Over in the corner, Bob Dylan was working on his first album. Jack Kerouac started the regular jazz poetry nights. And Lenny Bruce would come over and hang out after his sets at the Gaslight. Le Figaro Café was quite a nucleus for artists after its late 1950’s debut in New York’s Greenwich Village. But that crowd would do a doubletake if they could see it today.
In the revolving door that is often the restaurant scene, some New York classics have been resurrected but completely transformed in recent years in this historic neighborhood downtown. Just around the corner on Macdougal Street, Dante, which opened in 1915 as Caffe Dante, represents the most dramatic change: formerly an old fashioned coffeehouse, now named one of the best bars in the world with an extensive, somewhat Italian menu, an offshoot a few blocks away in the West Village and a branch opening next spring at the Maybourne Beverly Hills.
Le Figaro Cafe shared similar DNA and its transformation is as dramatic. Now called simply Figaro Café, this former and somewhat basic coffeehouse is now stylized and chic with wide green banquettes, 50s/60’s style geometric light fixtures, a 25 foot centerpiece bar with bottles stacked on shelves so high that they require a library ladder to reach. Only the vintage copies of Le Figaro, the French magazine that lined the walls in the original décor, inspiring the name, remain; co-owner Mario Skaric and the restaurant’s designer DM Design found copies from the 50s and 60’s in a Paris archive and used them to supplement the few pieces of the original that survived. In an homage to the original’s era, Skaric’s wife Marta created the musical soundtrack which veers from Ricky Nelson to Sinatra.
The couple, along with partner Florence Zabokritsky, had prior restaurant experience with, among others The Standard Grill, and had been looking for another place in the neighborhood to expand. Le Figaro Café, which had gone through several previous incarnations, had been dark since 2008. “When we dove into researching the significance of the space, we knew we wanted to be a part of the long and storied history of Figaro,” says Skaric. “We would pay proper homage to it and give it a new life as a gathering space for modern crowds.”
Following the new decor, that new life took root first in the cocktails, classic in some cases, creative, modern spins in others. A Figaro Negroni infuses the classic recipe with grapefruit liqueur, and the Uppers and Downers, a take on an espresso martini, keeps it sweet with maple syrup, and caffeinated with Mr. Black Coffee Liqueur. A lighter brunch option than the standard Bloody Mary called the Hang On Little Tomato makes inventive use of tomatillo juice and a dash of Chareau Aloe Liqueur.
The menu, designed as modern American, intentionally offers something for everyone. “We thought there were already so many Italian restaurants in the neighborhood,” says Skaric. For light bites, there are flatbreads such as black truffle pecorino with rosemary, walnuts and red grapes and caramelized porcini mushrooms and fontina; tuna tartare; salads such as the Figaro salad with Bibb lettuce, cucumber, avocado, ricotta salata, cranberries, walnuts and house vinaigrette and burrata with roasted red and yellow beets, candied beets, crushed pistachios, extra virgin olive oil and toasted sourdough. Skaric has a fondness for beef so there are burgers with Wagyu and a combination of short rib and brisket served with caramelized onions and a spicy aioli. At dinner there are grilled ribeyes and hanger steaks but also tasty versions of grilled pork chops, Faroe Island salmon, duck leg confit and branzino. In another homage to the cakes served along with the coffee for which the original café was known, desserts are an important part of the menu including creations such as lemon whipped cheesecake and baked s’mores Alaska for two. Continuing a tradition, the coffee is provided by Porto Rico Importing Co.nearby on Bleecker Street, as the current owner’s grandfather did for the original.
Skaric hopes that this past/present combination succeeds for business reasons, of course, but also as a benefit for the neighborhood. “I think Figaro adds to a wave of reawakening Greenwich Village – for too long exorbitant rents made the area into a neighborhood of empty storefronts. Landlords filled the spaces with fast food spots, chain restaurants or banks” he says. “The new Figaro Café can be what the old one was – a neighborhood oasis, everyone’s favorite go-to bar, a choice for a family night out or a date. We think we created just that.”