As Village Den swung its revamped doors open Monday afternoon, curious neighbors — both old and new — slipped into the fast-casual restaurant replacing the 36-year-old West Village institution that went by the same name.
But the airy venue backed by Antoni Porowski, the food and wine expert on the Netflix hit Queer Eye, is far from the previous hamburger-slinging diner that used to be in the space. The new Village Den is just as diet-friendly and carb-lacking as expected, with a menu featuring dishes ideal for more restrictive eating like salads, protein bowls, smoothies, and a selection of “TV Dinners,” which include a baked fish-stick option for $21. The menu even uses symbols to identify dishes that fit the Whole30, paleo, and keto diets.
Porowski at one point Instagrammed from the restaurant on Monday, recommending the $17 stuffed cabbage roll meal, but around 5 p.m. on opening day, he was not on the premises. His restaurant partners Lisle Richards and Eric Marx, the duo behind hospitality group Metric, were actively greeting people and making their own suggestions on what to order, though.
Richards’ recommendations included the Den Mother, a colorful salad made with maple-roasted squash, pomegranate, beet hummus, cauliflower, lentils, kale, and pickled apricot; and the Thai chicken bowl, served with coconut peanut sauce, purple cabbage, lemongrass brown rice, and cilantro. Many people were ordering TV Dinners, too, with several ordering that $21 fish stick dish — essentially a healthier version of the frozen fish sticks one eats as a child, plus two sides. Other dishes were less pricey, ranging from $7 to $13 for breakfast; and $12 to $14 for bowls and salads.
Porowski pays homage to his love for avocado — his obsession with the fruit caused some to question whether he could actually cook — by adding an avocado tartine to the breakfast menu and smashed avocado as a side.
The Village Den’s new aesthetic is simple but far more Instagram conscious than the previous space: Inside, greenery hangs from a light-wooden structure that arches over diners waiting to place their orders at the counter. To the left of the entrance, a big, blue mural spells out “Things That Matter,” a list that includes animals, recycling, and eating your veggies. A long, blue booth lines the back wall of the restaurant — it’s the same blue as the mural — and tiny square tables offer seating for two.
The opening drew more of a neighborhood crowd instead of Porowski fans, with a mixture of West Village residents, gym-goers, and families showing up, Richard says. Perhaps placing focus on its status as a neighborhood restaurant versus its celebrity ties will benefit the restaurant. Celeb-backed restaurants have a recent history of failure in NYC; at least 10 fellow celebrity chefs — including Cat Cora, Guy Fieri, and Anne Burrell — have closed restaurants in the last year alone.
Even before people enter the restaurant, Village Den signals its mantra and dreams. Outside, a sign geographically places the restaurant “at the corner of vegan and paleo,” and a second sign sums up the owners’ hopes for the re-branded spot: “Better Den You Remember,” it says.
Village Den is now open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. in West Village.