Michael Cecchi-Azzolina’s goal is to turn his new bistro and bar Cecchi’s Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village, into Elaine’s, the quintessential Upper East Side hang-out that Elaine Kaufman ruled from 1963 to 2011. That was the watering hall that a variety of New York notables ranging from Woody Allen, Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer, “Godfather” author Mario Puzo, police commissioner William Bratton and countless locals all frequented, with paparazzi’s waiting at the entrance.
“I want people to have an experience,” Cecchi-Azzolina exuded, standing near the entrance to his new bar/eatery, wearing a crisp blue sports jacket. He wants his guests to walk through the doors of his eatery and feel as if “they have left the city behind, and they’re going to be engaged by a professional staff, be warmly greeted, dine on terrific food and drinks.”
His servers are trained to engage with the guests. Dining out, Cecchi-Azzolina said, isn’t just about the food. “People want to be recognized; they want you to know their drink whether it’s a beer, martini, or Dewar’s on the rocks, and if you want to order the hamburger again,” he said.
Many restaurants these days are corporate-owned, he opined, many by private equity companies, and seem to be impersonal, unlike his, where he puts his stamp and personality on it. He has angel investors who know him and enable him to run it independently.
A Greenwich Village eatery Cecchi’s Bar and Grill is specializing in steaks, chops, burger and martinis, and customized service and be a throwback to the past.
Like Elaine’s, Cecchi-Azzolina named the bar Cecchi’s after himself so there’s no mistaking who’s running the show here. It replaces Café Loup, which lasted 41 years and closed in 2018 and also had a strong literary reputation, where agents often met their writers. Cecchi’s can accommodate 120 people eating with 12 seats at the bar.
Elaine Kaufman was a role model because “she was there. She greeted her guests. I go to every table to make sure they happy, just like Andrew Soltner did at Lutece,” he said.
Entering Cecchi’s is like being in an old-fashioned supper club. The lighting is dim, the music, unlike most New York bars, is understated, and the atmosphere classy. And the bar has as many septuagenarians as millennials. Asked the favorite drink ordered at the bar, he replied, “Martinis, martinis, martinis.”
Cecchi-Azzolina, who was raised in Brooklyn and Miami, is the quintessential New York impresario. He spent 17 years from 1993 until 2010 at Raoul’s, the famed Wall Street hang-out in SoHo, as waiter, server, and then maître d’, and then served as maitre’d at Le Coucou, the French SoHo eatery. He knows how to work the room.
He based Cecchi’s on the bar and grills he knew growing up in Brooklyn that had simple signs declaring their mission—Steaks, Chops and Seafood.
He said his target audience is the local West Village denizen, but his average check price is $75 a person with drinks that won’t appeal to everyone. Cecchi-Azzolina responded that if two guests order burgers with a glass of wine, the check will be about $50 a person, manageable by West Village standards, he implied.
So far, his guests have been gravitating to ordering the classic NY prime steak, but chef Cesar Balderas is still toying with the menu. Indeed, it’s not posted online yet.
But the New York Times described its menu as specializing in “throwback” dishes such as chicken a la king and calves liver with bacon and onions. “These dishes go back 50 to 60 years and are still good,” he said.
Initial response from Yelp responders was very positive with some reservations. Jeff from Caldwell, N.J. dined with his wife on the third day Cecchi’s was open. They liked the chicken a la king, which he said was “not overly creamy or heavy, but he found “the puff pastry a bit lackluster,” and the steak and fries “were delicious.” Given that the restaurant was so new, he said “they have service and food down remarkably well.”
And Chis from Reading, Mass. described Cecchi’s as “like an old-fashioned supper club. It’s clear that the entire staff, from kitchen to servers, are seasoned pros and meticulously trained.”
After being open three weeks, Cecchi-Azzolina has been making adjustments to its menu. It eliminated a pork dish (iberico secreto), which got mixed reviews, and he says the hamburger has become a perennial hit.
Restaurants like Cecchi’s appeal to regulars who return, and in his view, that takes “stellar hospitality, a warm welcome and a fond farewell, with good food and conversation when appropriate.”
What are three keys to Cecchi’s success? Cecchi-Azzolina, responded in a very understated way, with, its success depends on the “neighborhood, staff and food.” And he reminds us that there’s one critical factor he learned at Raoul’s, “service is more important than the food.”