Will pub be a problem? A bar battle brews in Nolita

BY TERENCE CONFINO  |  Despite firm community opposition and a series of blocked tries for a liquor license, Toby’s Public House will be opening a new restaurant in Nolita this month.

The new Toby’s is an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name at 21st St. and Sixth Ave. in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.

The grub pub, known for its wood-fired, brick oven pizza, will open at 86 Kenmare St. at Mulberry St. this month, according to restaurant owner Christine Iu. Iu, a nine-year Nolita resident, lives just a block away from the new restaurant’s location.

When asked whether living in the area contributed to her desire to open a restaurant there, Iu said that as an entrepreneur she is constantly looking at different neighborhoods, amenities, demographics and ideas for what might be a possible fit.

“Nolita is missing a local neighborhood restaurant for all that is casual, moderately priced, of great quality, with a comfortable vibe,” she said. The new locale, she said, will be “a place for all to go, even with their kids.”

But Iu’s plans have met fierce community resistance ever since she began to do work on the place in April 2011. Since then, a series of contentious face-off’s with locals at Community Board 2 meetings have ensued.

The community warfare is, in part, because the restaurant is housed in a residential building. However, there are a number of other public issues that have been raised, as well.

Among the place’s vocal opponents is Marna Lawrence, a theater professor who has lived in Little Italy more than 30 years.

“There has been an extreme oversaturation of liquor licenses in this area by the State Liquor Authority over the past 10 years, bringing lots of late-night rowdy crowds,” she said. She likened the Nolita nightlife scene to a “highway,” saying residents’ quality of life has been destroyed.

Returning fire, Iu said local opposition has extended beyond C.B. 2 meetings and intruded upon her personal safety. According to the restaurateur, last summer someone scrawled the words “No More Bars” on the sidewalk shed in front of the place. Smaller-sized graffiti scrawls have since appeared on the new restaurant’s windows in recent months, Iu said.

Furthermore, while Iu was in a business meeting a few weeks back, at around 6:30 in the evening, someone splashed some white latex paint on the place’s main entrance door. Iu claims to have videotaped proof of the incident and the matter is currently under police review.

It doesn’t end there, though. According to the small businesswoman, her fiancé, who locals have dubbed “the Brit,” was accosted in the street by an older woman in her 50s. Fearing for the safety of her two children — aged 1 and 5 months — Iu is in the process of putting up blinds in her house to prevent any further violations against her privacy.

Lawrence and the opposition contend that Iu’s allegations are both unfounded and stem directly from her desperate desire to obtain a liquor license.

“I think it was outrageous for her to stand before the community in a meeting, making strong and serious accusations without substantive means of proving it,” Lawrence said. Lawrence did, however, acknowledge that there was photographic evidence of the “No More Bars” graffiti.

Up until this past November, Toby’s sought a full liquor license. But when members of the 86 Kenmare Tenants Association, backed up by the Friends of Petrosino Square, appeared at the November C.B. 2 meeting with 22 signatures from 27 residential units, Toby’s application was denied.

“I believe that having a liquor license is a responsibility,” Lawrence continued. “She has shown herself to be irresponsible and she is not to be trusted.”

Lawrence referred to an incident at another C.B. 2 meeting some months back when a community member approached Iu about her request to keep Toby’s open until 4 a.m. As Lawrence tells it, Iu said she was fully willing to compromise, but then later reneged when bringing the matter before the community board.

As it now stands, Iu has agreed to a Sunday-through-Wednesday closing time of midnight and a Thursday-through-Saturday closing time of 1 a.m.

Regarding Iu’s now scaled-back hope to get a beer-and-wine license — on which the full board last month voted to recommend denial — Iu cited her repeated efforts as a “major disappointment.”

“I am a resident here for many years, have a solid business background, have a clean license in Brooklyn and am also hiring many local neighbors in the nearby vicinity of all ages,” Iu said. “The opposition has made me and my business look as if we are the bad guys by telling as many people as they can that I am a sports bar, that I cater to N.Y.U. students and that I’m selfish. The list goes on and on,” she said.

The “sports bar” reference refers to the three flat-screen TV’s the new restaurant will sport. According to Iu, two of the screens measure 32 inches and the third, 40 inches.

“You don’t have three TV screens in a space without being a sports bar,” Lawrence said heatedly. “It’s a joke and it’s nonsensical. We’re exhausted, because every time we turn our heads, there’s another bar.”

The site of the new Toby’s formerly housed The Village Tart — a problematic pastry place that was ultimately granted a beer-and-wine license despite public outcry.

In recent years, with the proliferation of liquor-serving locales, specifically around Kenmare St., Nolita neighbors have become increasingly concerned about traffic, noise and overcrowding on the streets.

In 2007, when Ivan Kane attempted to open Forty Deuce — an old-fashioned burlesque house proposed for 19 Kenmare St. — residents cried foul for six months, and C.B. 2 ultimately reversed its prior decision to issue Kane a liquor license. Plans later changed and Forty Deuce never opened.

More recently, the operators of La Esquina — the Kenmare St. grab-and-go taqueria, restaurant and lounge — faced community opposition as they tried to renew their liquor license. Residents complained that the trendy hot spot housed noisy outdoor events, which sometimes featured the use of large TV screens. They collected petition signatures to lobby the S.L.A. However, the agency ultimately renewed the liquor license.

While Iu assured Toby’s Public House will be a friendly neighborhood place, residents feel it will waste no time in joining the rowdy ranks, becoming a nuissance nightspot.

The new Toby’s Public House will have 12 tables with 28 seats and one bar with nine seats, according to the most recent C.B. 2 S.L.A Licensing Committee resolution. It will also feature a larger menu, due to the addition of a charcoal grill and fryer.

Topping the menu are burgers, New York strip steak, chicken paillard and the fish of the day.

“I try to look at life positively,” Iu concluded. “Within time, by proving that my business is local, that it’s grassroots, people will come to enjoy what Toby’s is all about. My door has always been open to the community as a neighbor — and always will be, despite what has transpired over the last year.”

Iu said she will be opening without a beer-and-wine license, as well as without B.Y.O.B., which she said would be against S.L.A. regulations.

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