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UWS Restaurateur 'Smacked in the Face' by Opposition to Village Eatery

 Vincent Chirico, chef and owner of Vai on the Upper West Side, wanted to open an eatery in the Meatpacking District.
Vincent Chirico, chef and owner of Vai on the Upper West Side, wanted to open an eatery in the Meatpacking District.
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Vai Restaurant

WEST VILLAGE — West Village residents may have scared off an Upper West Side chef-restaurateur barely a month after he signed a lease in the hope of opening a new restaurant on West 13th Street.

Vincent Chirico is the chef and owner of Vai on Amsterdam Avenue and has experience in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Jean-Georges and Aquavit.

But just weeks after inking the lease for a space he "fell in love with" at 306 West 13th St.,  Chirico said he was "smacked in the face" with opposition from neighbors and is trying to get out of his lease.

Local residents turned out almost immediately to oppose Chirico's petition for a liquor license, bewildering the seasoned chef.

"Based on my track record, I thought I wouldn't have a problem obtaining what I need," he told Community Board 2's liquor license committee at a recent public meeting.

"I wasn't expecting it — had I been expecting it, I would have approached my neighbors."

But the president of the co-op above the restaurant showed up to complain that Chirico hadn't sought approval, even though he acknowledged that the co-op board has "no control over what goes on within that space, which is a bit of a bummer."

"We would love to have control over that," said Sean Roberts, speaking for the co-op owners of 345 West 4th St. which neighbors the building.

Other local residents said they didn't care about the specifics of Chirico's plan for the space, they just didn't want a restaurant there at all.

"There is no other bar or restaurant in the little trapezoid where we live," said George Strickland, a 24-year resident of West 13th Street.

"We saw a dramatic decline in the quality of the neighborhood when Zampa opened," added another neighbor, Dan Rothschild, referring to the wine bar that previously occupied 306 West 13th St., which was described by New York Magazine as an "easy-going, sophisticated spot."

Rothschild dismissed Chirico's attempts to explain to his would-be neighbors that he was "opening up a place to enhance the building and the block and give them a place to go."

"It’s irrelevant what his intentions are because when he leaves, someone else comes in, and we’re stuck with that," Rothschild said. It's generally easier for new businesses to get a liquor license if a previous occupant has had one.

In a phone conversation after the meeting, Chirico said he was trying to get out of his lease, a move that could cost him $75,000.

"It's not even about the liquor," he said. "It's more about the neighbors. Who wants to open a neighborhood restaurant when your neighbors are upset?"

He said part of what he loves about his restaurant on the Upper West Side — "the most family-oriented neighborhood there is" — is how close he is with the surrounding residents.

"They all know me, care about me. I care about them," he said.

"We’re like family. I'm here to connect with the neighborhood, not fight with the neighborhood."