By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — Midtown's Salt & Pepper restaurant will be celebrating its grand reopening this week after expanding into the former spot of popular Irish watering hole Hickey's Bar. But managers say extensive delays have left them struggling to pay their bills.
The hole-in-the-wall restaurant at 139 W. 33rd Street, near Penn Station, had earned a local following from Midtown eaters who returned day after day for its hearty "Spanish-American-Pakistani-Indian" cuisine.
The restaurant closed its doors in February to renovate after negotiated a deal to take over the adjoining space, occupied by Hickey’s for more than 40 years.
The construction was expected to take three to four weeks, said manager Noor Alam. But the efforts were thrown off-track when structural problems were uncovered, including a cracked ground floor wall that forced the evacuation of the Blarney Rock Pub next door after someone complained they thought the building might collapse.
This Friday, nearly four months later, the restaurant will be celebrating its grand reopening in a space more than twice its original size.
But the extended closure took a huge financial toll on the restaurant's owners, who not only had to pay to repair the damage, but also continued to fork over their $25,000-a-month rent as well as their staffers' salaries while their doors were shut.
"I don't have enough to pay the vendors. We are totally out of money. We are borrowing money from our friends," said a worried Alam, 32, who lives in Queens and has worked at the restaurant for 10 years.
"We need you guys more than ever before," he pleaded to his former clientele, whom he hopes will soon realize he's back up and running.
In addition to the Indian, Pakistani and Spanish classics they’ve served since 1997, such as lamb stew made Spanish-style with fresh tomatoes, rice and beans, chicken samosas, Pakistani kebabs and numerous vegetarian curries, the restaurant has expanded its menu.
It will soon serve more typical deli items, including pizzas, made-to-order salads, sandwiches, panini and Indian beverages.
In addition to a much larger seating section, the kitchen is also bigger, which Alam said has made the food "better than before.”
The restaurant also hopes to draw new faces by staying open 24-hours, and installing a television where customers can watch soccer games.
But loyal customers said Wednesday they were confident business would return, especially after scaffolding was taken down on Monday.
Regular Omar Chentouf, 40, who’s been eating at the restaurant for more than ten years, said he noticed the eatery had quietly reopened earlier this week, returning from Queens on his day off with his wife and two young children in tow for a taste.
"We missed them!" said Chentouf. "We’re very happy to see them again."
Upper West Side audio engineer Glen, 51, who declined to give his last name, said he’s been eating at Salt & Pepper since 2002 and was thrilled to see it was open again.
"The food — I just love the food here,” said Glen, who named the "Chicken Kima" curry as his favorite dish and said he's sure the place will soon be thriving.
"They do a wonderful job here," he gushed. "Now that the place is visible, hopefully they’ll have their clientele back."