just a transaction. We want people to feel like we are actually happy that they are there spending money at our place, and the more we can demonstrate that through our actions the more people will sense that we are sincere.
Are there aspects coming out of the Cru experience that you said, you know, "I don't want to do it that way again," for example regarding corkage? And what would some other examples of that change be?
Robert Bohr: Absolutely. 100 percent. You know, I miss Cru. I loved so much of my experience there. It was incredible. So I don't want to in any way sound like I am denigrating what was a very powerful time of my life. But what I learned being at a restaurant that was hurt significantly by the economic downturn is that New Yorkers go out to eat almost every night. There are so many people who would go to a place like we are trying to open. If you can be a neighborhood restaurant, you can satisfy a lot more people at different price points. I do not come from a wealthy background, so I don't want to only cater to wealthy people. I would like my sister and my parents and my cousins to be able to afford to dine at my restaurant, not because I am comping them, but because they can actually afford it. The other side of that which came from the Cru experience is that when you are really catering to a very, very small section of the population, it kind of skews how you behave towards the entire dining population. And that again is an experience that I learned at Cru where we had a really loyal set of well heeled clients who were incredibly generous with us for many, many years. But when you can't cast a wide net, you are subject to the possibility of having some negative consequences. We really want to be people's every week restaurant. We don't want to be just a special occasion restaurant. We know that it is small, and that there will be some difficult issues when it comes to reservations. So, for example, we are only going to reserve half the dining room and allow the other half to be first come first served. That gives the people in the neighborhood or last minute diners an opportunity to come and check us out too.
How should customers engage with the restaurant to ask about wines that may be available for sale at Charlie Bird, but not on a printed list?
Robert Bohr: It is going to be an interaction. We are trying not to have two lists. This concept of High/Low is something we are trying to be very sensitive towards. We are fortunate to have a good amount of experience in New York and know who a lot of these clients are. We think a lot of this will be conversational. Somebody I know comes in and says "Robert, I want to drink a great bottle of wine." I am going to say "What are you in the mood for, do you want Burgundy, do you want Barolo, do you want Soldera? Do you want to drink some Harlan? What do you want?" I'll probably know what he wants, but he'll be in the mood for something great and we'll have those wines downstairs. We are trying to get away from the transaction and make it more of a conversation and an organic experience. We are trying to get away from the concept of the separate specialty menu.
Is the design of this wine program a reaction to the pricing of the fine wine market, having watched the market change in the last few years?
Robert Bohr: What it is, it is a small neighborhood restaurant. We didn't go out and raise a ton of money to build a lavish place of luxury. We wanted it to be a place where Ryan and I could pay back our partners, give them a return on the profit, and not have a million dollars in wine inventory. We are trying to be sensitive to the scale of our place and the appropriateness of our mission.
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[Photo: Robert Bohr and Grant Reynolds]