Old is welcome at the new Spaniard
The West Village welcomes a gastropub, and its co-owner and Ruairi Curtain reflects on a life of travel, career changes, comfort food and cocktails
BY MICHAEL STAHL
“It’s a bit confusing: A bunch of Irish guys opening an American bar called the Spaniard,” says Ruairi Curtain, co-owner of one of Greenwich Village’s newest restaurants.
The Spaniard, which opened April 3 on the former site of Oliver’s City Tavern at West Fourth and Barrow Streets, is named after two of Curtain’s favorite bars in his native Ireland, both of which have decorative tributes to the legendary Spanish Armada. The Spaniard in the West Village has framed portraits of ships, as well as green leather booths reminiscent of iconic New York taverns of a bygone era and idyllic Irish pub highlights. Maybe most importantly, the bar has 100 whiskeys and scotches, an adventurous cocktail list, and a menu of American comfort food delights — such as patty melts with aged cheddar and pickles – dreamed up by chef PJ Calapa of Ai Fiori and Nobu fame.
“I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of people shuffling through looking for paella and tapas, but hopefully they’ll learn quickly what we have for them,” Curtain says.
The Spaniard is the 40-year-old restaurateur’s seventh offering in New York City, presented in conjunction with a handful of partners who now comprise the Bua Bar Group. The organization is also responsible for the East Village gastropubs Bua and The Wren, the Upper East Side’s The Penrose, Astoria’s Sweet Afton and The Bonnie, as well as Wilfie & Nell, also in Greenwich Village. Each spot tingles with an Old World aesthetic that has become overwhelmingly trendy, not just in restaurants and bars but also in coffee shops, ice cream parlors, boutiques and even residential building design.
“Thirteen years ago everything looked like the stereotypical Irish bar in Midtown,” Curtain says, recalling 2004, the year he and his cohorts first opened the doors of Bua on St. Marks Place near Avenue A.
Curtain doesn’t favor bars teeming with flat-screen TVs and deafening music. Where he comes from — Cobh, Ireland, a southern coastal town located on Great Island in Cork County — bars are meant to be the home of a different experience. In fact the Hi-B, also in Cork and Curtain’s all-time favorite bar, doesn’t permit cellphone use. “I was kicked out in my youth for laughing too loudly,” he says, “but it’s just a great local bar for conversation, heated debates and making friends. That’s really what a bar should be.”
Curtain says that when he and his two fellow Irish immigrant friends Mark Gibson and David Mohally decided to pool their resources and plunge into the service industry, the concept behind Bua was to simply “build a place we’d like to go and have a beer.”
They stripped the site’s interior to its bare bones, exposing original brick and bringing in a surplus of reclaimed wood and other recycled materials to craft a rustic décor completely deprived of TV entertainment. The team also strictly poured craft beers and concocted an original cocktail program — which Curtain asserts was among the city’s first in such establishments.
Within about three months of opening, Curtain walked into Bua on a Saturday night and for the first time failed to recognize any of the customers. “Fortunately we hit a nice nerve with the public in terms of what we were doing,” he says.
With now six additional beloved gastropubs under his belt, it’s challenging to fathom that hospitality was not Curtain’s career of choice coming out of college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business and languages from Dublin City University, and at 22 took a job with Enterprise Ireland, a government-run agency that assists Irish businesses in ventures abroad. Coming to New York wasn’t even Curtain’s choice. Still, he enjoyed helping entrepreneurs cater their business plans and sales strategies to American market expectations, and by 24 he was the youngest vice president in the history of the company.
But a fire to be his own boss burned within him. “It was a great start [at Enterprise Ireland],” Curtain says, “but it wasn’t me. I wanted to make my own decisions.”
Once Bua’s financials stabilized, Curtain resigned from the company.
Though the Bua Bar Group has grown impressively in the 12 years since, the investors with various stakes in the several establishments that remain under the organization’s umbrella insist their seven gastropubs do not form a chain. Each place exhibits its own charm, from The Penrose’s old Irish railway station theme, paying homage to the Second Avenue Subway running underneath its grounds, to The Bonnie’s botanical air, both inside and out back in the beer garden.
“We’ve just embraced the whole ‘old is good’ ideology,” Curtain says of the Bua Bar Group and their establishments, “and it works, so why not.”
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