Charles Owner Redecorates After Bruni Smackdown

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Bruni's review in the Charles's windows. Photo: Ben Leventhal

Rookie restaurateur Cobi Levy took a beating at the hand of Frank Bruni yesterday (“the waiters were like yummy chew toys, but tough to swallow in the end”), but the Charles will not cede to the Times. Levy spoke to Ben Leventhal, and then re-papered his windows with Bruni’s words.

Is there anything Bruni said that you agree with?
I don’t think Charles is for everyone. I admit that. To some extent by having a place that is called exclusive — which people assume means pretentious — you’ve got a target on your back and Frank Bruni is definitely going to come gunning for you. But, I just thought it was unfair from the get-go. Even the things about the restaurant that are undeniably positive, he just refused to discuss. He didn’t want to like it and went out to really crush us. It read like an amateur-hour book report.

Even if veiled, Bruni’s clearly making suggestions. Will you take his advice? We’re packed tonight like I was packed last night. We’re booked out this weekend like we were booked out last weekend. I’m not going to say that a review from the Times is not important — it certainly is important — but at the same time we’re going to go about our business. We’re always trying to get a little bit better and we strive for that every night. But am I going to change things for Frank Bruni? Absolutely not, because I don’t think the restaurant was for him to begin with.

But any time you open a restaurant, you open it knowing some people will ‘get’ it and some people won’t.
True. But as a critic, you have to just be honest about it. Alan Richman — and I’m not just saying this because his review was positive — he at least came in with an open mind. He says, look, this is not usually the kind of place I’m going to like. I’m an old Jewish guy and this isn’t an old-Jewish-guy place. I assumed [Bruni] would give us no stars, but to do it the way he did, he refused to admit that there might just be things he doesn’t get. He decided not to, and to [instead] really stick it to us. That part is a bit unsettling. You want to be judged on your merits and be given a fair shot.

Bruni also made the point that the approach might not be recession-appropriate, that people don’t want to be bothered these days with something like an unlisted number or the newspapers in the window.
Is there a little bit of a game? Yes. But this morning I had 45 requests for reservations in my in-box. We’re not unclear about our reservations system. It’s on our website. You Google, then you use your e-mail and you ... e-mail us. Isn’t that how most people function today? In fact, this whole thing about having a phone number? It’s not 1985. We use e-mail now. That’s how I communicate. Frankly, I think it’s more convenient for the customers. There aren’t limitations on it. No hours of operation, no hold music, no "press two at the tone"; you don’t have to wait until noon to call. You decide you want a table, you e-mail, we respond, and that’s it.

And the thing about the newspapers ... unfortunately the owners of the building put up scaffolding two weeks after we took the lease and started doing work upstairs. So he kind of destroyed the façade anyway. In some ways, it works as a reveal, but it’s also necessity. The outside of the building looks awful right now. My plan was always to take the newspaper off the windows when the scaffolding came down. And Cynthia Rowley likes it. Cynthia Rowley was at the party and she was complimenting me on how excellent the restaurant looks, and she said her favorite part was the newspaper over the windows. This was before we were officially open. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was just a function of me not wanting people to know we were open yet. I think anyone who hasn’t been ... should come in and sum it up for themselves.