How to Relocate a Restaurant

Chelsea’s Counter & Bodega navigates the new COVID rules and regulations

| 27 Nov 2020 | 03:36

On the off chance anyone needed evidence to prove opening a restaurant in New York city in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession was anything short of utter chaos, just know that this article should have run over two weeks ago. Just the task of coordinating an interview with frenzied proprietors, who are multi-tasking and dodging COVID-related bullets at each turn, added to delays typical to restaurant-openings, became a circus of missed connections. In fact, this piece should have featured two restaurants, but one (Mark’s Off Madison) has been so stricken by vacillations in policy and regulations, that they have delayed an already delayed opening til who knows when, in an attempt to strategize the logistics of their debut with the unprecedented volatility and unpredictability at hand.

And yet, restaurants are acmes of resilience and perseverance, and so we have a newcomer expanding our dining options in the Chelsea area: a relocated Counter & Bodega onto Seventh Avenue just shy of 23d Street. They didn’t so much pivot as hung a sharp right angle: Counter & Bodega opened in 2018 further west on 23d street near Eighth Avenue, in a relatively hidden little subterranean nook, that got a lot less foot traffic, but still had a strong neighborhood following. Their eatership has followed the business to its new digs, and the locals are starting to notice it.

And it’s not difficult to do so; they’ve spruced up the exterior with some lush, leafy palms, and inside has transitioned into a lively, festive (but not raucous) haven. Owners Sophia Serrano and Richard Astudillo, who married nearly a decade ago, partnered in this pan-Latin eatery after having worked together in the nightlife industry for over seventeen years. Both Brooklyn natives, Serrano is of Puerto Rican heritage, while Astudillo is Colombian, and their chef, Alejandro Carretero, is from Mexico. They found the idea of specifying a singular cuisine for the restaurant limiting, and instead focused on creating a Greatest Hits mecca, featuring regional specialities from across the continent.

Having opened the first iteration not so long ago, Serrano says that the current situation basically included all the typical hiccups new restaurants encounter, in additional to the barrage of new COVID regulations, capacity restrictions and health inspections. Most troubling, however, has been trying to gauge staffing and inventory requirements: the crystal ball for anticipating the number of diners with the vacillating mandates of allowed operation hours has become even hazier, making ordering perishables and juggling employees virtually impossible.

At 25% indoor capacity and a 10 p.m. curfew, Serrano admits “It’s tough,” especially when the restaurant community was hoping for the green light on 50%. When the city decided to shut down schools as they surpassed that arbitrary 3% infection rate, restaurants’ communal stress level skyrocketed. Fear set in that it is only a matter of time before indoor dining is once again banned entirely.

That said, Counter & Bodega has somehow miraculously been able to break even, thus far, and have been “warmly welcomed” into the community. “We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” mused Serrano. Diners that have patronized the restaurant in these early days have already established some favorites from the menu. Among appetizers, the sirloin and cheese stuffed plantains called Pinonos (Puerto Rico) and classic Nachos (Mexico) are hot tickets. Lomo Saltado (Peru) and fragrant Pernil (Puerto Rico) stand out among mains, and the menu indicates from where each item originates by a little national flag next to the dish.

Chef Carretero executes really attractive but unfussy plating of his concoctions, which suits the playful ambiance. The dining room is decked out with tchotchkes of Latinx origins, some of which are for sale through the Bodega, like Mexican Coke, Malta Goya and Kola Champagne. The bodega influence also informs the dessert menu, with a layered Oreo and brownie sundae, and buttercrunch-cookie tweaked ice cream sandwich, in additional to more traditional offerings like flan, and a pineapple-rum cake.

Takeout and delivery are available through all the regular channels, although with this and ALL restaurants, it is always better to order directly from the source, as the Grub Hubs and Seamlesses of the world take a massive chunk of any profit, and right now, this is a concession most cannot sacrifice. But Counter & Bodega has beat the odds, gotten themselves up and running in unfathomably tumultuous time, and would more than welcome your business, with the graciousness and hospitality for which those balmy Latin countries are known.