Refills might be free, but trust is earned. Last night, Community Board 5 Public Safety & Quality of Life committee recommended that the SLA approve a liquor license application from the owners of noted daytime den of iniquity Pranna, despite hesitations about the Flatiron restaurant's debauched past. Pranna is infamous for its club-like atmosphere and belligerent day-drunk patrons, but owners Payal and Rajiv Sharma say their new fine dining establishment Ziya will be different this time.
"We will do everything in our capability to make this nothing like Pranna," Rajiv Sharma told Gothamist.
While the Sharmas' proposal for a medium-sized, upscale Indian restaurant is itself perfectly reasonable, board members and neighborhood residents present at Thursday's meeting were primarily concerned with Pranna's clubby track record. Over the past year, its owners have been given multiple chances to reform, yet promises to tame the debauchery have proven empty.
"There's no trust here," said Cynthia Stern, who lives on the block. "They've chosen not to follow the rules. A liquor license is a privilege, not a right."
The problems began last year when sodden "People's Brunch" patrons spilled out to the surrounding area. For reference, here's a look at some of Pranna's party brunch clientele as they exited the establishment:
Nearly a dozen disgruntled neighbors attended last night's meeting to voice their disapproval.
"I'm a 15-year-old girl, and I've been catcalled multiple times," said Stern's daughter Nicole. "This is my community. I should be able to feel safe here."
After being put on probation last fall, Pranna failed to kill the bacchanal, and its application for a liquor license to open a rebranded restaurant was unanimously voted down by CB5's Public Safety & Quality of Life committee this past June.
"If any application deserves a flat denial, that's this one," said a board member during that meeting. But Community Boards have a strictly advisory role when it comes to liquor licenses, which are ultimately granted or denied by the State Liquor Authority.
Things were different this time around. June's denial appears to have been something of a reality check for the Sharmas. In addition to ceasing their bottomless brunch, Payal and Rajiv Sharma have hired former homicide detective John Dabrowski to consult on security and keep them honest.
"I saw the videos and I read the newspaper articles, and there was a problem," Dabrowski told the board. "They need someone to take control so that doesn't happen again."
Dabrowski, who promisingly described himself as "the real Donnie Brasco," assured board members that the new Pranna is nothing like its former incarnation. Dabrowski is paid by the restaurant and thus can't be considered entirely unbiased. But a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Sharmas emphasized that it's highly uncommon for an establishment to willingly submit to the scrutiny of an independent monitor.
When asked to vouch for Pranna 2.0, Dabrowski was confident that the Sharmas' intentions are pure.
"Compared to what I've seen, it's a top-notch place," he responded (what he's seen includes former clients Duvet and Pacha). "I'll tell you right up front, I don't like hip hop," he added.
Rajiv Sharma additionally volunteered to surrender Pranna's liquor license by the end of this year, a gesture of good faith that one board member admitted is "unheard of" in the restaurant biz. Before that time, the Sharmas hope to find a subletter to shell out around half of the building's $80,000 rent for the part that won't be included in Ziya's remodel.
Floor plans for Ziya reveal a space of 3,173 usable square feet with a maximum total occupancy of 272 people, 186 on the ground floor. There will only be one bar (compared to Pranna's three) with 11 stools, located on the mezzanine floor.
The restaurant will be open from noon to midnight Monday through Thursday and until 1 a.m. on weekends (2 a.m. for private events). In other words, the Sharmas are scaling things way back in order to get the board's approval.
President of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association Mario Messina explained that "nobody in the history of this board has had to go through so much agita."
"Let's say they're horrible and continue to be horrible," board chair Nick Athanail reasoned prior to the vote. "They can only be horrible with 186 people."
In a 7-to-5 vote in favor, the committee voted to recommend that the full board endorse Ziya's liquor license application for next year, with the caveat that live DJs may only perform during private events, beginning after a three-month period of atonement during which no DJs will be allowed on the premises.
While booths will be vaulted to the floor, tables and chairs can still ostensibly be cleared to make room for a small dance floor, a concern for community members who have had to put up with Pranna's raucous festivities in the past. The board stipulated that dancing also only be permitted during private events, of which Ziya can host a maximum of three per month.
Slated to open early 2016, Ziya will be a high end restaurant concept featuring celebrity chef Ajay Chopra as a major selling point. Bottle service is no more, and cake pops are on the menu.