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Running a beloved New York eatery for a quarter century is a considerable feat — but it is something that Kashkaval Garden, the neighborhood’s premier Mediterranean tapas and fondue spot, is about to celebrate as they approach their 25th anniversary.
“We were never looking to replicate something else,” said co-owner Corey Samuels. “Our mantra was always: ‘We want to have a place where we would want to hang out, where we would feel comfortable’. That’s been our North Star.”
Samuels, alongside partners Hilary Johnston and Daniel Assaf, helms the well-known 9th Avenue restaurant, which began its life in 1997 as a modest cheese shop run by Pando Andonopulo.
“Kashkaval first opened two doors down from where we are today as a Mediterranean specialty market,” recalled Samuels. “The owner, Pando, who was originally from Turkey, was kind of a neighborhood fixture and was known as the Cheese Man.”
“My friend Daniel, who is also my business partner, and I used to hang out at his market,” said Samuels, who has lived in Hell’s Kitchen since 2001. “We used to shop there — until in 2003 when there was a big power outage and a lot of places lost all of their products in their walk-in fridges. Pando was one of them.”
Assaf and Samuels — who had gotten to know Andonopulo from their frequent visits to the market — collaborated with him to create a new concept on 9th Avenue and W56th Street, with a specialty store in the front, and a fondue dining room in the back. Kashkaval Cheese Market and Wine Bar opened in 2004 and operated successfully as a retail/restaurant combination until 2012, when the team moved to its current location to open as a full restaurant and bar, backyard all-seasons patio included.
“Incorporating the history of the spaces has always been really important to us,” said Samuels. “When we took over the space it was a nail salon, but when we gutted it, we uncovered paintings on the walls that were done in the 50s — you’d only know that because there were dates on them,” he added. The as-yet-unidentified artist’s work was full of holes and scratches and Samuels hired friend and artist Paul Howell to restore the murals, which are now a key facet of the space’s homey, intimate ambiance.
New York camaraderie and small-world coincidences have played a key part in Kashkaval Garden’s success, with the team itself assembled in an appropriately “six degrees of separation” manner. Samuels and Assaf, who first met in high school, both moved to New York after graduating from Quebec’s McGill University, where Assaf studied economics and Samuels engineering. Johnston, who would go on to help develop the menu at Kashkaval, was introduced to Samuels and Assaf through Samuels’ sister, who was attending the musical theater graduate writing program at NYU.
“Hilary had graduated culinary school and was working at some high-end restaurants at the time that we were renovating and getting ready to open this place. We were looking for a manager and I reached out to my sister, asked her if she knew anybody and she recommended Hilary. It was the perfect combination because she was both a chef and a great manager,” said Samuels. Johnston has managed to incorporate aspects of Andonopulo’s menu while creating new classics of her own.
“Our menu today has some vestiges of stuff that we did with Pando — a lot of the tapas has roots there — but a lot of the newer stuff is Hilary and another chef from Turkey named Zeki. It’s really been this collaboration that’s evolved over time,” Samuels explained.
In addition to serving up local-approved favorites like housemade gazpacho, halloumi, and hummus, Kashkaval grew over time to be known not only as the ideal happy hour or date spot, but as a meaningful place for New Yorkers and visitors alike to celebrate life’s milestones.
“We get messages from people all over saying ‘we got engaged here,’ or ‘we want to have our 10th anniversary here,’” said Samuels. “There’s a lot of patron history there, which is wonderful.”
One particularly significant milestone was the wedding of Johnston and Assaf, which was held — where else? — at Kashkaval Garden. “That was our big love story, and it was a very fun night,” said Samuels, adding that the couple recently had their second child.
Relationships are pivotal at Kashkaval, where many patrons are regulars and some of the staff has worked with the partners for decades. “We have one person who has worked for us almost since we opened the old place,” said Samuels. “We get a lot of staff who used to work here that come back and visit — it’s a restaurant, but everyone talks about the KG as a family, so we certainly try to keep that kind of atmosphere and culture.”
While the sense of community and camaraderie at Kashkaval hasn’t changed, Samuels said that much has evolved on 9th Avenue since the dawn of their cheese market and wine bar.
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“The neighborhood has its ebbs and flows,” he explained. “In the teens, we went through a period where the restaurant was always bustling with people — every place in the area was packed every night.
“Going back further, I remember the big recession in 2008 and 2009. We were affected, but not too badly because our price point is a little bit lower — when folks have less money, they still want to go out and live, they just might want to spend a little bit less. So we’ve always tried to keep our price points more accessible. That’s been an important part of what we do,” he added.
While COVID-19 predictably proved challenging for the eatery — having to shut down for nine months and as of recently, take down their outdoor seating — Samuels said that “everybody on Ninth Avenue grouped together” during the pandemic, helping each other handle the many slings and arrows of the city’s changing regulations.
“We also got PPP money, and without that, we would be closed,” said Samuels. “The combination of the PPP money and our very loyal staff was key.” Despite the significant stress, “In retrospect it was a good opportunity for us to sit back and reflect on some things that we were doing well and other things that could be improved,” he added.
“When we finally did reopen, we whittled down our menu — as I think many, many places did. Business was slow and we didn’t want to end up throwing away a lot of food, so we adjusted the menu accordingly, and that’s been a very good experience for us,” said Samuels. The team focused on keeping customer favorites that they can execute flawlessly.
Visitors who stop by Kashkaval now can expect their go-to dishes and the same friendly, convivial atmosphere that Samuels and team have worked for decades to curate. “People love the warmth, the candles, the lighting, the fire, and that our food promotes sharing. That’s always how we designed our menu. So we’re all about getting back to those timeless, communal sharing experiences,” he said.
While it’s hard to predict the next 25 years in the ever-changing New York restaurant landscape, the team at Kashkaval Garden hopes that they’ll remain a mainstay on the block. “We definitely serve a unique niche in the Hell’s Kitchen area,” said Samuels. “You can come to 9th Avenue and have a choice of any cuisine you want. I think what makes the neighborhood special is quite a few places are more locally owned, more independent, and I think the owners and the staff of those places bring their own flavor and their own culture to it. And that’s certainly what we try to do here.”