When partners Jesse Merchant Zuñiga and Javier Zuñiga launched Bad Habit ice cream during the pandemic, initially they were just thinking of it as a hobby. But soon, they were delivering containers of ice cream in flavors like olive oil and chocolate honeycomb all over the city to specialty markets. Now, Bad Habit is opening a headquarters on Saturday, January 7, in the East Village: an ice cream bar by day, with savory small plates and drinks by night, under the name Caleta. The hybrid Caleta/Bad Habit restaurant and bar is located at 131 Avenue A, near St. Mark’s Place.
There are many things Caleta is not. It is not, according to its Instagram bio, a wine bar — though, yes, technically they will serve wine. By that, the team means that they want the tiny space — just 21 seats — to feel casual (it’s walk-in only). In fact, all glasses on the list are $15 to keep it simple. But they are also not a Bad Habit scoop shop: Ice cream containers can be ordered to stay, to bring back home, or taken across the street for a Tompkins Square Park picnic. It’s more of an adult ice cream parlor with savory snacks meant to stand on their own.
Between 2 and 5 p.m. customers can stop by for ice cream tubs (there are three sizes: small, $5.50, medium, $8, and large $13), with daily-changing flavors like miso raspberry, dill-yuzu, roasted banana coffee caramel, olive oil, tres leches, blood orange creamsicle, and more (meanwhile, Bad Habit will also continue to wholesale, albeit a truncated flavor list). For the first time, Bad Habit is able to offer a vegan option, with sorbets like pear or kiwi-lemon, that will also switch up frequently. In addition to ice cream in containers, during Caleta hours, there’s a vanilla waffle with maple, an olive oil bombe with raspberry, and a hojicha baked Alaska, which use the Bad Habit ice creams but are redesigned for a more elevated restaurant experience.
Then, starting at 5 p.m. the team will start serving food and drinks, alongside the desserts. The opening menu has less than 10 small plates, all hovering more or less around $15. There are plantain chips with merken aioli, potatoes with hazelnut romesco and trout roe, a watercress Caesar, artichokes with chamomile, and jamon de Bayonne, beef tartare with piparras and citrus, and, what is likely to the crowd favorite: a creamy toast with mussels, gochujang, and oregano. Dishes will rotate frequently, but Merchant Zuñiga, says, “We’re probably going to have to keep the mussel toast always around, it’s literally so good — I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
They both trained under restaurants that helped spearhead new minimalism cooking, a style that rejects fussy garnishes, and uses just a few ingredients, plainly. It’s a format that is, in its own way, a bit punk rock, and it’s apparent in the Caleta ethos.
Zuñiga grew up in Venezuela, but his family is from Chile. While the dishes have certain Latin American inflection points, Caleta’s menu was also informed by the kitchens he’s worked in, as well as the way the duo simply likes to eat.
The melding of sweet and savory is a long time coming for the couple, who has more than a decade of New York City restaurant experience between them. They met in 2019, when Merchant Zuñiga was starting as a line cook at Wildair, while Zuñiga had been working at Contra for the past five years, at that point, as the pastry sous chef (later, Zuñiga worked at the team’s Peoples Wine Bar, while Merchant Zuñiga headed to the kitchen at Hart’s to be their sous).
“I definitely never thought I’d be opening a place like this,” he says. “For a long time, I thought fine dining was kind of the only way.” He adds that what Caleta ultimately became feels more authentic to the DIY way the couple has always done things, like opening a spot for frozen treats in the winter.
The aesthetic of Caleta/Bad Habit is simple but sleek like the food and sweets. It’s mostly bar seating, with a few tiled tables in the back. To start, Bad Habit and Caleta will be open Thursday through Monday, from 2:00 p.m. until midnight, with walk-ins only. The team says they’re excited to remain open on days they know many folks in the service industry have off.