Plating the Town Red

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-2-27-25-pm“REALLY, WE HAVE about 80 percent of regulars…ah, one second, please.” Alireza Niroomand, the general manager of SoHo’s Sant Ambroeus, pops out of his seat. With a gazelle’s shuffle, he crosses the marble floor of the restaurant and intercepts a young Dorothy Dandridge–type on her way out. He teases her about her new boyfriend, with whom he had dinner in Paris last week. “He’s someone special, I know it!” Behind them, two young women (smart money betting that they’re entrepreneurs in something like “fashion technology”) are sitting at the bar, one rebuking her laptop in Italian while the other sweetly asks for another refill of cappuccino—not their first, judging from the remains of the insalata centocolori long pushed aside.

A person might be tempted to peek out the window to make sure they hadn’t made a wrong turn on Spring Street only to magically end up in Europe. The authentic café culture that too often evades New York has made its way to the corner of Lafayette and Prince. This is what we talk about when we talk about Caffé Greco and Goethe, Liszt, Stendhal. This is what we picture when we imagine Les Deux Magots with de Beauvoir and that headache of a boyfriend Sartre.

Ali comes back to the table, and is handed his new cup of espresso. He had sent back the previous one with kind but firm perfectionism. “We are very picky here about our espresso,” he says, laughing at himself. He has the self-effacing charm of a guileless rascal, and it’s easy to see him winning over even the toughest customer. His approach? “The first thing I do is I pull up a chair, whether I know them or not, and I sit with them—it makes the interaction so much easier. Another thing I always do is crack a joke. If you establish an atmosphere like that, people will forgive your mistakes. You made them laugh.”

Every woman on the Upper East Side knows the name Sant Ambroeus. The Madison Avenue location has become shorthand for asking each other to lunch (though it ends up technically being a late breakfast more often than not). One such friend recently sent me in request, “Sant Ambroeus?” My downtown heart rejoiced in replying, “Sure. SoHo?” When investing in this outpost, the restaurant group wisely understood that while they could attract their usual clientele with their name alone, they needed a “cool factor” to their formula if they were to succeed in a neighborhood where models stalk down the cobblestone streets like runways. Luckily, they persuaded the gregarious Ali to man the helm, and he was able to create a space that welcomes the social set, the fashion crowd, and the art worlscreen-shot-2016-11-18-at-2-28-04-pmd alike.

The tangible proof of that is an incredible wall of plates, each decorated by a Sant Ambroeus regular or beloved friend. It’s called “The Sant Ambrose Art Series,” and has resulted in what is likely the biggest Instagram following a collection of plates could have. Designers, photographers, writers, jewelry makers, graffiti artists, illustrators—the roster of creative types who have contributed to the project reads like the guest list for the chicest downtown party you could throw. The collection is eclectic, colorful, and unique; each plate a symbol of someone who discovered the magic of the place and wanted to add their own special touch.

Before I leave, Ali takes a moment to have a few words with a stocky guy carrying a large bag. “He’s an old-school graffiti artist in New York,” Ali tells me. I ask under what name the artist tags. “Blast” he says, his French accent curling around the “a,” his eyes shining with delight at mixing the crème of dissimilar crèmes.