HARLEM — Back when Brian Washington-Palmer opened Native on Lenox Avenue and 118th Street in 2001, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster didn't exist, Frederick Douglass Boulevard was years away from becoming the burgeoning restaurant row that it is now, and the opening of Settepanni, a cafe a few blocks away, was considered a risky venture.
More than 12 years later, a new restaurant in Harlem opens seemingly every other week and Lenox Avenue has developed a decent restaurant scene that stretches far beyond the soul food institution of Sylvia's.
In spite of being a favorite of long-time locals and newcomers alike, Washington-Palmer began to look around at all the new restaurants and wonder whether the Caribbean and Mediterranean cuisine at Native was stale.
"Thirteen years later you realize you were a pioneer but that things are getting old and worn around the seams," said Washington-Palmer, a restaurateur who has owned several eateries in Harlem and Washington Heights such as Bleu Evolution and No Parking. "It's nice to be that 'Cheers' spot, but as time goes on you have to remember you aren't 'Cheers' for everyone."
That's why Washington-Palmer made the decision to close Native last fall and re-brand it. Next week, the location will re-open as La Bodega 47 Social Club, a craft rum cocktail lounge that serves appetizers and recalls the Harlem and New York City of old.
Before gourmet delis began popping up in underserved neighborhoods such as Harlem, the local bodega or corner store was a neighborhood resource.
"Whole Food is coming up the street now," Washington-Palmer said about the upscale grocery set to open at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street in 2016, "but the bodega used to be the place you'd go to get a snack, a lotto ticket or even catch up on the neighborhood gossip."
And that's the type of vibe Washington-Palmer wants La Bodega 47 to have. Several new restaurants have opened in Harlem that have a lounge vibe but there aren't many dedicated cocktail lounges outside of the popular 67 Orange Street on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
67 Orange Street cleared a path for La Bodega by helping to educate the uptown market about cocktail lounges, said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, president of business development group Harlem Park to Park who is serving as a brand and business consultant for the new restaurant.
"There's room for another sexy cocktail lounge, so why not now?" said Washington-Palmer.
The exterior of the restaurant will resemble a nondescript bodega without signage. The bodega theme also extends to the lounge's decor. Empty cans of tomato paste serve as light shades for the bulbs hanging over the bar.
The furniture is glossy, heavy wood and black metal. To go with the bodega theme rows of Adobo, Fruity Pebbles and Brillo soap pads will line one wall. The bar, which snakes through the space, is designed for interaction.
"Native was so comfortable and felt like an extension of people's homes. This new space still has that sense of casual comfort," Evans-Hendricks. "I had great conversations at Native but I also feel like I'll have great conversations here."
The talking will be done in between drinks. A noted mixologist crafted a menu of cocktails using 47 rums from countries such as Guyana, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Brazil, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic.
The "Harlem Roundhouse Punch" cocktail will have Due North rum, lemon oil, hibiscus, fresh lime and grapefruit while the Mexican Wedding will have Pueblo Viejo Blanco rum, mango puree, vida mezcal, fresh lime and Old Bay.
La Bodega will also serve fresh sugar cane juice and Washington-Palmer will be the chef creating the Latin-themed appetizers such as short rib chili nachos, heirloom tomato soup with grilled cheese croutons, lobster corn dogs with spicy mustard and Portuguese fat rice.
Cocktails will be in the $10 to $12 range and food will cost from $9 to $10.
Evans-Hendricks said although people are sad to see Native go, La Bodega is continuing the theme of distinguishing Lenox Avenue's restaurant offerings from those on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
With Lenox Avenue's wide streets and landmarked architecture, the area is primed for entrepreneurs interested in taking risks. After looking around Harlem, Washington-Palmer saw all of the new restaurants as a challenge.
"What can we do to compete? How do we stay relevant," Washington-Palmer asked himself. "The idea I came up with was to create a new platform for a new story that I wanted to tell."