Bubby’s at 20

Opening night at Bubby's, Nov. 23, 1990. "That's Maryanne Faye, one of the world's great beauties," says Ron Silver

On the occasion of Tribeca favorite Bubby’s turning 20 this year, owner/chef Ron Silver sat down to talk about the restaurant then and now, and how he’s still having a blast. “Cooking is mischief,” he says. “Getting paid to cook is like a crime. I’m a big fan of mischief.” (He also provided the fantastic photo at right.)

What was the opening like?
It was… sneaky. We were renting the kitchen to make pies, and nobody was supposed to know we were in here. All of N. Moore smelled like pies; nobody was quite sure where it was coming from. Toward the end of October, people started knocking on the door—neighbors coming by and hanging out. I asked the leaseholder if I could open a day before Thanksgiving to sell pies, and he kept saying no. Finally, on November 21, he said we could do it. We got ready on Nov. 22, threw open the doors on Nov. 23. On Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, I cooked dinner for friends, got drunk, and decided to open the next day, too. The owner was out of town for three weeks, and by the time he got back, we were busy enough that he agreed to figure something out.

Could you imagine being here 20 years later?
No.

How has Bubby’s changed?
It changes every day. Then again, a certain core of it hasn’t changed: The menu the first day was Thanksgiving leftovers—we still do that. One big change is that the last two years we’ve really been getting almost 100 percent of our food locally. The beef is from upstate. The chickens are from small producers. The milk, eggs, cheese—all of what I call the commodity items are local. We’re so busy that it’s difficult, but we’ve managed to nail it. And I’ve become focused on preserving American food. I’ve become aware of the importance of seeking out authentic cookbooks and recipes. We buy whole hogs and render the fat for lard to make pie crusts and biscuits.

Obviously Tribeca has changed. But has it changed—is it changing—in any ways that surprise you?
When we got down here, it was a real backwater. How could get this place open now for $10,000? People have taken spaces occupied by artists for $300 a month and turned them into luxury lofts. I feel lucky to be here. I used to play poker with Chuck Harris—he owned the Liquor Store and No. Moore bars—and this area was all writers, architects, scientists, publishing wackos. The intelligent conversation was…. Look, I’m just a cook. It was like being Rosencrantz and Guidenstern, off to the side. I couldn’t have been in a more interesting place in the world. I felt incredibly blessed, I still feel that way to this day.

Bubby's today

I think of Bubby’s as one of those restaurants that celebrities love. Is there a good celebrity story you’ve never told?
Well, I’ve got a lot of stories, but…. OK, here’s one. In 1995, I remember watching Taxi Driver for the first time one night, and there was a blizzard. By the morning, snow was drifting up to my waist. I got in a cab to come over here, and I had to tell the driver to get in the back seat—I’m originally from Utah—and let me drive. We made it like a block and a half; it was that bad. I walked the rest of the way to the restaurant. The phone rang: It was Harvey Keitel, who said he was bringing his friend Robert over. I said fine, we’re not open, but come on over. I figured he meant a friend I had already met, but of course it was Bob De Niro. I have a tendency to say the wrong thing, and when they walked in, I said—having just watched Taxi Driver—“You guys used to be so cool!”

Where do you see Bubby’s in 10 years?
What I hope we can do is be an example for others. The perception is that Bubby’s is expensive, but you can eat dinner here for under $25. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive. I want to be an example of how to serve good, well-sourced food, and simple cooking, how it doesn’t have to be overly fussy or what I call bullshit cooking.

Tribeca is so family-centric now. Why did you decide to stay open all night?
A lot of things I do are completely selfish. We have a restaurant in Japan, and I get jet lag sometimes. So I had a need for it. And there are people all over the city who work at restaurants who have a need for it, too….

What’s up with the restaurant in Japan? It’s in Yokohama, right?
The 150th anniversary of Japan opening to trade with the west was in 2008. (Colonel Perry said open or we’ll blast you.) Anyway, the city was celebrating. My partners there and Japan Railroad wanted an authentic American restaurant. It has been a surreal experience. I went over for the opening and I was greeted by the mayor, the heads of Japan Railroad—they were all wearing suits and bowing, presents. It turned into a thing. We’ll probably open a restaurant in Tokyo and have Bubby’s pie in train stations.

Are you considering any other new restaurants?
We might open one in L.A. next year.

But not in New York?
Maybe if Dinkins is re-elected mayor. [Laughs.] New York has gotten very landlord-centric.

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