Nestled away on a romantic little bend of Commerce Street in the West Village is Commerce, the newish bar and restaurant from chef Harold Moore and restaurateur Tony Zazula. Operating out of a carriage house dating back to 1911, the place was formerly a Prohibition-era speakeasy, then Blue Mill Tavern for 50 years, then the neighborhood favorite Grange Hall. You might assume that its new iteration is a fussy stab at resuscitating the past, but Zazula and Moore have breathed fresh air into the space while subtly nodding to their ancestors. Antique wall sconces salvaged from municipal buildings line the walls and a 1941 art deco Brunswick bar was reconfigured to fit with the existing front bar, but the airy room hums with a forward-thinking enthusiasm.
Moore's sophisticated but approachable menu has a generous, comfort food tone – there are dazzlers like the warm oysters in champagne with potatoes, leeks and caviar – but also heartier basics like the fettuccini with one-hour tomato sauce & house made ricotta, or a revitalized classic lobster Newburg. Moore's buzzed-about bread basket is made in house could be a meal in and of itself, but crowds are still finding room to put away his entrees made to share, like the porterhouse for two with cippolini onions, creamy spinach and red wine shallot steak sauce. We spoke with Moore recently about his festive new venture, its $100,000 oven and his gnarliest kitchen scar, courtesy of Daniel Boulud. [Commerce, 50 Commerce Street, (212) 524-2301.]
Was it daunting for you to open up a restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Grange Hall, which people have such an attachment to? It wasn’t so bad leading up to the opening. My partner Tony Zazula and I really tried hard to preserve the integrity of what was there, because so much was ripped out. It needed a completely new infrastructure. It hadn’t had any plumbing or electrical updating since at least 1965. The electrical was not sufficient for a modern facility. We tried hard to preserve it but you can’t please everyone. Half the people seem to embrace it the way it is now, the other half are saying, “You guys are jerks! What did you do?” The real die hard Grange Hall/Blue Mill Tavern people were angry we had done any work to the place. We didn’t really have a choice though. Yeah, daunting might be the right word.
How long had it been closed before you reopened it? It was closed at least a year before we got to it and then it took us about a year to do all the work. So, two years maybe.
Did the history of the place inform how you created the menu? No, we set out to do something different. My philosophy is that you don’t have to be so fancy; every place I’ve worked served really amazing food and it felt good doing the work but I wasn’t really busy and I looked around at the customers and realized they were all a lot older than I was. I started thinking that it was not a good career move for me; I needed to change something because I’m a young guy and I want to have longevity in my career. I wanted to do this food for a younger crowd, and what’s going to get a younger crowd in? A cool place downtown with nice looking people, where we’ll show them stuff they wouldn’t usually get. My kind of cooking if usually hidden away from them in expensive three star restaurants.