Charles in Charge

This story first appeared in the September 6, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

New York’s West Village might need another restaurant like Marc Jacobs needs one more tattoo, but designer Cobi Levy is taking the plunge anyway with his first eatery, Charles. The hotly anticipated spot, in the former Deux Gamins location on the corner of West 4th and West 10th Streets, will open with a bang on Sunday night for a Purple magazine  and Audemars Piguet dinner. But it won’t be just another “contrived box,” Levy avows, and, as part of that effort, he has tapped Waverly Inn chef John DeLucie to oversee the Mediterranean menu and former designer-turned-architect Rafael de Cárdenas for the interiors.

“For the prices people charge to eat in New York  City, you should get something for your money,” says Levy, who heads men’s line Dillen & Co. “All too often, people forget this. Frankly, I wasn’t going  to cheap out on the design to not give Rafael the opportunity to have his vision.”

For his part, de Cárdenas, who went to Rhode Island School of Design and spent three years designing men’s wear at Calvin Klein before heading to architecture school at UCLA, looked to such touchstones as Alfred Loos’ legendary 1908 American Bar in Vienna and Halston’s town house.

“I kind of fetishize that era,” admits the decorator, who, with his  company, Architecture at Large, has done homes for friends such as Parker Posey, Jessica Stam and Jeanine Lobell, as well as stores for Charlotte Ronson and Cynthia Rowley. For Stam, for example, he decorated her East Village abode in a mere two months while the model was traveling for work. As with many of his projects, he sourced pieces of Thirties French wallpaper and hard-to-find Seventies and Eighties furniture from dealers in Miami and Los Angeles. “I don’t buy new furniture,” he says. “There are times when I’m climbing in the back of  a truck container, saying, ‘What’s that piece in the corner?’”

For this project, he preserved the original bar area and the tin ceiling, but little else remains. The space is now divided into two, with a private back room that can be curtained off, the better to conceal any dinnertime shenanigans. He lit the restaurant with 112 dressing room lights and swathed the rooms in shades of gray and luxe materials such as suede, velvet and polished nickel.

“I’m interested in producing moods,” de Cárdenas explains, pointing out that his choice of using velvet for the restaurant banquettes is hardly the most practical.

Of course, he’s sacrificed boring utility for glamour before: “I had one client  we did a black kitchen for… Sometimes you have to take a risk,” he says.

Levy definitely agrees. “I paid Rafael for his vision. If I wanted to make economic decisions, I’d hire a [chief financial officer],” he says.

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