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The hourglasses will be turning again on Restaurant Row as one of the favorite Theater District and Hell’s Kitchen eateries returns — with many old traditions and some new ideas.
History flows through the story of the Hourglass Bistro + Bar which will reopen under the management of John Sideris this weekend. John’s connection with the building goes back to when his father, Christos, bought the property in 1972, and when the original Hourglass Cafe opened up in 1983 (the year he was born).
More recently, the Hourglass Tavern was run by Beth Sheinis and Josh Toth. They closed the eatery (and its second-floor happy hour favorite, Bettibar) at the end of September last year. The close confines of the “pizza shaped” building and a dining room of 7 tables in an 1894 brownstone did not lend itself to socially distanced entertaining at the height of the pandemic.
“What we’ve knocked out from this hovel and done in this space has been miraculous! It takes a special group of lunatics to get it right from literally a 20-year-old closet,” said Beth when she was leaving the tavern behind. “I will miss this quirky, unique building from hell that has herself tried to take me down more than a few times, and failed.”
Beth and Josh took over the Tavern in 2009 when John’s father fell ill with chronic emphysema. Christos and his wife, Tina, ran the restaurant from 1992. Tina had some involvement from the start back in 1983 when she helped David Ludtke — who owned Mike’s American Bar and Grill on 10th Avenue — set up his second restaurant in the area, then called the Hourglass Cafe.
Now, the sands of time have brought the Sideris family back into running the business. “My father and mother are both from Greece, the Peloponnese. He’s from Sparta and she’s from Tripoli,” John Sideris told us. “He ran restaurants there. He was always an entrepreneur. He got into the shipping business. He landed in Brooklyn, over at the Navy yards, and he just fell in love with New York.”
Christos worked his way to success. “He was working at the corner store across the street. So that’s how he got the rumor about the building for sale. This was 1973, he bought both the properties for $77,000 total — this building and the building next door. It’s is what we would call a mother-daughter house, where it shares the same boiler and shares the same plumbing lines,” said John.
Originally, there were tenants living in three small apartments above the Hourglass, but when the family took over the restaurant again they paid the rent control tenants to leave, to offer dining on all three floors.
During Christos and Tina’s time, there was a focus on developing the fixed-price menu for the pre-theater crowd. The menu changed weekly, and the quality of the food attracted the interest of many — including royalty. “I remember as a kid getting the chance to meet Princess Diana and the Sultan of Brunei. They wanted my father to cook, and they drove us to Connecticut. I still have the picture of him with the Royal family,” shared John.
These days Christos and Tina spend most of their time in Greece — but they still take an interest in what’s happening. “They were very worried about me possibly changing the name — but I love the concept, I love the hourglasses. Also, we all agreed that we would work to retain as many of the staff as we could. So they are very happy,” John said.
John’s tweaked the name to the Hourglass Bistro + Bar — but he’s bringing back the hourglasses over each table. “I’m one hundred percent bringing back the tradition. Our glasses will be turned at the time they sit down — and we will enforce when people are waiting. We do ask our patrons to honor the table. We are bringing back what it was originally meant to be,” he said, while showing us some of the antique hourglasses he has hunted down for the reopening.
During the refurbishment, they discovered a menu stuffed into one of the walls. “Somebody had tucked it in the wall. It’s fantastic. It’s got the original logo with the hourglass held on a fork and a knife,” John said. The vintage menu shows wine at $4 a glass, a cash-only policy and a fixed-price menu at $12.75.
The new Hourglass Bistro will keep with many of the traditions. Already this week, as they soft opened, there were a couple of theater parties that got the kitchen moving. The drinks will also be a special feature. “All the cocktails are going to be named after Broadway shows, with a quirky twist to them.”
The second floor will revert to a dining room in the new configuration of the restaurant. Bettibar is now a distant memory for those who loved their Happy Hour. We reported last November that the bar top had been moved to the Hell’s Kitchen walkup apartment of a Bettibar fan.
John knows that the previous tenants are a hard act to follow. “When Beth and Josh took over the place, they did a phenomenal job. They did a great job. They kept the tradition. Now looking back, you can comfortably say that this place has had decades of amazing goodwill,” he said.
We chatted to Beth this week and she says “hi” to all her Hell’s Kitchen friends. “We had a great 11 years. We came in on a recession and went out on a pandemic. COVID’s given us some headspace to work out what’s next,” she said. “We loved being temporary stewards of the Hourglass Tavern. We wish all the best to John and everyone in the industry starting up in these tough times.”