For years, Yannick Benjamin hung a poster of “Cheers” bar owner Sam Malone in the bedroom of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. “That was always my dream, to be Sam Malone,” he says.
Benjamin, a well known figure in the New York wine world, never got his all-American, beer-on-tap bar. But on June 10, he and partners George Gallego, Oscar Lorenzzi, Mara Rudzinski, and Lorenz Skeeter opened Contento, their own neighborhood restaurant and gathering space. Located in East Harlem, at 88 East 111th Street just west of the Metro-North tracks, Contento welcomes every stripe of New Yorker with its Peruvian-inspired food, killer wine list, and inclusive hospitality.
Contento’s ethos and tagline is “accessible for all.” It’s a mission that’s personal to the team: In 2003, while working as a sommelier in fine dining, Benjamin was in a car accident that left him paralyzed below the waist. After he recovered, Benjamin outfitted his wheelchair with a modified tray and continued working as a sommelier. He also co-founded Wine on Wheels, a nonprofit that raises funds to empower people with disabilities.
At Contento, table tops are a few inches higher than standard to accommodate wheelchairs. Aisles between tables are wide, and guests can easily roll up to a low, wheelchair-accessible bar (overlooking the dining room and open kitchen, these are the best seats in the house).
Design is just the start, though. Accessibility also informs the ways in which the Contento team develops the menu, selects its wines, recruits workers, and engages the community.
“I think it’s important that people from all marginalized communities feel like they can come in here,” he says.
The restaurant was born from the Wine on Wheels network. Gallego, a longtime Harlem resident who also uses a wheelchair, mentored Benjamin after his accident, and the two collaborate on Gallego’s Axis Project that helps people with disabilities work-out and stay fit. In 2019, Gallego and Skeeter found the space for Contento and put it to Benjamin simply: “You gonna join us?”
The pandemic delayed the opening by over a year, and the team contemplated selling to-go meals and serving food to a nearby construction crew to keep the project alive, but “the best thing we did was to reserve our resources and wait for the right time to open. People are starting to come alive again,” says Rudzinski, sommelier and managing partner.
In addition to its 36 seats inside, Contento installed an outdoor dining shed for up to 14 guests, and Lorenzzi’s menu is designed for neighborhood drop-ins, solo bar diners, and wine drinkers wanting to linger.
Born and raised in Lima, Peru, Lorenzzi’s cooking resume (Marseille, Nice Matin, Waverly Inn) has a heavy French accent, and Contento is New York’s introduction to his Peruvian roots. There’s aji amarillo slipped into deviled eggs, quinoa cooked in the style of risotto, and ricotta whipped into a fancy huancaina sauce paired with grilled asparagus.
The chef’s past posts also boasted serious wine programs. “I love wine as much as I love food,” says Lorenzzi, who recommends a glass of Albariño with ceviche clasico and Sauvignon Blanc with charred carrots and green tahini.
The beverage list, a collaboration between Benjamin and Rudzinski, has more than 20 bottles for less than $50 each. There’s also a reserve list with premier cru Burgundy, 1995 Napa Cabs, and $550 bottle of Selosse, the darling of grower Champagne.
The main list is divided into five themes. The most straightforward among them is “Europe,” including somm-favorite Loire Valley Chenin Blanc ($60) and cool-kid Hungarian amphora-aged Kadarka ($45). There’s also “The Americas & Gems From The Edges of The World” and “Wines of the Ancient World.”
But the themes that feel most connected to Contento’s mission are “Wines of Impact” and “East Coast Terroir.” The former showcases women, BIPOC, and indegenous winemakers à la Tara Gomez, a member of the Chumash tribe, who produces Kitá Wine in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. The section also includes bottles from winemakers leading the way in sustainability and other social movements.
“These people are challenging the status quo. But they’re not just challenging barriers. The quality is stupendous,” Benjamin says.
For “East Coast Terroir,” Benjamin traveled to wineries from Maine down to Virginia to find gems like Glen Manor’s Petit Manseng. And Rudzinski, an upstate native, has long been a fan of Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes wines like the Pinot Noir ($65) from Master Sommelier Chris Bates’ Elements Winery. There’s even sparkling blueberry wine from Bluet ($45) in Maine. (Yes, you read that correctly: blueberry wine.)
“Maybe there will be somebody, and he, she, or they, they’re going to come in and they’re going to start off with blueberry wine. And they’re going to end with Selosse,” Benjamin says. “Why not? Why can’t that happen?”
Guests can also enjoy cocktails made by Heidi Turzyn Benjamin (a former sommelier at Gotham Bar & Grill and Benjamin’s wife), nonalcoholic beer and wine, a Ramona canned spritz, local beers, and bottles of Modela Especial. And they’ll be served by floor somms like Travis Padilla, a Bronx native who felt shut out of the wine world until he met Benjamin at a Sommelier Society of America certification course.
“I was working in Latin nightclubs and trying to get a job in wine. I was tired of leaving work at 5 a.m. I wanted a slower pace, but no one would hire me. No one could see a way that my experience would translate into wine,” says Padilla, who spent last summer traveling to wineries with Benjamin.
Contento plans to launch a job training program and to host classes for neighbors, people with disabilities, and folks from other marginalized communities. The team wants the restaurant to be a model for better business and labor practices, as well as a safe, respectful space for guests and staff.
It’s time for doing the work, says Benjamin, not just posting about it on Instagram. But hospitality and hard work is all Benjamin has ever known. After his accident, his dad tried to steer him out of the industry and into an office job. Benjamin resisted, regrouped, and started working toward new goals.
“Sometimes we’re chasing after something that may never exist,” he says. “But for me, one of my dreams actually came true because I was able to have my mother and my father come into my restaurant, and I was able to serve them. And I do believe in magic.”