The Smile’s Carlos Quirarte And Matt Kliegman Want To Be Your Friend
The neighborhood place took some hits in the boom economy. Destination retail, slicked-out foodie palaces, and secret after-hours addresses all saw their stock rise, over the course of the great derivatives age, as year by year and one by one, the little stumbled-upon joints drew their shutters and slipped noiselessly off the radar. Hip was in. Hot was in. Low-key and friendly were, for a long time, out. But the pendulum is swinging back around: On Wednesday, Carlos Quirarte and Matt Kliegman threw open the doors to The Smile, a restaurant-cum-tattoo parlor-cum-coffee shop-cum-boutique that they conceived, explicitly, as a drop-in stop for locals. The unassuming downstairs space is to be found on Manhattan’s happening Bond Street, and Kliegman and Quirarte’s collaborators are rather happening as well—Melia Marden is the chef at The Smile’s kitchen, which is currently serving lunch, and tattoo man Scott Campbell will be throwing down the ink at the Saved Tattoo outpost soon to open in the basement. And Kliegman and Quirarte boast their own hip-hot cred: Together, they promoted the Halloween bash at the Bowery Hotel, among other soirées, and Quirarte, ex of Earnest Sewn, was the mind behind the popular pop-up events at the label’s Meatpacking District store. But they agree that The Smile isn’t meant to be cool. “What we really want, actually, is for it to be warm,” notes Quirarte. “We want people to feel like they can come here and hang out, be regulars. There aren’t too many places doing that these days.” Well, now there’s one more. Here, Quirarte and Kliegman talk to Style.com about putting a friendly face on cool.
To the disinterested observer, a restaurant/coffee shop/boutique/tattoo parlor seems like a rather oddball business to be in. How did you decide on that mix?
Matt Kliegman: Some of it just came out of asking ourselves, how do we get the most out of this space? We knew we didn’t want to do any more nightlife—no bar, in other words—but other than that, things were kind of up for grabs. This is an old building—from the 1830′s—and the original kitchen was there, so it seemed like, OK, a restaurant. And obviously Carlos’ background is retail, and there was this lovely, long brick wall that seemed tailor-made for that. And once we knew this was a place that was going to be open during the daytime, we figured, why not coffee? Why not tea?
Carlos Quirarte: There was a lot of coincidence along the way. Good coincidence—stuff that made it feel like we were doing the right thing. Like, Melia is a close friend and she lives down the block, and it turns out that her dad lived in this exact building in the seventies. And Scott’s a good friend, too, and he happened to mention that he was looking for a space in Manhattan…
Ah. So that explains the tattoo parlor. Thank you, that was the part that most mystified me.
CQ: Our approach is kind of, best of everything. You can eat the best food, drink the best tea, buy the best knives or the best sunglasses or the best boots, and you can get the best tattoo.
Tell me more about the stuff you’ll be selling. Once again, there’s a whiff of randomness.
CQ: One thing we wanted to do was feature brands based in America, and especially brands that produce in the United States. Like White Boots, from Seattle. They make these incredible work boots, and we’re going to have them here for special order. Or, more local than that, we’re stocking special items from Sol Moscot and C.O. Bigelow. Those are personal relationships, and a lot of those relationships came into play. Adam Kimmel is a friend, and an amazing menswear designer, for example, and I love what the Lake & Stars girls do with lingerie. And both those brands are based here, too.
MK: It’s not just a made-in-America concept, though—we’ve got Wool and the Gang, from France, and Mariage Frères tea, and Laguiole knives…
Made in America, except when French?
MK: And we’re going to be adding more stuff to the mix. And part of the mix, too, just has to do with our desire to work in with the neighborhood. There are already great stores on this block, so we had to figure out what was missing. I really can’t emphasize enough our desire to be a member in good standing of the local community.
CQ: If there is a concept, that’s it—to be a neighborhood place. It’s like, my girlfriend works across the street at 303 Gallery—we want to be here for that customer. Dinner after an opening, coffee on the way to work. Same goes for the guys at OAK, or the people at the theater next door.
MK: And that’s why we’re doing things like hosting Sunday afternoon knitting classes. We’re trying to find ways to make the space inviting. An issue I have with a lot of places is that you just don’t feel at ease.
CQ: Yeah. Personally, as much as anything, I’m just looking forward to sitting in the window and hanging out. I want other people to feel like they can do that, too.
Having said that, you guys come with a bit of a following. And Scott Campbell and Melia Marden are sort of, you know, names that get dropped a lot in this town. How do you avoid The Smile turning into one of those It places?
MK: I don’t know how you avoid that, aside from just not catering to it.
I find myself in a strange position here, because I have to insist on the fact that this place is cool. You had that party for Wool and the Gang over fashion week, you had a dinner for Nate Lowman here…
CQ: But now that we’re open we’re staying away from events like that, as much as we can.
MK: The beauty of what we’re doing is that we open at 8 a.m. and we close at midnight. That’s a lot of different customers. I think, what with all the people coming in and out, the place just can’t feel that exclusive.
Here’s the inevitable recession question: Did the apocalypse affect your plans for The Smile at all? You’ve been working on this for nine months now, which pretty much times out with the great tanking.
CQ: Initially, we’d planned on having more retail.
MK: I don’t want to say it hasn’t been daunting, under the circumstances, but I honestly feel like the current climate makes a place like The Smile more necessary. I know so many people who are unemployed, and they’re not looking, you know, for the latest It place. If they’re looking for anything, they’re looking for a friend.