The 8th Street Winecellar is a cozy subterranean spot in Greenwich Village that opened up just over a year ago. But don't let the name fool you -- owners and longtime restaurant industry vets Michael Lagnese (left) and Jonny Cohen (right) want this to be your all-around neighborhood bar, even if you don't live in the 'hood.
Where did the two of you meet? Michael Lagnese: Union Square Café.
Jonny Cohen: Originally we met at Arizona 206 one night when you were drinking; you were going to a Lenny Kravitz concert. It was probably 1993. We ended up working together at Union Square Café.
What did you do there? JC: We were both waiter/bartenders, so we split our time between the floor and the bar. He went to the bar full time before I did because he was there longer than I was.
ML: I think I was there about two years before he started. I started out as a backwaiter, then a bartender. When I went full time I became bar manager and I did that for 6-7 years. It was great.
Was it during that time that the idea for the 8th Street Winecellar developed? JC: We had talked about it maybe after about 7 years working together – maybe we should open our own place.
ML: We’d go out, have drinks and talk about it. Months would pass and the next thing you know it’s two years later. It got to the point where it just made sense. We weren’t going to go anywhere else there in the company. We could have moved laterally, but why? It became such a big corporation – 12 restaurants, catering – like an empire. We weren’t really big company, corporate men.
JC: The place started to lose its identity. That happens. It got more difficult to work there, especially when we had this idea for doing something on our own and we had some friends who wanted to back us and were actually pretty integral to pushing us out of the door to do it. Of course their financing fell through.
ML: We set up meetings, talked about the details of how and money, we’d go back and talk about it and finally, just after the new year, we said, "let’s just start looking at spaces and see what happens."
JC: We were always convinced that the space would dictate what we were going to do. We know we didn’t want to do a full-blown crazy restaurant right out of the gate.
ML: Too much money, too many unknowns. We knew food, but we weren’t chefs. And we knew how to run a bar.
JC: It always was wine-centered, no matter what we were going to do it was going to be a wine bar first and whatever followed. We saw a bunch of spaces that were just horrible and they were charging a ton of money and we happened on this space actually by chance.
This block seems to be changing by the day. Do you think the addition of more restaurants has changed your place at all? ML: No, we’re still the same. It has definitely benefited us. And I think the change on the block is due to economics. The rents on this street in the Village compared to 3rd Avenue or the Meatpacking District are 20-30% less per square foot. When we first came into this space. . .
JC: It was a mess.
How long did it take to make it what you wanted it to be? ML: About 8-9 months. We had to hold off for the first 3 or 4 months because we didn’t have the proper permits in place.
JC: The only hurdle was that this is a landmark building so you have to go through landmarks to get to the Department of Buildings, so a lot of back and forth before we could get the architect and designer in here and figure out exactly what we’d be doing. It was on the cheap because Michael and I built everything ourselves, so we had to make sure it was simple, cozy, and something we could do.
You knew from day one that it was going to be a wine bar; a lot of people have a preconceived notion of what that means. What makes this different from your typical wine bar? ML: We have a full bar. We have Pappy Van Winkle; most places don’t.
JC: We originally were thinking that we’d just go for a beer and wine list, but it’s not that much more expensive to get a full liquor license.
ML: Economically it made sense.
JC: And we kind of figured we wouldn’t be a neighborhood bar, especially on 8th Street. We’d have to be a destination place to be a wine bar; 8th Street and the surrounding area wouldn’t support just a wine bar, and to be that neighborhood bar where people come a couple of times a week on their way home from work, we’re going to need full liquor. We were just as selective with the liquor as we were with the wine list.
How do you decide what goes on the wine list? ML: Varietals tend to dictate our wines by the glass; we want to have a variety of most of the main grapes and a lot of it now is the economy. We want to have wines that are $7 or $8; our highest priced wine by the glass is $14. We could serve some for $18 but it’s more about value for what we're pouring. It’s good stuff for the price.
JC: And also for people who know wine, there are things on the list that are very recognizable – for wine geeks, so to speak. There’s great values in that and there ares also unknown producers that we can teach people about. The highest priced bottle on the list is about $120. We don’t want to go above that even though that shows that we have a selective palate.
ML: We have a good range. We don’t want to have any bottles on the list just to show off; I don’t want it to sit in the basement for a year. We want our wines to move and we like to change the list; it keeps it interesting.
You mentioned that you’ve become a neighborhood destination. Why do you think that has happened? JC: A lot of it has to do with us and our staff who are here. We happen to be the only real bar on the block that’s just a bar.
ML: It’s a comfortable bar, except for certain points on the weekend. Our focus when we opened was: where we would want to go for a drink when we got off work? If this was in our neighborhood, what would we want? I think we hit it.
JC: We stuck to it and we’re very lucky that we know a lot of people in the business, but also we’re sitting in the middle of some great restaurants: Babbo, Otto, Union Square, Mesa, and their staffs will come here for a drink afterwards. They’ll want to sit and relax and it’s a great crowd to have. They know their way around the wine list and cocktails and beer, they want to chill, and for the most part they have money in their wallets because they just came from work.
When you’re not working, where do you like to eat and drink in the city? ML: I go to Spigolo. I go out in my neighborhood, mostly. If I have a night that I’m heading home, I’d like to check out different wine bars just to check them out and compare; what do we have compared to theirs, what are they showing? But we’re two different places most of the time when I go to a wine bar. It makes me feel good about our bar.
JC: I’m home an awful lot when I’m not working only because we own the place and we work it. We’re here until 4 or 5 in the morning four nights a week. For me, one of the last things I want to do is go into another bar or go to a restaurant and eat. We have a bunch of friends that have opened up places that we haven’t even had a chance to go to because we’re just so tired and want to spend time with our families and chill out. I like to have a steak every now and then, but it’s tough to get the energy to go. Oh – I go to Elettaria a lot.
Both of you have been in the restaurant business for a long time. If you weren’t in the restaurant business, what would like to do? ML: [Long pause] Wow. I’m doing what I like to do.
JC: I’d be a cartoonist.
In fact, you are a cartoonist. JC: That’s on hold for now.
Mets or Yankees? JC: Neither.
ML: You’re not going to say?
JC: Red Sox.
You? ML: Yankees.
JC: We may be the only bar with both a Red Sox and a Yankees fan together.
Have you ever gotten into any sort of fight about that? JC: [Laughs] No.
Photo courtesy of Time Out New York.
8th Street Winecellar, 28 8th Street between 5th & 6th Avenues, on the South side of the street near MacDougal Street, 260-9463.