UPPER WEST SIDE — Upper West Siders have long known that if they want a good drink and a hopping nightlife scene free of college students and sports bars, they'd have to head below 59th Street.
All that's changing now, as restaurateurs heat up the after-hours scene uptown, offering nightlife options upscale enough to complement their food menus.
Owners are recognizing that there's demand for spaces where patrons can stop in for a pre-theater drink, sit down for a formal dinner, enjoy a few rounds of cocktails or celebrate a Saturday night in style.
Jeremy Wladis, the restaurateur behind Nonna, Firehouse Cafe and more recently AG Kitchen, said he's seen a shift in the scene.
"The Upper West Side used to be that [trendy] place, 20 or 15 years ago, and then it really became family-oriented and older," he said. "And now you’re starting to see a resurgence, more people coming out. The Upper West Side is becoming a little more popular."
People in the neighborhood are also eager to find options close to home, he said.
"People don’t want to have to go Downtown for everything, they want to hang out," he said.
The neighborhood is chock full of restaurants, with new spots emerging all the time. But residents complained there weren't enough options to drink and unwind. The Smoke Jazz Club and Club 72, the Upper West Side's only nightclub, were among the only "grown-up" options. For sophisticated nightlife, they had to go south.
Jennifer Klein, who is opening The Dakota Bar, said she'd also noticed the changes and wanted to be part of the comeback.
"[Columbus] Avenue desperately needs nighttime places," she said.
Klein said she's happy her bar is among the new nightlife options and believes the competition will stir interest.
"It happened in the Meatpacking District," she said. "The more things that come up here, it's going to bring people."
Here are some of the restaurants looking to motivate Upper West Siders to scramble for a babysitter.
The Smith, 1900 Broadway
"People come in and tell us we’re filling a void," said Jeff Lefcourt, co-owner of The Smith, at Broadway and West 63rd Street. Lefcourt said the neighborhood was eager for a place with a hipper atmosphere.
"We're bringing that Downtown feel up here," said co-owner Glenn Harris.
The restaurant is hoping to be chameleon-like, hosting breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, but then accommodating a rush of pre- and post-theatergoers thirsty for artisanal cocktails while staying open until 1 a.m.
The owners have added little perks, like a beer made special for The Smith by Brooklyn-based Six Point Brewery and a photo booth downstairs ready for spontaneous parties.
Café Tallulah, 240 Columbus Ave.
Cafe Tallulah opened in early January at 71st Street and Columbus and was filled to capacity on its opening night.
Owner and longtime Upper West Sider Greg Hunt wanted to create a hip new restaurant, drawing inspiration from Balthazar.
"[The neighborhood] has been lacking a go-to place with edginess, great food, great cocktails and a sexy ambience," Hunt said.
Hunt said he wants people to come in for dinner or drinks upstairs and then head downstairs, where there's "an amazingly sexy cocktail lounge."
The downstairs lounge has a working fireplace, billiards table, and hip cocktails designed by Dushan Zaric of Employees Only fame. The lounge is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
AG Kitchen, 269 Columbus Ave.
Along with his partners, including chef Alex Garcia, co-owner Jeremy Wladis wanted to make AG Kitchen a multifunctional space so that it had appeal as more than just a restaurant.
"We have a whole cocktail lounge and we get busy with the cocktail lounge," Wladis said.
The cocktail list reflects a playful sensibility Wladis hoped to infuse in the whole endeavor, with drinks like "Thai Me Down," "The Upper Westie" and "Peanut Envy."
Wladis brought mixologist Christian Post onboard to make sure the drinks were at the forefront of the experience.
"You have to some way, somehow have cool hip drinks and food," Wladis said, adding that "we’re trying to be more fun and more exciting and to draw hipper people."
Wladis explained that before he created AG Kitchen, he started to catch on that "Mexican is the in food — Latin is cool," so for those reasons, along with his talent, he partnered with Garcia.
Casa Pomona, 507 Columbus Ave.
Marion Maur, the owner of Casa Pomona, which opened on Columbus Avenue between 84th and 85th streets this fall, thinks the Upper West Side's cool factor is on the rise.
"If there was to be a hipster block, this would be it," she said of her location, near Osteria Cotta and Prohibition.
The space is divided between a front bar area, with high tables for groups to sip cocktails or eat selections from the tapas menu, and the back, which looks like a more traditional sit-down restaurant. The dual functionality is meant to attract a younger crowd in the front, said Maur, but with the back she can still accommodate families and more serious diners.
Drinkers can feel sophisticated bringing a date for tapas made by up-and-coming chef Jodi Bernhard and pairing them with "Spanish Manhattans" made with unsweetened cherry juice, sherry and Spanish brandy. Tapas dishes run between $3 and $12.
The Dakota Bar, 53 West 72nd St.
Owner Jennifer Klein saw a need for a sophisticated bar along Columbus Avenue that mixed nostalgia with bold, modern colors and decor to create a new after-hours place people would seek out.
The Dakota Bar has a sizeable wine selection, but with "hopping" music and nostalgic cocktails, Klein was aiming to create a fun, lively bar.
Klein said she is partnering with the comedy club Stage 72, which is a few blocks west on 72nd Street, to draw people to her bar after the shows rather than having them jump on the subway and head Downtown.
"We felt this corner needed something — something whimsical," Klein said.
The Dakota Bar seats 100 people and will serve food in large portions, said Klein, who added that seeing a lot of "cool retail stores" on the avenue signaled to her that it was time for the dining scene to catch up.
On the Horizon
Park West, 103 W. 70th St.
Park West is set to open this month, according to owner Peter Coundouris, who also owns neighboring Pomodoro Restaurant.
Coundouris plans on having "wine and cheese" and beer nights in the space as a way of drawing singles from the neighborhood. But he also envisions his restaurant as a kind of jewel box, perfect for a romantic date night.
Park West will feature a bar and cozy lounge area in the front with small sofas and tables, plus a tree-ringed backyard with seats for 15 to 20 guests.
Like other restaurateurs in the area, he wants his Northern Italian restaurant to have a "Downtown feel," but also be comfortable, to "make this the neighborhood's living room." He's hoping to draw foodies and those in search of ambience, staying open until 1:30 a.m. on weekends.
Rul has created two separate spaces and, he hopes, two different scenes within his restaurant — a bar for lounging and drinking or perhaps ordering small bites, and a dining room up a few stairs toward the back.
While the restaurant was set to debut in late September, the opening is expected this month.