It’s approaching 30 years since West bank Cafe has opened its doors in the theatre district on West 42nd street. Owner Steve Olsen opened the restaurant in 1978 at a time when the Irish Westies gang members were cafe regulars and the neighborhood was in disarray. About two years later the restaurant received a two-star review from the New York Times. The clientele began to improve, and Olsen created a theater downstairs called the Laurie Beechman Theatre (named after the cabaret and stage star). The West Bank Cafe soon became the preferred hang-out for playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and young actors like Bruce Willis and Sean Penn.
Today its entertainment is as vibrant as ever – the play I saw there was reviewed in the New York Times - and other upcoming shows feature nationally recognized playwrights, comedians, and musicians. Lewis Black was the theatre’s playwright in residence for over ten years, where he authored over 40 plays that were produced there and at other theaters across the country, before leaving for a television and movie career. It crowds are filled with theatre-goers in the early evening, then later with theatre workers and performers into the late hours of the night. Its 90 dining room seats upstairs have recently been joined by 80 more downstairs when the decision was made to begin serving dinner in the theatre area during shows.
NYRI: What was this room before you bought it in
Steve Olsen: It was a brand new building. I opened up in June of ‘78, and there was nothing but transvestites outside, it was 42nd Street at its most notorious. And we had the Irish gang in here, the Westies, they were like doing it up. Sean Penn was a customer here when we first opened, and he still is, but he witnessed first-hand the gangbanging in here. Then we got a two-star review in the New York Times from Mimi Sheraton. That was the best thing that happened to us, just a year-and-a-half after we opened, because this was a dead, dead location.
NYRI: Have you always served food downstairs?
Steve Olsen: I’ll tell you what happened, and it was a mindblower for me. I never, ever served food downstairs for the shows. We always had a minimum, but we never enforced it. If somebody wanted to eat, we’d book them a table upstairs before or after the show, mostly before, and then they’d go downstairs and see the show. We hired a new booking agent last year, Kenny Bell, and he said when the customers walked into the room they all had the same look on their faces; concerned about the minimum. So Kenny said, “Why don’t we start serving food downstairs?” I said, “I never wanted that dinner theatre connotation. I thought we were a lot hipper than that.” My wife also works here, and she and Kenny and Joe all said, “I think we should do it.”
NYRI: So you noticed a big difference?
Steve Olsen: The same people that didn’t want to spend 15 bucks for the minimum started coming upstairs, and they’d tap me on the shoulder on the way out and say, “The food was great.” And I’m saying “Thank you, thank you” because we hear that all the time upstairs, but then I’m thinking, “I didn’t see them here, I wonder where they were seated?” It was because they were downstairs. So the same people that were offended about paying a $10 or $15 minimum were now having full dinners downstairs before the show.
NYRI: Is it true that Bruce Willis started his career across the street?
Steve Olsen: Bruce Willis’s cousin and his brother both worked here when Bruce was a bartender, and Bruce worked for a friend of mine in a restaurant which is now Red Cat on 5th Avenue. Bruce was doing a Sam Sheppard play across the street and couldn’t get anybody to see it. We had our theatre downstairs, so we sent an agent in to go see him, and the agent saw the show, called “Fool for Love”, and signed him. Six weeks later he was in Hollywood, he got “Moonlighting,” and ever since then he’s just become his own little movie star.
NYRI: Lewis Black was here for a long time as an emcee, or did he also perform?
Steve Olsen: Yes, 14 years, he did both. We had gone through several different kinds of venues downstairs. We did jazz, we did cabaret, and I wasn’t happy with a lot of it. And then I met Lewis, and he had two guys with him who were artistic directors. Lew was the playwright in residence, and Rusty Magee was the musical director. So we started doing one-act plays. We wound up doing 1500 one-acts. It’s a Guinness record!
West Bank Café’s food, thanks to the arrival of executive chef Joe Marcus, is better than it’s ever been. Marcus was a major-league prospect baseball pitcher in his youth, only to find out that his fastball wasn’t fast enough and his split-fingered fastball didn’t quite split enough. So he gave up on that dream and went on to school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. At J & W, he not only played on the baseball team, he also learned how to cook.
After college, Joe began moving from one restaurant to another, with one goal in mind – to work with the best talent at the best restaurants he could possibly find. His mentors included Andrew Carmellini, Michael Mina, David Bouley and Terrance Brennan, before finally landing his first executive chef position at West Bank Café almost three years ago.
NYRI: So you grew up on Long Island, how’d you end up going to school at Johnson & Wales?
Joseph Marcus: I was a baseball player for most of my teens through my early 20s, but it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. I was a pitcher, and I got a couple of college scholarships but it didn’t work out. I got close to a full ride from a Community College in Jersey, and the guy there was connected with the Minnesota Twins, so I figured I’d have an easy in. I went there, and within the first four months I was out. I played back home for a while and then went to Johnson & Wales. I played for them, too. Mt fastball wasn’t there, so the only other thing I liked to do was eat.
NYRI: Before we talk about your cooking, what was your best pitch?
Joseph Marcus: A mean change-up and a nasty split-finger fastball. It’s a hard pitch, but it only worked once out of every three times. But when it did work, it was absolutely nasty! It would rival Roger Clemens. What my problem was, I threw slow and slower, and you ain’t gonna win like that.
NYRI: After Johnson & Wales what were your first cooking jobs?
Joseph Marcus: I had a $10-an-hour cooking job at a restaurant five miles away from my house in Commack called Weeping Willow, next to Adventureland. I was there for about a year. I started off Garde Manger and pastry, I made the crème brulees, the cheesecakes, and whatever needed to be done. Then I started floating around. I went to the Hamptons and worked the summer at Alison by the Beach with Robert Gurvich. The chef went into the City and I followed him there, and I worked there for maybe a year-and-a-half. Then I went to Vegas and worked at Aqua, which is a four-star restaurant with Michael Mina.
NYRI: What was it
like working and living in Vegas?
Joseph Marcus: It was great; the problem is everything’s union. So you’re only allowed to work about 40 hours a week, and they won’t pay you for any more than 40 hours a week. You work an 11-hour day, 12-hour day, and you’re paid only 10 hours for that day, and there’s three days of vacation a week there in Vegas. Three days’ free time is way too much time in Vegas. That’s a city you have to work 90 hours to stay out of trouble!
NYRI: Were you looking to get back to New York after that experience?
Joseph Marcus: Yes, after about a year I came back from Vegas and I went to work at Café Boulud for about two or three months. I lucked out, I had Andrew Carmellini there, and it was right before DB Bistro opened, and then I had Jean Francois Bruel too.
NYRI: Those jobs all led up to your stint at Picholine?
Joseph Marcus: Yeah, I spent three years at Picholine. The cheeses were phenomenal. I also spent about two months at Artisanal, their sister restaurant. The fondue station -hands down -I would recommend that to anybody who comes in. I used to go in an hour-and-a-half early and raid the cheese cabinet, raid the cheesecake, take a half a baguette and that was it. Try and feed the coworkers, “Oh, taste this one, taste this one.”
NYRI: You cooked a dinner at the Beard House, how was that experience?
Joseph Marcus: Some of my buddies I worked with at Picholine and other some restaurants came in and helped me out, and it was great. I did four courses - three courses plus a dessert. It was on Marathon Sunday, so we gave everyone a little chocolate medallion that looked like you won the race. It was a great experience, I’d love to go back there, but it was a little on the expensive side. You get eight bucks back for every meal you serve. So we came back with like $300-something after spending 4 grand or so. But it was a lot of fun; I made a couple of good friends out of it.
NYRI: So how about things like sourcing and ingredients? Did you make some adjustments when you came in here?
Joseph Marcus: Made some adjustments as soon as I walked in. The Sysco truck would be parked out here three times a week, and that would drive me crazy. There’s no way I want produce and mops from the same company! I had a bunch of people from when I used to do the ordering for Picholine and I made some connections there, and right away I called them and had it switched over.
NYRI: What is your favorite dish here?
Joseph Marcus: The shrimp dish is my ultimate favorite so far. It’s pepper-grilled shrimp with a fennel salad. Inside the salad, we have jalapenos, mint, grapefruit, and on the bottom is a little avocado fanned out. We do a grapefruit reduction, which is just straight-up grapefruit juice and we reduce it all the way down so it’s almost like honey, a nice caramel-like amber color. You just have so many flavors going on, and they all work together. You’ve got the cool, the sweet, the sourness from the grapefruit and the fresh, fresh-flavored fennel and that avocado lends creaminess to it and cools it all down. I’m more of a fish cook, if you were to come in and say, “What should I go with?” I’d point you to the fish.
NYRI: Who’s your favorite seafood chef?
Joseph Marcus: Probably Daniel Boulud. I think he’s the man for pretty much everything. I’ve yet to eat there at Daniel, but I did tour the kitchen once or twice. He seems like the ultimate guy. I met him once and he called me Chef, and I was, “Ooh.” My knees buckled a little bit.
NYRI: What are the biggest challenges here, besides the small kitchen?
Joseph Marcus: One of the challenges here is that you get such a wide range of people. From 6:00 to 8:00, it’s “eat it as quick as possible and get to the show.” Speed is number one. You’ve got to figure out how to make it as nice as possible and as quick as possible. Especially with the downstairs now, we went from 90 seats to 170 seats. We just work harder, there’s nothing we can’t do. You get a little louder, you get a little sweatier, you move a little faster. That’s it.