HARLEM — Restaurateur Richard Notar knows people grimace when they walk by the old Lenox Lounge space and see it looking like a shadow of its former self.
"Right now it's horrible and it's an eyesore. People walk by and ask what happened to this great icon," Notar said.
The owner of the building at 286 Lenox Ave. is currently embroiled in a $25 million lawsuit with former operator Alvin Reed Sr., who took control of the lounge in 1983.
Just before Notar acquired the space after Reed's lease expired in 2012, Reed stripped the historic lounge, including the famous neon Lenox Lounge sign and the fabric from the Zebra room's walls, for use at the site of Reed's new Lenox Lounge a few blocks away at 333 Lenox Ave.
Angelica Thomas, an attorney for Reed, declined to comment.
Notar said that lawsuit is a "landlord and tenant issue" and he and hopes that by spring 2014, the site will no longer get that reaction from passersby because his new music lounge with rooftop dining will be open to the public, joining Red Rooster and a string of restaurants quickly making Lenox Avenue a strong challenger to Frederick Douglass Boulevard's more established restaurant row.
"We are back in the saddle. Everything is determined and established," said Notar. "The food will be good, approachable food, not pretentious. It's my answer to a New York watering hole."
And how do you live up to the musical heritage of the old Lenox Lounge where jazz legends like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday popped in randomly to perform?
Notar said the music will be 80 to 90 percent jazz.
"I want it to be hallowed ground for anything musical," he said. "I want it to be the type of place where a musician walks in and says, 'I want to play something.'"
That means room not only for established musicians but up-and-coming artists as well.
The removal of items from the Lenox Lounge may have been a blessing in disguise, Notar said. It allowed his architects to rearrange the seating and to re-think options for a second floor and maybe even seating on the roof. The old Lenox Lounge will be referenced in some way, he added.
Next door will be a bakery specializing in beignets by New Orleans actor and baker Dwight Henry, who starred in the film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Henry will also supply the restaurant's baked goods.
"Harlem is an international brand. Who wouldn't want to jump on for an opportunity to do something special here?" said Notar. "I'm going to do my best for the local community."
Now all he needs to do is come up with a name. Reed's attorneys say he owns the copyright for Lenox Lounge, but Notar is still hopeful.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could call it the Lenox Lounge?"