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“This is bittersweet for me,” said owner and operator Brian Keyser of the change. “I opened Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen when people thought it was crazy to go past 9th Avenue – I’ve seen the neighborhood change dramatically and I feel like we are a part of that.”
The W52nd Street watering hole opened in 2007 – which, despite nearly closing permanently in the pandemic – managed to reopen and win the W42ST reader awards for Best Bar in 2021. Its loyal followers cite the bar’s well-curated wine program and specialized cheese pairings as well as the friendly, knowledgeable staff as reason to keep revisiting: “I used to live around the corner and go once a week – and now that I’m 60 blocks away, you’ll still find me there for dinner!” said one reader in their nominating bid, while another opined, “A bar with cheese will always beat a bar without cheese.”
But for Brian, the long pandemic shutdown and its endless challenges for restaurant owners led him to consider another career entirely. “When the restaurant was closed and I wasn’t sure if it would be able to reopen, I started to think about what I might do for a living,” he said. “I decided to go back to school – I’m getting a master’s degree in Public Health at Georgetown, and since January I’ve been commuting back and forth between DC and New York,” he added. “I love the program I’m in and decided that I do want to pursue this as a career – and so that means that someone else has to run the restaurant.”
Looking for someone to preserve the detailed menu and convivial ambiance that make Casellula great, at first, he struck out. “I talked to several people who just wanted the space and were going turn it into a laundromat or a frozen yogurt shop or a bar that was their own concept, and that made me sad,” said Brian. But when a mutual friend introduced Brian to Rakesh Chandiramani, the co-founder and owner of neighborhood wine bar brand Vin Sur Vingt, they both agreed that the best way forward would be to keep Casellula intact.
“I’ve been a customer at Casellula for a number of years,” said Rakesh. “It’s been a destination in the area for the last 15 years because it gives a really unique experience and a warm, intimate vibe – it was a similar idea of what we create each day at VSV,” he added. “Brian and I got to know one another, and our meetings were anchored on Casellula remaining Casellula – at the end of the day, that was our intention going into it, because of all the hard work the team has put into the place over the years.”
Rakesh emphasized that he and his business partner and co-founder Sebastien Auvet plan to build on what Casellula already has, adding: “First and foremost, we’re excited about keeping the team. It’s a deal breaker to us – if the team doesn’t transition with us, how can we maintain the ambiance? How can we maintain the experience? Because the team is so critical to creating that. So that includes Brian and Chef Jen as well as the other important members of the team.”
The team at VSV is also looking forward to building on Casellula’s extensive wine list, said Rakesh. “At VSV, we only focus and feature French wines – this gives us an opportunity to really dive into and grow the other exciting regions and countries that have great wine and wine culture.”
“It feels like a really good fit,” said Brian. “Both their experience at running small wine bars and their ability to find ways to bring new people into Casellula will be helpful. I know we’ve all read about all the people who moved out of New York during the pandemic and decided not to come back – and since we reopened in September, it’s been very obvious. A lot of our regular guests are not back,” he added.
Rakesh cites the VSV legacy as one of developing and maintaining a neighborhood presence. “If you look at any of our neighborhood locations — whether it’s in the West Village, where we’ve been for more than 10 years, or the Upper West Side – we always operate as neighborhood destinations,” he said. “The only way to make sure that you establish a group of regulars is to get to know them, understand them and give them what they’re looking for. We’re super excited to get to know the community a little bit more. There’s definitely a good group of winos in the Hell’s Kitchen area that we’ve gotten to know as well,” he laughed. “The fact that we’ll have more of a permanent presence closer to their homes, I think, will hopefully be exciting for them as well.”
Brian also emphasized the advantage of having the VSV family take over the day-to-day administrative operations, which can be challenging for single-location independent restaurants. “This is a new chapter – I think it’s going be good for the business and it’s going to put the business on a stronger footing to survive and thrive in the future. Ultimately, the things that VSV will bring to the business are the ability to handle the things that I don’t like handling anyway. I didn’t get into this so I could do payroll every week,” he laughed.
While he won’t be at Casellula full-time, Brian maintained that for now, he’ll still be on-hand weekends while going to school in DC during the week. He’s excited about the new era for the bar, adding that it will allow him to engage more in “the things I like – the service side of the restaurant business, being on the floor with staff working with them. This will free me up to focus on the things I’m best at, and let somebody else do the things they’re best at.” We’ll drink to that!
Casellula is located at 401 W52nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue.