Chef Ryan Hardy, a four-time James Beard Award nominee, has left Aspen to finally taken the reigns of his own restaurant, 60-seat Charlie Bird in New York City. With this new venture that opened in early June, the chef is whipping up what he calls “urban Italian” — it’s not the spaghetti and red sauce one might think of when contemplating this cuisine. Instead, expect plates of cappellacci dei briganti [pasta] with ramps, peas and guanciale, and Tuscan chicken liver spread on toast. Charlie Bird also features a wine list curated by Hardy’s partner and sommelier Robert Bohr. The vibe is modern-meets-old-world, with a good measure of graffiti and funk thrown in.
What brought upon the idea to do Charlie Bird?
The restaurant is an idea that my partner Robert and I had. It grew out of the desire for the two of us to have a place to eat, where the food was delicious and fun, with a great approach to wine, prices, and a dining room that wasn’t fine dining, but filled with food and service that was well trained. The question we asked ourselves was, “How do we fit a team of professionals who have been doing fine dining and make it fun?”
How is your restaurant different?
We felt there was gap in what restaurants offer today. There was low-end, where it’s good but with no amenities; then mid-range food, which is pretty good; and then high-end, which is the pinnacle of dining, but it requires so many moving parts to get it right. It’s not like we don’t love that, but what we wanted is a small team that is super dedicated and we can have some fun with.
The other part, for us, is that we see most people who are our age and our diners’ age (late 20s to late 30s), like to go out and have a $40 or $50 bottle of wine, maybe a bunch of small plates, and, in my case, maybe split an entrée with my fiancé. I also don’t make reservations, and I don’t have time to wait for three hours to eat. At Charlie Bird, I take reservations, but also have the 10-seat dining counter, and 30 seats set aside for walk-ins. So, your chances of getting in within an hour are pretty good.
What brought you and Robert Bohr together?
We have known each other for the better part of a decade. I was the chef at [Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star] The Little Nell [in Aspen], and we connected in the same circle and kept in touch. About five years ago, I was looking to move on from The Little Nell, and Robert and I spoke about doing a restaurant together. We found we were both in love with the same ideas, and both wanted things like a great roasted chicken and good bottle of wine. So, we decided to do it, and do it in New York.
How long did it take to get this all together?
It took about a year to find and a year to build. We tried to put together a space that is really comfortable with some funk to it. It’s inspired by the art and culture of downtown New York, music and graffiti art.
Where did the name Charlie Bird come from?
Funny enough, it’s not a reference to Charlie Parker; it just happened that way. Our inspiration came from the 1950s, the time when New York really changed. We thought it was such a cool era. We were both born in the 1970s, and grew up in the 1980s, which was such an influential time. There was jazz and some emerging artists, and there was one of the greatest art scenes going on in the world. The 1980s brought the rise of graffiti art, but also really well-known artists like [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.
Anyway, we had a bunch of names [such as] Little Bird, but that was too close to Little Branch [a cocktail bar in the West Village]. I didn’t want it to be an Italian or jazz reference, we just wanted it to be our own. We were going to do Charlie Dog, then that was taken. So, we started plugging names in, and I loved the name Charlie for its connection to downtown, and we liked “bird.” Funny, when we looked back, we found out graffiti art started during World War II at the time [saxophonist] Charlie Parker died. There was graffiti that said “Bird lives.” Then we realized that Charlie Bird was also one of his nicknames.
Since most of your food is Italian influenced, why didn’t you want an Italian name?
We didn’t want to be pigeonholed into the Italian range, and I am not Italian. My food is Italian in nature, but it’s not Italian-American — it’s more what you find in the country since I didn’t travel to the well-known places. Plus, we didn’t want people to have an expectation that it was a red sauce joint.
What are some of your signature dishes?
The pastas are what I love to cook and you could say it’s the signature of the restaurant. Overall, the dishes are very unique, like the chicken liver pâté with walnuts, golden raisins and capers.
What are some of your favorite places to go when not working?
I love ABC Kitchen and [executive chef] Dan Kluger — I think his stuff is great. I love Franny’s; I haven’t made it to the new one yet, but it’s one of my favorite places in all of New York. I love dim sum at Royal Seafood in Chinatown, where you are definitely the only English speaker there. I love Milady’s. I love cocktail joints like PDT [Please Don’t Tell]. [Mixologist] Jim Meehan is the man.
Photos Courtesy of Ryan Hardy and Touré Folkes