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Interview: Matt Abramcyk of The Golden Swan

The acclaimed restaurateur on what inspired his new West Village venture

From Michelin stars to James Beard winners and even under-the-radar local favorites, the tapestry of NYC is woven with decades of pioneering hospitality ventures. Restaurateur Matt Abramcyk, owner of the critically acclaimed French Mediterranean restaurant The Golden Swan, is no stranger to the scene. In addition to heading up some of the city’s most beloved restaurants (including Smith & Mills and Tiny’s & the Bar Upstairs), he was also at the helm of one of the most legendary nightlife destinations, The Beatrice Inn. We sat down with Abramcyk to discuss his new dining experience in the West Village and why now was the perfect time to bring The Golden Swan to life. 

courtesy of Justin M. Weiner

You led one of the most iconic venues in NYC history. How did that experience help shape your approach to hospitality, to dining, and to the curation that’s involved in everything from the menu to the atmosphere?

The first project I ever worked on was Employees Only, and I really credit that to my old friend Akiva [Elstein], who I share Smith and Mills with. I had been in another industry and I just had this great fascination with what he was doing every time I would visit him at Schiller’s Liquor Bar. In thinking about that time in New York what made me excited was really the atmosphere that was created through music and lights, and the social environment for kindred spirits. I’ve always been attracted to characters, and I’ve always been intrigued by storytellers.

Specifically at The Beatrice Inn, I found a space that had a whole life before it. It had been this incredible red sauce Italian restaurant for almost a hundred years. The family that owned it had bought the building. They transformed it into something Italian, with clay portico-like tiles and yellow paint and white shutters. It looked like something you might find in coastal Italy. The Beatrice Inn was something of an anti-club because it really wasn’t anything remotely similar or common to nightlife. It was something that was sort of this lo-fi version of what nightlife is. I sort of loved it, with Beatrice, taking this personality of a red sauce joint and then making it something very much the opposite. We sort of did that again here, whereupon we used the personality of the famous Golden Swan restaurant, which had been this creative venue for all of these different types of personalities.

courtesy of Justin M. Weiner

What are some of your favorite parts of The Golden Swan history? 

Eugene O’Neill writing the Iceman Cometh in the bar, about the characters that he met in the venue. This sort of New York melting pot atmosphere where you had politicians and bankers, you had criminals and artists. It’s sort of like the perfect salad, if you will, of creative, ambitious people. The spirit of downtown, the restaurant was known as a hellhole. It was certainly not what we’ve done here today. We’ve made the opposite of that. It was a very casual sort of shipman’s bar, but today it’s a different kind of a clubhouse, where people dress in a contemporary, chic way and are served by captains in white jackets and black ties, where the quality of food is paramount. We have a viewpoint wherein we are going to find the most interesting, best quality items and showcase them in our restaurant.

courtesy of Justin M. Weiner

This is not the first time that you’ve delved into the West Village. Why is this neighborhood so important to you and why was this building so important to fulfilling your vision? 

In New York, we often find ourselves looking for the perfect sort of area or sort of landscape to come and visit because it’s not only that you’re visiting a venue, a lot of times you’re deciding your venue around the neighborhood. In this instance we have the uniqueness of the most aspirational sort of small city type of neighborhood, where you can find yourself on the most charming street next to the water. I love the low building line. I love the old buildings. The quaintness of the neighborhood, the romance of the building type, the proximity to the water, and then ultimately just being in a standalone building on a corner is so transportive. I challenge people when they’re here and they’re kind of grinning and thinking, “wow, this place feels so unique, so spectacular.”

Being on a corner and being in a building such as this, a kind of a townhouse, you very rarely have what we have here, which is a building like that that’s wrapped in windows. Having that effect of always being within proximity of a window, but also at the same time being very nooky and cozy, it really plays with the sensibilities that make people feel transported and comforted.

courtesy of Justin M. Weiner

There is a sense of comfort when you’re sitting in the restaurant that really puts you in the right mindset to enjoy the cocktails, the drinks, the music, the general atmosphere. How are you aiming to make this one a little different than some of your other restaurants and properties?

In this moment in time in New York we find ourselves seeking out more comfort food. Certain categories of food have been, almost, languishing, and more sort of hamburger and comfort food venues have opened. That really economically became the big driving force of the food and beverage in New York. This is a reaction in large part to that sort of mentality of eating quickly, eating while you’re on your phone, making a plan to pick up food and take it home. All these things that have been occurring that have really kind of broken the hearts of a lot of people that I know who are fascinated and in love with this industry. And so this is our love letter to the people that care so much about being in these transportive environments with their dear friends to have an incredible celebratory moment—and to really be wowed, to celebrate life with the people that are in that community or desire to be in that community.

The building is not a transported vessel in and of itself. It’s with the team—chef Doug Brixton and the passion that he brings. You’re talking about somebody that goes to the market every single day. You’re talking about somebody who’s in the property all day, almost every single day, save Sunday. It’s having leaders like him direct the team and direct the focus of what we’re doing here to inspire people when they’re here, when they’re eating the food.

courtesy of Justin M. Weiner

What came first, the space becoming available with the previous restaurant closing or the concept?

In everything that I’ve done, I think that I can recall, it’s about being inspired by real estate first and then trying to fit the New York personality into that space. I think in this iteration of a building takeover, let’s call it, or a full building redevelopment, the idea here was to reflect on the times in a way that I spoke about before, and really drive a sort of anti-club sort of clubhouse mentality, which included this idea of having a best-in-class food and beverage program, wine program, spirits program, everything being inspired by the absolute best that we can achieve. We’ll be opening for brunch in six or seven weeks, and we’ll be opening for lunch after that. We really are looking at this venue as a place that could help bring back the excitement of going out in New York. The idea of being able to have the best kind of everything in one environment is something that we’re trying to attain for each meal period.

courtesy of Henry Hargreaves

How’d you land on the design and the development of the menus? 

The design is really my forte. I’m not a chef or a mixologist, but in terms of a design perspective it was about being inspired by the great New York places, thinking about the history of New York, some literal and some imagined. Working with BWA architects was helpful to achieve that vision. 

The tile is a bit referential, although it’s not subway tile, it’s not porcelain tile—it’s Moroccan clay tile. In the way that we use wood, it’s not strips of old wood flooring; it’s this large plank repurposed floor that’s a few hundred years old. We used high gloss paint finishes and brass as a way of creating the sort of character of an English townhouse but with warm coloring. I don’t think anybody has spent more time searching for finishes. I recall spending hundreds of hours looking for the right faucet, which we have a golden swan faucet in the main bathroom downstairs, and going to Marrakesh to pick out and find the tile that we could afford or finding a mill in Pennsylvania for the wood.

courtesy of Henry Hargreaves

As for the cocktail menu, it is a blend of classic and contemporary styles of drinks. We have a house spritz called the Golden Swan Spritz, for example, instead of an Aperol spritz. The Golden Swan Spritz and the Golden Swan Martini are two of our signature drinks. We blend melon and white vermouth and make this cocktail inspired by the 1900 New York City, with a little bit more nuance.

The food is sort of similar, although not exactly as aspirationally creative as the cocktail menu. It’s aspirational in the sense that chef is trying to get the most market-driven menu that he can on the table every day. We have a different menu in the downstairs Wallace Room, as we do in the main dining room. We call our food French Mediterranean, which Resy doesn’t even have a category for, so sometimes we wonder if that makes sense to people. The idea is from chef and inspired by the Mediterranean. He’s always felt his personal style was more along the lines of the bright sort of Mediterranean flavor profile, which he could sort of color with the French technique and School of Cookery. Our most popular dish has become the duck. The cooking is obviously masterful. The breast is served perfectly, the skin is crispy.

courtesy of Henry Hargreaves

What’s your dream dinner party or who would attend your dream dinner party?

Well, not to be cheesy, but I have my dream dinner party every night at the restaurant. I have great friends who come by, New Yorkers, artists, people that inspire me. I think people that are inspired by the venue, of course, my best friends and family members would be around in my dream dinner party—my kids, my wife. And actually there’s a great connection between my friends Max and Ariane Goldman. They lived on the other side of the wall where we had the DJ booth at The Beatrice Inn. I remember sitting on their bedroom floor and begging them not to call the police, or anyone else to say that I was bothering them. I soundproofed their apartment and we didn’t have the closest relationship. But over time, it’s funny, we just became the best of friends. I think that story is really a great New York story where you can meet somebody that really kind of messes with you and whatever but then you find yourself years later raising your kids together, having your best memories together, sharing the new memories together. That’s the kind of New York restaurant venue that we want to create.

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