Pre-Babbo, Remembering The Coach House Restaurant on Waverly, and How Babbo Came to Be

Vanity Fair has a preview in their May issue of Restaurant Man, a memoir by restauranteur (and Master Chef judge) Joe Bastianich who “recounts his evolution from being the son of a Queens-based working-class restaurant owner to prevailing over New York City’s most mouth-watering gourmet Italian restaurants.” This includes popular Babbo near Washington Square and Eataly, among others. Reading the VF excerpt was interesting for its story of how Babbo came to be, the author’s partnership with Mario Batali, and an interesting anecdote about real estate in New York City. Mr. Bastianich writes of the vacant (at the time) Coach House restaurant which lead me to wonder about this “landmark” institution that preceded Babbo and closed in 1993.

Upon its official closing, in “Neighborhood Report: Greenwich Village — An Appreciation; After 44 Years and 4 Proud Stars, Dinner Is Over at the Coach House,” the New York Times wrote:

The restaurant’s setting was as warm and restorative as a wood stove in January: brick and wood-paneled walls, red leather banquettes, brass chandeliers, handsome 19th-century oil paintings, and gentle lighting. Celebrities and food mavens from around the country made a point of visiting the Coach House over the years. Perhaps the most prominent patron was James Beard, the celebrated food writer and gourmand who made a tradition of dining there every Christmas Eve.

From the Restaurant-ing blog:

At one point, when [Beard] had become more prosperous, he ate almost nightly for a solid month at one of his regular haunts, the Coach House near his home in Greenwich Village, where his favorite dishes included corn sticks, black bean soup, and mutton chops.

The Coach House was open for 44 years in its Waverly Place location and closed in 1993. (Thankfully, and perhaps unusually, at least it would be for today, it was not because of landlord issues — in this case, that’s due to the fact that the owner of the restaurant also owned the building.)

Also from the New York Times:

Housed in a 19th-century coach house just off Washington Square, on what was once the estate of the Wanamaker family, the restaurant was created in 1949 by Leon Lianides, a meticulous and genteel man who had a hand in every aspect of the business, from menu planning to wine selection and decor. The 76-year-old Mr. Lianides, who has been in failing health in recent years, never reopened the restaurant after closing for vacation last summer.

The space was vacant for close to five years until Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich took over the space in 1998.

The story of how that came to be from the forthcoming book via Vanity Fair:

Mario [Batali] was totally irreverent in his style, kind of a hippie like me, but a lot farther out than I was willing to go. He was from Seattle but had gone to school at Rutgers in New Jersey. He used to deal weed in college, wearing a robe and genie shoes, and he worked at a place called Stuff Yer Face Pizza. He was a skinny version of what he is now. He wasn’t wearing the clogs yet, but always the shorts. That was his signature—cargo shorts and sneakers. By then I had eased into some kind of post-bachelor, urban-contemporary bon vivant. Mostly I looked as if I owned a successful restaurant. Mario looked like he was on his way to a Phish concert. We made a good pair.

One night we were coming from dinner somewhere and were walking down Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, by Washington Square Park, and we saw the old Coach House restaurant all boarded up with a big “for rent” sign.

We were just having fun, not really planning on opening a restaurant, but somehow we got the inspiration to start what we thought would be the perfect restaurant, where we would have no economic ambitions and just kind of fulfill the pure aspiration of creating the ideal environment for eating and drinking and expressing our passion for Italy and all things Italian. You can bet that Restaurant Man has a few in him when he starts thinking like this. And that was the birth of Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca.

We didn’t need to make money, we were flush—both of our restaurants, Becco and Po, were doing better than we could have dreamed—and so suddenly there was a purity of spirit and ideas, a freedom, almost an irreverence toward what was standard or expected. Sometimes the greatest commerce comes from a lack of commerce, we declared, contrary to every truism that Restaurant Man has ever preached or lived by. We didn’t exactly have our feet planted too firmly when we got to blue-skying this fantasy—we were just thinking about this great new idea for an Italian restaurant, wine and food in the perfect setting, and the Coach House was calling our names. …

We called the number on the “for rent” sign and met with this guy who was like the sultan of Albanian-Muslim restaurant slumlords in New York—he wore tracksuits and had a fucking scimitar hanging on his wall, and this is where we learned another important lesson in the New York restaurant business: every restaurant opens based on a real-estate deal. Eventually we’d open places just because we could get the location, before we even had a concept. When it comes to you, you don’t say no. Like George Costanza and parking spaces. You see it, you take it, because it’s not apt to happen again. Not only did we get the lease, but we were able to sneak in this option-to-buy-the-building clause, because the landlord thought we were just a couple of mooks, doomed to fail, who were never going to have the money to close the deal, so he put it in there at a fixed price. A few years later, we bought it.

It’s a good read what I read thus far and a good New York story. It’s a lit-tle strange that he refers to himself as “the Restaurant Man.” ? But anyway, in 1998, when Babbo first opened, Mr. Bastianich told the New York Times, “We plan a restaurant that will be elegant but not expensive.'”

On Yelp, Babbo has the highest price rating $$$$ – $61 and up.

Anyone who experienced the Coach House out there? Would love to hear your recollections.

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A bonus — Recipe: Coach House Chocolate Cake from Bon Appetit

5 thoughts on “Pre-Babbo, Remembering The Coach House Restaurant on Waverly, and How Babbo Came to Be

  1. I have always cherished my copy of the Coach House’s recipe for Custard Bread and Butter Pudding. It was an amazing decadent version of a nursery dessert, that enveloped you in richness and warmth. All of the fantastic dinners always led to this amazing conclusion, and then a train ride home to snuggle and appreciate the end of a perfect evening.

  2. Hi Paula,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience there. Did the Coach House have a cookbook or you got the recipe at some point? What a nice recollection. Thanks so much for commenting about this – it sounds like such a great place!

    Cathryn

    • I will have to look but I think it was in an old Bon Appetit cookbook I bought back in the 1970s. They had a collection of best restaurant recipes.

      • Hi Paula, That makes sense. If you come across it, that would be sort of fun to reprint. But no worries (if you cant). Thanks again for sharing!

        Cathryn

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