David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant empire is making some major changes in light of COVID-19: Chelsea restaurant Nishi, which has long had trouble, will be permanently closing, the company announced today. Additionally, the group is moving nearly 15-year-old East Village hit Ssäm Bar into the space that houses Bar Wayō at the South Street Seaport.
“This crisis has exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of our industry and made clear that returning to normal is not an option,” the company said in an update on its website.
Ssäm Bar — one of the strongest restaurants in Momofuku’s portfolio — had a lease that was expiring in January 2021. Instead of reupping the lease in the East Village, the company decided to uproot the restaurant and move it to Wayō’s bigger, bi-level location at the South Street Seaport.
The crowd-favorite poster of tennis player John McEnroe that hangs at Ssäm Bar — which Chang calls “the Patron Saint of Momofuku” — will travel to the new restaurant, the update notes.
Elements from Wayō’s menu and service style will be incorporated into the new Ssäm Bar at the Seaport, including the tabletop grilling and karaoke rooms. The staffs from both restaurants will be combined.
“We loved what we created with Wayō, but we have to focus on our restaurants with the most potential,” the company said of the decision.
At Nishi, the profit margins were always “particularly challenging,” according to Momofuku, and drove the reasoning behind shuttering the restaurant.
Nishi struggled when it opened in early 2016 as a Korean-Italian restaurant. Critics complained about its uncomfortable space and noise, factors that once made the Momofuku restaurants charming but didn’t work there. The prices, restaurant critics said, were unwarranted considering these other characteristics. Chang admitted to a “stupid mistake” in rushing the creation. It underwent a drastic renovation in 2017 and refocused as an Italian restaurant. With cushy booths and a slower vibe, it settled in as a neighborhood spot and one of Momofuku’s more adult restaurants.
Meanwhile, Ssäm Bar had been in its East Village space for 15 years. One of Chang’s earliest restaurants, it’s undergone several chef changes and many menu identities — and through it all, the restaurant has remained a popular spot for bold flavors, large format dining, and cross-cultural dishes. Through the years, the casual meat-focused restaurant has continued to receive three stars in New York Times reviews, including most recently in 2017.
The space has also been home to some of the restaurant group’s most successful experiments. Christina Tosi’s dessert behemoth Milk Bar started in Ssäm before moving across the street, and for years, the back of the restaurant housed inventive cocktail bar Booker and Dax. In some ways more than Chang’s original restaurant Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar’s constant reinvention foretold the future of the current empire — which has succeeded in part by defying genres and testing new ideas.
Still, it too has shed some of the early identifiers of the Momofuku empire; in 2016, the group renovated space, adding chairs with backs.
Wayō opened just last August in a splashy new development by the water, though only the ground floor level was public. For weeks, an upstairs portion was open to friends and family serving fancy beef.
Momofuku also announced that it will continue trying to expand Noodle Bar, and that the group’s D.C. restaurant CCDC would also close permanently.
The restaurant empire, which launched in the East Village, has had very few closures despite its long history and rapid growth to locations around the world. In New York, only Ando and Má Pêche have shut their doors.
In an episode of Chang’s podcast featuring a conversation with CEO Marguerite Zabar Mariscal about the closures, the restaurateur and chef noted both CCDC and Nishi were profitable, but “even the most conservative economics moving forward doesn’t make sense” in part because no agreement could be reached with landlords that would financially work for the restaurants.
“I don’t want to say anything other than: I understand their decisions, I don’t respect their decisions,” Chang said on the podcast of the conversations with landlords. “Maybe if I was in their situation I’d see it a bit differently. There’s no give and take. I’m still at war with this decision. It’s not ever going to sit right with me. At the same time, I understand why we have to do it.”
Ssäm Bar, too, was “an incredibly profitable restaurant,” Chang said on the podcast, but the building is “crumbling” and would require a $1 million to $1.5 million renovation to make it work. Doing so would require taking out a loan, Mariscal added, and it didn’t make sense “to take out a loan on a business when you have no idea when it’s going to reopen, what the public’s reaction will be — how many people will come in.”
“We have newer spaces, we have partners willing to work with us,” she said.
Momofuku’s remaining New York restaurants include Noodle Bar at Time Warner Center, Kāwi in Hudson Yards, Ko in the East Village, and the original Noodle Bar in the East Village. Nearly all of the restaurants are in newer buildings, and notably, two of the buildings are owned by Related, a developer whose chairman Stephen Ross has a financial stake in Momofuku.
Stay tuned for more.
- Momofuku updates [Momofuku.com]
This post has been updated with more information.
With additional reporting by Hillary Dixler Canavan
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.