New Classics: Babs Opens on MacDougal
We talk with the boys behind the newly opened neighborhood spot about Basque Country cooking, the importance of longevity, and why simplicity is key.
Babs, the new restaurant from the team behind petite French bistro Mimi has finally swung open its doors. The impossibly chic, 60-seat ‘neighborhood’ restaurant on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village has a beating Basque heart and an emphasis on charcoal grilling. The boys behind it say they’re aiming to become a “classic New York meat and fish restaurant,” which is probably downplaying it somewhat. Still, they’re definitely playing the long game. Slowly but surely, they’re building a tiny empire. We caught up with the team to discuss the inspiration behind Babs and the anatomy of a truly great restaurant.
This is your second venue in Greenwich Village, do you just have a natural affinity for it?
Evan Bennett: It’s not SoHo rent, and it’s in that nice little sweet spot between SoHo and Greenwich Village…
Louis Levy: And it’s a cool neighborhood. It hasn’t been as gentrified as other areas; it’s still got some authenticity that other spots have lost. Everything changes so fast in New York and here, there’s still this village feel that we love.
Mimi is super tiny. Babs is pretty small, too. What is it about small spaces?
EB: It’s about us growing as business owners, you know, if you don’t fuck up something really small then you can graduate a little more. It’s better to start small…
Efrén Hernandez: It’s also about control from a kitchen perspective: it helps to control quality if you’re not doing 1000 covers a day.
LL: Also, all of us have worked in neighborhood restaurants and I think that aspect is important. The size doesn’t matter so much but it’s about finding a space that’s in a neighborhood and is going to be there for quite a while because New York is such a volatile city for restaurants. All of us have always been conscious that we don’t want to open a restaurant that’s going to be very successful for two years and then fade off the map.
Can you talk about the design of Babs?
EB: All of the design is based on this one apartment in Prague that was designed by the architect Adolf Loos. You always need to build a palette when you’re designing a restaurant. You have a palette of materials and colors that you use and then you add details around that. We used essentially one photograph of the apartment as our palette and built around that.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the food…
LL: First we started in Vienna from a service and design point of view and then we went to the Basque Country on a trip all together, and that was a huge slap in the face.
Was it a good slap in the face?
LL: A great slap in the face! Really simple cooking, really putting the ingredients in front and doing very little to it and showcasing that. For us, we wanted to do a place that was a bit more simple than Mimi. So that was the original inspiration.
EH: The difference between Mimi and Babs is that Mimi is meant to be more experimental, even challenging. The idea was a new Paris Bistro in New York. My approach to Babs was working out how can I make a menu with something for everyone on it, using one charcoal grill and then using the Basque influence of grilling, and sourcing really well.
EB: We all wanted to open up a classic meat and fish restaurant. So again, a bit more experimental over at Mimi, whereas here, we knew we wanted to focus more on charcoal grilling, more product-based but really a classic meat and fish restaurant; really tying into the idea of wanting to be here for 15 to 20 years.
Can you talk about the cocktail and wine program?
EB: Ninety-five percent of the wine list is natural, none of it is over the top, volatile, funky natural. We’re trying to showcase natural wines where people are surprised that it tastes like wine. As far as the cocktail program, once we got into it we were like, Why are people ruining these great spirits by overcomplicating them in cocktails? So with the exception of a few classics, we wanted to keep it super simple, like a Mount Gaye and tonic as a cocktail. Very simple things and total attention to detail.
LL: It relates to the food again, let’s not make things too complicated and make a cocktail with smoke coming out of it, let’s use a really good base liquor and just serve it in the best way for it to be experienced.
And the service style?
Daniel Bennett: I like for people to be surprised by how relaxed servers are, and surprised again by how good they are. Four Charles Prime is actually a very good example of that. We’re aiming for that.
EH: Relaxed professionalism—that goes for the kitchen, too. If you’re doing your work and doing it well, you’re allowed to be happy. If you’re not, well…
DB: That line is hard to find for some people.
What are the ingredients that make a restaurant great?
EB: Where it started here was warmth in a room. We walked in and we were like, Cool space, this works. You have to have that gut feeling that this is right.
LL: Most spaces in New York, you’re always asking how can we make this work? This was one of the rare occasions where it was the opposite: we walked in and immediately knew. Here we were straight away thinking, How are we going to cater to this space because it’s already so unique.
EB: The big thing is that here, the sun sets right in front of you. There are no buildings because of the park opposite so you get this magic light coming right through at sunset.
LL: You know, here we’re trying to create something familiar. We love restaurants, we are driven by the ambition of creating a space that’s gonna matter and gonna be there rather than being driven by the idea of money or success
EB: Hopefully that follows.
Tell me about the places you like…
EB: Mott Corner, it’s this little bodega…
LL: You can’t put it on the map, it’s going to get ruined!
EB: It’s run by these two brothers and they actually don’t want to give you their curry but if you can get them to give it to you, it’s insane.
DB: I go to Marumi a lot. It’s on LaGuardia. It’s a totally fine Japanese restaurant and it’s homey and neighborly.
FG: Raoul’s because it’s the only place that has managed to preserve its soul over the years and it feels intact. That’s really cool.
DB: We like little niche places that are authentic.
LL: I also like Le French Diner; it’s super tiny—seven seats, one person cooking, one person serving. What they do is really cool.
EH: Four Charles Prime Rib.
EB: When you’re thinking about food all the time, it’s nice just to have something simple—like steak done really well.
EH: I mostly just eat cheeseburgers.
WORDS Willem Hock