Last week, Momofuku announced that the ever-changing Ssäm Bar, once a kimchi-laced, offal-laden, ham-slinging hangout that played a central role in turning the raffish East Village into a citywide restaurant destination, will close and relocate to the slick, bi-level Wayō space in Manhattan’s Seaport District. Patrons who used to stare at an odd John McEnroe poster during dinner will now enjoy panoramic vistas of the East River. In a way, the move reflects the evolution of the Momofuku empire; what was once experimental and frayed around the edges is now shiny and corporate.
That’s not so much a damnation as it is a statement of fact. After the Trump-supporting billionaire Stephen Ross took a minority stake in David Chang’s empire in late 2016, the New York restaurants have largely expanded into polished luxury developments, including the Shops at Columbus Circle, Hudson Yards, and the Pier 17 mall in the revamped Seaport.
But here’s the surprising part: Even as Momofuku has moved into soulless real estate, the group has managed to keep its creative culinary soul intact, slinging gelatinous raw crab platters, Korean-Lebanese wrap sandwiches, and buttery imitation crab rolls in places where one might otherwise expect a $70 strip steak. That roughly means that even as Ssäm Bar relocates to a fancier part of town, the likelihood of it devolving into best-hits blandness is low.
If anything, the venue has long acted as the group’s creative core; it’s always seemed to change or expand before entering into the middle-aged stasis that many restaurants its age experience. It opened in August 2006 — two years after Noodle Bar’s debut — as a Korean-American Chipotle, with staffers selling burrito-like wraps on an assembly line. And then it morphed into a late night den of freewheeling gastronomic innovation, a global riff on an American brasserie that spawned countless more small plates places.
Ssäm Bar’s influence would grow in the decade-plus that followed. Alongside the Spotted Pig, it paved the way for a stripped-down and affordable-ish style of ambitious gastronomy that contrasted with starchier Midtown establishments.
It was home, for a time, to one of the city’s most groundbreaking cocktail bars. It launched Christina Tosi’s neo-nostalgic dessert empire. And it broadened the concept of what constituted quintessential New York food. Ssäm Bar helped popularize Korean preparations like ssäm wraps and tteokbokki rice cakes into America’s culinary mainstream, which was less open-minded than it is today — even if, alas, the American brasserie as a larger construct hasn’t internationalized as much as it could have throughout New York.
There were occasional French-Vietnamese vibes in the early days, but over the years, Ssäm Bar would lean into large, family-style roasts, and pivot towards the foodways of Singapore by 2017. It was a neighborhood institution that never felt institutionalized as it aged, or felt unneighborly as it attracted patrons from across the globe.
In relocating, the true loss isn’t to the larger city — at the very least, the new Ssäm Bar will bring a bit of personality to the new Seaport, a tourist-heavy area that could use an idiosyncratic jolt — but to the East Village, a neighborhood whose own evolution over the decades saw it transform from artsy and accessible to increasingly elite. Ssäm Bar felt like an anchor tenant in slowing that neighborhood’s transition. And now it’ll be another empty storefront in a slice of the city that’ll have no shortage of empty storefronts as the pandemic forces more businesses to close.
Here’s an overview of notable beginnings, reviews, overhauls, and endings in Ssäm Bar’s history in the East Village.
August 2006: Ssäm Bar opens with a menu of Korean-American burritos. Workers stuff slow-roasted pork, rice, and kimchi into flour tortillas on a Chipotle-style assembly line. They do not, alas, attract the fervor or crowds for which Momofuku Noodle Bar was famous for at the time.
September 2006: Chefs Chang, Joaquin Baca, and Tien Ho launch a late night program that eventually becomes the heart of the operation. The early menus include smoky Tennessee hams, raw fish plates like uni with whipped tofu, bacon with apple kimchi, spicy braised tripe, a giant bo ssäm pork butt for large parties, and a killer banh mi sandwich. Grilled tteok (rice cakes), ubiquitous at K-Town restaurants but rarely seen elsewhere, become an exercise in unabated eclecticism; Chang slathered the chewy nuggets in a spicy Sichuan ragu, effectively creating a Chinese-Italian dish seen through the lens of a Korean staple.
These offerings come to epitomize what Ssäm would become: an after-hours chef’s hangout characterized by small plates and salty, fatty, offal-y, globally-minded flavors. It served loud food in a loud room. It was the modern, international successor to the more European-leaning Blue Ribbon.
Like Noodle Bar, it also had a tough no-substitution policy that seemed to rankle herbivores who preferred to eat their vegetables without a heady slick of lard. It presaged a culinary era that shifted the balance of power away from picky diners to no-nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway chefs. “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items,” Ssam Bar’s menu famously read. Later, Chang would say in a lengthy GQ profile: “Vegetarians are a pain in the ass as customers. It’s always ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want that.’ Jesus Christ, go cook at home.”
January 2007: Ssäm Bar adopts the late night menu during regular dinner hours.
February 2007: New York Times critic Frank Bruni awards the restaurant two stars, praising Chang’s budget gourmet approach to ambitious eating, while criticizing the backless stools, the lack of coffee, the uneven execution, and the “throwaway” mochi dessert.
November 2008: Christina Tosi opens the first Milk Bar in the back of Ssäm Bar, and it was “greeted with an apostolic fervor,” according to a Ligaya Mishan review in the Times. Patrons would line up for complex elevations of junk food, including cereal milk, Fruity Pebble milk, crack pie, and compost cookies studded with potato chips. In a pre-Cronut world dominated by cupcake lines, Milk Bar represented the most auteur-esque entry in the city’s pastry and baking scenes.
October 2008: Chang’s oversized personality sometimes manifested itself at Ssäm, which was a favorite of chefs and food writers. At one point, he allegedly banned writer Josh Ozersky over publishing a menu on Grub Street. As Ozersky told Eater: “One night I walked into Ssäm Bar, and was told in no uncertain terms by Corey Lane and David himself that I was no longer welcome to ever eat in their restaurants again, because they believed that I had mocked them and put them down...I was shocked.” Chang, upon Ozersky’s death in 2015, tweeted that the food writer was “many things and so many of our differences seem so childish now, but he could pen some amazing stuff.”
December 2008: Bruni awards three stars to Ssäm Bar less than two years after his original review — a shockingly quick upgrade by the standards of any major review outlet. This development — which followed a 4,700 word Alan Richman profile of Chang in GQ and a James Beard Foundation award for best New York chef — signified a mainstream coronation of Ssäm Bar’s counter cultural business model.
2010-2017: Matthew Rudofker ascends to the executive chef position at Ssäm bar. His lengthy tenure, alongside chefs de cuisine Ryan Miller and Tim Maslow in the early years, is characterized by an exaltation of large format items, like a five-spice rotisserie duck and a giant ribeye. Together with the bo ssäm pork butt, Noodle Bar’s fried chicken dinner, and Má Pêche’s beef seven-ways, large-format family-style feasts increasingly become a hallmark of Chang’s global collection of restaurants.
April 2011: Milk Bar closes at Ssäm Bar, relocates across the street a day later, and quickly expands into a national empire of its own.
February 2012: Dave Arnold’s Booker and Dax opens in Ssäm Bar’s old Milk Bar space. It instantly becomes one of New York’s most celebrated cocktail bars, and one of the city’s only bastions of avant-garde eating or drinking — a style of whimsical, science-forward gastronomy that never established deep roots in the five boroughs. Bartenders used centrifuges to infuse bananas with rum and CO2 lines to carbonate both the gin and tonic in a G&T.
Sometime in 2012: The restaurant starts serving a dish known as a pancake cake, which continues the Ssäm Bar predilection for all things large, albeit in dessert form. The delicacy is an unfinished, four-inch high, four-inch wide cake layered with raspberry jam, bacon, maple, and miso ganache. It is a dead ringer for an indulgent Denny’s-style breakfast, only denser, chewier, and less sweet. It feeds four. It is one of the city’s greatest desserts of all time, and a forerunner to other pricey, super big desserts like the Pool’s $41 princess cake.
October 2016: Booker and Dax shutters. On the one hand, this development is heartbreaking for those who saw the cocktail bar as leading the way for a progressive future within the Momofuku empire. On the other hand, Arnold successfully launches his Booker and Dax follow up, Existing Conditions, independently of the Momofuku Empire, within two years. It doesn’t quite approach Milk Bar in its popularity — there’s still just one bar — but the scenario highlights the ability of Ssäm Bar and Momofuku to incubate ideas.
Later in October 2016: After giving us a decade of poor posture — and after getting ravaged for the austere design elements of Nishi — Chang decides comfort is important for Ssäm Bar. He tosses the squat dining room stools and installs chairs with backs. He banishes the communal tables. The old Booker and Dax space becomes a seated dining room, and as a result, Ssäm Bar feels less like a stripped-down vestige of the aughts, and more like a comfortable, traditional restaurant.
May 2017: Max Ng, one of the lieutenants at Ko, becomes executive chef at Ssäm Bar. The menu changes again. Ng introduces ingredients and preparations inspired by his native Singapore, such as sambal-slicked skate wrapped in a charred banana leaf, whole king crab with Hokkien noodles, and coconut pandan pie. Old classics remain, but the new menu, paired with the dining room changes, makes Ssäm feel like an almost entirely new restaurant. In October, New York Times critic Pete Wells awards it three stars. By this time, the restaurant is entirely more amenable to dietary restrictions, and it appears Chang no longer casts hexes upon vegetarians or food writers.
March 2020: Ssäm Bar closes along with all of Momofuku’s other venues amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
May 2020: Chang announces that Ssäm Bar will relocate to the former Bar Wayō space in the Seaport District when the pandemic abates. Dinner service will use elements of tabletop grilling — currently installed upstairs — which means that Ssäm Bar, will yet again morph into a new restaurant.
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.