Chef Ed Brown Talks About Upper West Side Dining, His New Chowder House, and the Economic Downturn

With the opening today of Ed’s Chowder House in the Empire Hotel near Lincoln Center, Chef Ed Brown will be dishing up the seafood equivalent of comfort food.

A year ago, Brown, who lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and two sons, opened Eighty One, a Michelin-starred eatery on 81st Street across from the Museum of

Photo: Chef Ed Brown

Photo: Chef Ed Brown

Natural History. That was during the boom times. Now, with the economy sputtering, Brown is turning, at the Chowder House, to familiar favorites from the sea, from crab cakes and a raw bar to whole fish—all of which are aimed at being easy on the wallet.

Meanwhile, at Eighty One, Brown has re-engineered the menu in a nod to the economic downturn. In addition to the eatery’s classic dishes, there’s a $30.81 two course “eco(nomy)-friendly” menu. Another $8.10 gets you an additional appetizer. And when Eighty One’s Library space isn’t being used for private parties, it becomes a no-reservations casual spot with items like Buffalo wings and burgers.

Brown talked recently to Laura Weiss of Food and Things about his new ventures, the state of dining on the Upper West Side, and the economy’s impact on New York dining.

LW: I hear that Eighty One has changed its menu in response to economic downturn.

EB: It’s not changed. I’ve increased the amount of different types of offerings. There’s the original program, the basic ala carte with great stuff based on great ingredients with interesting preparations. We’ve also added an eco(nomy)-friendly menu. The third thing we have going is 81 Grill. There are no reservations. It’s only open on nights I don’t have a private party in the Library. We put paper on the tables and installed a 65-inch television.

LW: The food must be different at that lower price point.

EB: It’s not different in style. There’s zucchini risotto, slow roasted chicken with cracked wheat, scallop ravioli with a yellow wine sauce.

LW: I assume the recession hasn’t been great for business.

Photo: Eighty One

Photo: Eighty One

EB: Absolutely. We still do a fairly good business on the regular program but it just wasn’t enough to make it successful. I wholeheartedly believe it’s about the economy and not about the restaurant. If I could do the numbers I did the first 6 months, we’d be fine.

LW: What about being located on the Upper West Side?  People look down their noses at the dining scene here.

EB: If I agreed with that I wouldn’t have opened Eighty One. I still believe strongly that the Upper West Side has some of the most cultured food savvy people in the city. There are plenty of people with disposable income who want to eat out. I tried to build a beautiful place, but not one that’s fancy. I built a grown up restaurant. It’s not noisy. We don’t rush you.

LW: People call the Upper West Side the suburbs.

EB: This is not the place for the 25-year-old hipster crowd. Frankly, I’m not looking for that crowd. I’m not offering hip trend, I’m offering a place to come and dine and relax.

LW: Why aren’t there more high-end restaurants up here?

EB: The biggest reason is that people don’t have the resources or the stomach to make the investment. I’ve made a huge investment in this restaurant.  That took a lot of guts. I going to do everything I can to see it through. It was a platform for Ed Brown on his own.

LW: What’s your favorite dish?

EB: Risotto with arugula pesto.

LW: And at home, what do you cook?

EB: We eat a lot of what I call the Sunday Special, pasta with clams and some sort of white flesh fish.

LW: So why now a seafood place?

EB: The only reason I’m doing that deal is that I was asked to do that deal with Jeffrey Chodorow. What was needed on the Upper West Side was a restaurant with accessible items and price structures. I agreed and said I’d do it. There’s nothing on the menu where you won’t be sure what it will be.

LW: What’s the future for the restaurant business in New York? Is the day of the high-priced glitzy eateries over?

EB: I’m in the camp that the adjusted style and philosophy of dining will be here for awhile. I don’t dislike it. I’m using the same proteins. I’m not using any lesser quality ingredients. I just shaved off luxury ingredients. I’ve reduced the fois gras and caviar I use. I’m also making my margins even smaller. The check average today is smaller. It’s gone from $89 per person to $69 per person.

LB: And what about you?  What’s the future look like?

EB: I’m absolutely am hanging on. I think we have a good plan. I’m very well backed. We’ll continue to keep it alive. I don’t think the economy is close to all better but there’s a positive perception that the economy is better. People are still going out. We just have to be smart and creative how we attract that market to our door.

Ed’s Chowder House
Empire Hotel
44 West 63rd Street, at Broadway
212-956-1288
www.chinagrillmgt.com

Eighty One
45 West 81 Street
New York, NY
212 873 8181

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