Birth of a Restaurant: El Bocadito

Birth of a Restaurant: El Bocadito

Take an informal poll about fantasies at the Greenmarket, Fairway, or Whole Foods, and one will pop up with impressive frequency (after winning the lottery, of course): The desire to open a restaurant. What food-obsessed New Yorker hasn’t dreamt about owning her own place, imagined throwing open the doors and watching the hungry (and attractive, and moneyed) hordes stream in? The glamour, the excitement, the food… The reality of following that dream, though, is not quite so glittering.

This is the story of Holly Grabelle’s tiny Lower East Side space, El Bocadito. It’s about food, money, and real estate, a combination that’s as New York as the egg cream.

Holly and I met four years ago, when she was the manager of the takeout location of Sage American Kitchen and I was the director of sales and marketing for the parent company. Neither of us lasted there very long, and we didn’t exactly stay in touch afterwards, but back in April I got an email from her with the exciting news that she’d just signed a lease on a tiny space on the Lower East Side. Her plan was to open an eatery inspired by the street foods of Mexico, a place with authentic nibbles and a funky urban-latino vibe. On the tail end of a sunny spring afternoon, I trekked over to check it out.

The block, south of Delancey between Broome and Grand, was still grungy, although Little Giant had established a beachhead a few doors north. There was no electricity inside the space, so we propped the door open and huddled in a pool of diminishing sunlight. Holly had warned me that it was in rough shape and she was right: electric-blue walls and a dropped acoustical tile ceiling, remnants of the cell phone store that had recently vacated, made the 400 square feet seem even tinier; the worn checkered floor was ugly and poorly maintained; the basement was dank and filthy. The lack of a gas line meant all the cooking would have to be done with electrical equipment, which would limit the menu (you can’t get a proper char on a taco al pastor without open flames, after all). But when viewed through Holly’s eyes, the place had nothing but potential—she’d checked out 18 other spaces, and this was by far the best, for the best price. She was giddy with anticipation. The plan was to open in late summer, to work out the kinks before the crowds returned to the city.

Holly quit her job managing someone else’s restaurant (saying “I didn’t want to be the assistant to an entrepreneur”), secured an SBA loan to supplement her life savings, hired an architect to maximize the space, and began working with her Mexican busboy-turned-cook on a simple menu of bocaditos—little tastes. All she wanted was to open a welcoming neighborhood spot, to let some of the Mexican cooks who toil in this town’s upscale French, Italian, and American restaurants make the humble, flavorful food they eat at home. In the blink of an eye, she’d committed to spending more than $50,000.

But less than three weeks later Holly hit her first snag, and it was a doozy: Her landlord called her in for a meeting. Major construction was planned for the building, something about structural problems. He wanted her out. She wasn’t even in yet, but he wanted her out. Veiled threats were made, and Holly believed them—after all, the company manages $500 million in assets, more than 5,000 multifamily units. They were huge, and she was just one woman. Holly’s restaurant—and her life—screeched to a halt. As Holly put it, “It’s not like I’m opening a Subway, where you say, ‘Oh, OK, we’ll just go somewhere else.’”

For the next four months Holly’s existence was focused on lawyers and negotiations. She wasn’t ready to give up the space, not without a fight—and the landlord’s refusal to show proof of the “structural problems” made her doubt there was really anything wrong (other than, perhaps, her bargain-priced lease). By August, when Holly had originally planned to have her soft opening, no progress had been made. Her free rent, typically given to cover a few months of build-out, had expired, and she was still waiting to hear back from the landlord on her lawyer’s breach-of-contract letter. “It’s been three-and-a-half months of meeting with lawyers, pulling my hair out, and escaping to friends’ houses on weekends,” she told me at the time. “It’s like being unemployed and having the day off”—the boredom, the anxiety, the waiting for something to happen. It had taken a toll on her physically, too—a stomach ailment led to a 15-pound weight loss, which on Holly’s small frame made her look frail and gaunt (although I must admit, the effect was gorgeous, like an LES rocker chick—very Heroin Chic). Holly fired her lawyer, and found a new one. His advice: “You know this is all testosterone.” Pay the rent and start working. When I next saw the space, in mid-September, the transformation was already tremendous: Primer on the walls opened up the space considerably. Most of the drop ceiling was gone, exposing a lovely pressed tin several feet higher up. The smell of freshly-cut wood was invigorating. And Holly, too, was looking better—she’d regained a few pounds and was feeling fine. She now hoped to open El Bocadito before the holidays.

By early December, work was almost complete. A curved, blackened steel bar had been installed towards the back of the space, which would delineate the main cooking area. Drop-dead gorgeous light fixtures, smoky olive green glass pendants with long, elegant bulbs, hung over it. In the front part of the room, built-in tables had been installed, hinged to fold flat against the walls, creating more floor space as needed. A pair of large antique mirrors reflected light and provided a feeling of openness. Final graphics for the logo and menu, inspired by Mexican advertising, were on the way. In the basement, a small miracle had transpired: The space was clean and bright, with a walk-in refrigerator and prep station in place and a cozy bathroom nearly finished. Holly’s cell phone rang constantly while I was there and a parade of workers traipsed in and out: Two guys worked on electrical stuff, another tweaked the custom steel, a fourth examined a bit of flooring that needed replacement, a handyman hung metal brackets for the glass shelves that would become the bar, and so on. And through all the hubbub, Holly was a calm, centered force, dealing with each mini-emergency as it arose, never freaking out (as I’m sure I would have). There were still several pieces of equipment to be installed, kinks to be worked out, inspections to be held, so she was now aiming for a friends-and-family opening early in the New Year, with an official opening soon after.

Oh, and the landlord? Nothing but nice, now. Holly had no idea why there was such tsuris in the beginning, and she probably never will.

The weekend of January 7, El Bocadito held a soft opening. S and I stopped by on Sunday night and sampled several dishes from a limited menu: super-fresh guacamole (S particularly loved this) and mellow refried beans with homemade tortilla chips, fried whole and extra-crackly; a chicken taco in a soft flour tortilla, accompanied by three glorious salsas of varying intensity; and a fabulous taquito dorado (deep fried taco) filled with spicy chorizo. Everything wasn’t perfect—heck, it was only their second night—but it showed great promise, and every one of the 23 seats was filled when we left. And best of all: Not a single item on the menu costs more than $10.

The following week, El Bocadito hit a trifecta of sorts in the publicity game: Daily Candy ran a notice, as did Florence Fabricant in the Times, and a short piece I wrote appeared in Time Out. (Their infuriating, “new and improved” site doesn’t let me login to get the link. Anyway, an announcement ran there, too.) Business was booming from Day One, January 13—so much so that Holly and her crew haven’t quite had time to work out the kinks yet. They’re still adjusting daily, making sure the spice level is right, the portions are a good value, the service is consistent and friendly, and the overall experience makes customers want to return. Once the liquor license comes through, the drinks menu, created by mixologist Christopher Baljag (a Mexico City native), will be zesty and tequila-based: muddled banana or fresh ginger margaritas and tangy tomato-orange sangrita, plus Mexican wines and beers. Plans are in the works for breakfast and lunch—Holly’s goal is to make it a cozy neighborhood hangout for any time of day. If you’re curious, by all means check it out this weekend! And do report back here—I’d love to know what you think.

El Bocadito is at 79 Orchard Street, between Broome and Grand. 212.343.3331. Closed Mondays.