Jonathan Waxman's Barbuto is dead, long live Barbuto

For months loyal patrons queued at an ur-celebchef’s most successful restaurant for their last meal. But was it?

Published June 1, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

 (Dean Santon)
(Dean Santon)

Jonathan Waxman, one of the Mount Rushmore figures of contemporary American restaurants, has been serving a signature half chicken since he ascended to the position of chef of Michael’s Santa Monica — a crucible of American culinary talent and at-the-time revolutionary, non-French ideas in a partially outdoor setting — in 1979. Served over the years in various Waxman projects and consultancies around the United States with varying condiments and accompaniments, it’s a half-chicken with an exquisitely seasoned, crackling skin, and succulent meat. As with all of Waxman’s signature offerings, the chicken could not look or taste more elemental, or perfect; its textures and flavors are the product of culinary training fused with intuition and the improvisational soul of the jazz musician (trombone) he once was. Countless birds have given their lives in service of its legend, but the consistency of Waxman and his crews is such that it always, paradoxically, seems to be the same chicken. In the history of American restaurants, only the roast chicken and bread salad developed at Zuni Cafe by the late Judy Rodgers vies for the same vaunted place at the table, but that dish has only ever been served regularly at one restaurant.

Waxman’s most successful restaurant, Barbuto, in lower Manhattan, served its last meal to the public on Thursday. Barbuto was endlessly popular, and following news of its end date, its last two months were marked by a public outpouring of grief and affection. And with good reason.  Because from now on, if you want to get that chicken, you’ll have to travel all the way to . . . Waxman’s Jams restaurant at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Eighth Street. Wait. Can that be right? That’s just three miles from Barbuto. Hardly an odyssey; just a twenty-five minute subway ride, or a one-hour walk, or, if you live in midtown, or uptown, or are staying in those parts while visiting New York, it might even be more convenient than Barbuto.

 At Jams, you can also start your meal with touchstones of what most consider the Barbuto dining experience, like marinated olives and a salumi spread, move on to Waxman’s justly swooned-over kale salad with anchovy dressing (a.k.a. the “kale Caesar”), then to pan-fried gnocchi, THAT CHICKEN, and a side of fried fingerling potatoes with rosemary and pecorino. You can even start your visit with a jw margarita, which was an off-menu offering at Barbuto until the home stretch (Many of the same dishes are also available at Adele’s, a Nashville restaurant owned by Waxman and partners).

So if you can still get all the same grub, why was Barbuto’s closure met with attendance numbers and the sort of mad jockeying for position usually reserved for a restaurant opening, or the starting bell on Black Friday? I lunched there eight days ago, lingering long enough into the late afternoon that by the time I left, a queue for dinner-hour access had formed along the west side of the restaurant and would soon be snaking around the corner to the southeast.

It’s no secret that Waxman hopes to relocate Barbuto to new digs ASAP; he said so in the same New York Times interview in which he announced Barbuto’s closure, and the restaurant’s non-response to official queries (including mine for this piece) about whether it already has a new home at 113 Horatio Street, as a few internet postings have posited, is a conventional sign that that’s likely the case, although in the restaurant business, as in any venture that mashes up real estate, huge sums of money, and complex partnerships, you can’t count your (roasted half) chickens until they hatch.

But assuming the restaurant will be back in new digs, and with Waxman’s defining offerings readily available elsewhere, why all the angst-tinged nostalgia of the past few weeks, when postings from chefs, food writers, celebrities, and Barbuto regulars have been visible daily on social media, usually a shot of Waxman, or the chicken, or some pasta, accompanied by sullen emojis.

Well, first of all, there’s the injustice of it all: Barbuto, fifteen years after opening, could probably have lasted another fifteen in its current home. It had become what the Odeon once was: the defining downtown haunt of its day, and did so before the new High Line, and neighboring restaurants such as Santina and Untitled, made Washington Street a restaurant row delivering a steady stream of new customers. Barbuto was perennially packed for years, but its building was sold and the new owners have non-commercial plans for the space.

Hey, that’s business. But if Barbuto can be booted so unceremoniously downtown while the Death Star of Hudson Yards sprouts up in Midtown, then what hope is there for those of us New Yorkers with souls who want to eat in places that reflect our own romanticism, taste, and style, as Barbuto did so effortlessly?

What the moment really teaches, or reminds us, is that restaurants are produced by alchemy, and that the food is, in many ways, incidental (Quick: Name one person who’s managed to snag a table at Rao’s who doesn’t love the place, now name one who thinks the food there doesn’t suck).

A few years ago, I interviewed the original chef of Michael’s Santa Monica, Ken Frank, to whom Waxman was the opening sous chef way back in 1979. (The two men and their colleagues adorn the cover of my book “Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll,” which features Waxman’s origin story.) We met on a weekday morning in the dining room of his Napa restaurant La Toque. Before we sat down, I noticed Ken gazing around the empty dining room, shaking his head.  It was our first meeting, but I had to ask if he was okay.

“You know,” he said. “Something hit me last night during dinner service. I was looking over this room, and the customers were so happy. I thought to myself, ‘If the room is beautiful, if the lighting is right, if the seats are comfortable, and my front-of-house team is doing their jobs right . . . then the food almost doesn’t matter.’”  (This statement was equally revelatory to me, given that, at the time, La Toque held a Michelin star).

So, whether or not some runner is carting mixed cases of leftover wine to the hoped-for home of Barbuto 2.0 as I type this, let’s take a moment to appreciate what made version 1.0 so special (And why, in hindsight, most won’t begrudge the restaurant’s issuing constant, crowd-conjuring Instagram reminders of its forthcoming closure even if they’ve been sitting on a likely new home. I ate at Barbuto three times in its last nine days on Washington Street. I have no regrets). The wonder of the restaurant, I’d argue, was how downright organic and almost accidental it seemed, with a backstory as seemingly ill-fated as the run-up to “Casablanca”: When it opened in 2004, Jonathan Waxman — now finally and properly appreciated as one of the elder states-people of contemporary American food — had seemingly run his race. He’d become famous at Michael’s Santa Monica, heading the kitchen for five years after Frank departed, was credited with bringing “California cuisine” to New York City with the original Jams in 1984, then sputtered out in failed ventures such as Table 29 in the Napa Valley and Washington Park in Greenwich Village. He had also served as consulting corporate chef to Michael Weinstein’s Ark Restaurants, creating and tweaking menus and kitchens at such unremarkable but long-running joints as Bryant Park Grill and Gonzalez y Gonzalez.

And then, out of the ashes of that career, rose Barbuto: In a desolate, pre-Highline stretch of the way-West Village, across Twelfth Street from the once-indestructible Mexican cantina Tortilla Flats (whose shuttered storefront remains lifeless seven months after its closing), in the home of a forgotten commissary and seasonal restaurant I just had to look up named Braques. As Waxman tells the tale, his neighbor and co-owner Fabrizio Ferri, badgered him into opening an Italian restaurant. Even the name, which means beard in Italian, a nod to the owners’ shared predilection for facial hair, was a throwaway.

Expectations were so low that Barbuto thrust open its front door (and, seasonally and weather permitting, its glass-paned garage-door walls) without a general manager. But positive reviews and crowds came swiftly, and suddenly they had a hit on their hands. It would become Waxman’s longest-running success; lasting three times his tenure at Michael’s, and nine years longer than Jams was in business.

At a crossroads in New York and national restaurant cuisine and style, Barbuto was timeless, and placeless: It felt as casual and improvised as a seaside joint along the PCH or Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the California touches once most associated in New York with Waxman — the simplicity of the food, the open kitchen, t-shirt-clad servers — have been so assimilated nationally that they no longer belong to either coast. Unlike in so many places of its debut year, there was no multimillion-dollar build-out (the white-brick walls, the industrial flooring, the nooks and crannies where Barbuto set a semi-private room and a coveted chef’s table adjacent to the kitchen), no tweezers-food, no interest in whatever trend was making the rounds in 2004 (burgers and pizza come immediately to mind).

The “It” chefs of the moment, David Chang and April Bloomfield, were the hares; Waxman was — as always — the tortoise, patiently ambling along the culinary timeline, his wry smile the only outward indication of what I imagine to be a supreme, and supremely well-concealed, confidence. He seems to have long known what the rest of us had to live a long time to realize: that his instincts are so sound that, while some projects may implode on the launchpad and others may not live to see a second or third year, he will always have another restaurant in him.

Waxman’s on the road a lot to support charity events, make personal appearances, and participate in friends’ openings and anniversaries. The face many became accustomed to seeing at Barbuto was that of Jen Davidson, a former ballerina from across the Hudson River in New Jersey, who ran the restaurant (and Waxman’s extra-restaurant commitments, and PR) with deceptively casual style and an innate sense of hospitality. There were subtle traces of Jen’s background in much about Barbuto, from the way she glided over to a table to deliver a plate of marinated olives and a glass of rosé to a guest, to the front-of-house team she gathered and trained, which — it occurred to me with the posting of a staggeringly well-produced farewell video — might more properly be described as a troupe than a staff.  

Similarly, Waxman has amassed an insanely loyal and affectionate hive of former employees, business partners, customers, colleagues, and — truth be told — journalists — who have remained in his orbit for decades. This past Wednesday and Thursday, Barbuto had invitation-only last suppers (a la carte, with a bill presented at the end) open to friends of the house. Former chefs de cuisine such as Upland’s Justin Smillie and Lynn McNeely, who’s now a private chef, returned to cook signature dishes, and the house was full with players in Waxman’s ongoing story.

I attended Thursday night and also there were culinary superstars Alex Guarnaschelli, Bobby Flay, Andrew Zimmern, and Marcus Samuelsson; chefs Jimmy Bradley (formerly of The Red Cat), Joey Campanaro (Little Owl, The Clam), Franklin Becker (La Central, The Little Beet); and Marc Forgione (Restaurant Marc Forgione, American Cut), whose father Larry, also in attendance, is one of Waxman’s best friends, and a fellow icon who put Brooklyn’s The River Cafe on the map and then hung out his own shingle at An American Place in 1983. Restaurateurs Vicki Freeman and Marc Meyer were there, as was photographer Melanie Dunea and food writer Kate Krader. I could go on, but will leave it with the fact Katie Couric was also in the house. Oh, and at the table next to mine was Broadway legend Joel Grey, who I just found out had been dining there weekly for years. I said hello to him, told him I’d been watching old clips of his performance in “Cabaret,” because I’d had Bob Fosse on my mind recently.

As he left, I thought that the evening, which inevitably turned into a de facto party once everybody was done with their meals, resembled the final scene of Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” a fantasy sequence in which Joe Gideon has people from throughout his life gathered for one last performance.

But this can’t possibly be Waxman’s final curtain call. Several milestone restaurants have successfully hopped to new digs in New York City over the years: Restaurant Daniel migrated to its current home on East 65th Street; Chanterelle was so elegantly installed on Harrison Street in Tribeca that those (including me) who never ate at its original spot in SoHo didn’t feel diminished by it; and what Amanda Cohen affectionately refers to as (Big) Dirt Candy feels like a natural evolution of the original (Little) Dirt Candy.

Others didn’t transition quite so well: I respect Danny Meyer immensely but the new Union Square Café is a bit soulless, with no effective replacement for the funky charm of the original, Le Cirque diminished its legacy in not one, but two, relocations; and for all my affection for Jonathan (and having never been to the original myself), early visits to the midtown Jams left me a little cold.

Who knows if we were really saying goodbye to Barbuto this week, or merely crossing our fingers as it makes its way a smidge uptown to Horatio Street or another future berth. Here’s hoping that what materializes retains the soul of the original, even if the body is different. And if that day doesn’t come to pass; does anybody really think Waxman won’t be back with another hit before too long?  He, his food, their fans and their friends, will come together again. They always have, and for as long as he wants them to it seems, they always will.

By Andrew Friedman

Andrew Friedman has chronicled the lives and work of chefs in more than 30 books and collaborations including "Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll." He also writes about them on his Toqueland blog and interviews them on his podcast Andrew Talks to Chefs.

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