It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Morningside Heights’ dining scene, with restaurants coming and going since the late summer 2013. The changes include the loss of longtime staples Columbia Cottage and Havana Central—not to mention the loss of Vareli, the rise of Domain, and the subsequent loss of Domain and return of Vareli—while the neighborhood gained Dig Inn, Insomnia Cookies, and Pita Grill.
Insomnia, a chain that began near NYU—and that has had a location on the Upper West Side whose delivery area didn’t include Columbia—opened a location on Amsterdam Avenue between 110th and 111th streets in July 2013. Delivering until 3 a.m., the cookie store has provided a haven for anyone with a sweet tooth looking for a post-1020 sugar fix or something to keep them going without having to leave their building.
“They’re delivered warm and fresh,” Renee Sarnecky, Insomnia’s marketing manager, told Spectator in September. “It’s like a little piece of home, especially for a college student who’s far away from home—it’s really nice to get a warm cookie.”
Vareli, Domain, and Vareli
Early in the fall of 2013, Vareli disappeared and was reborn as Domain. With a Michelin-starred chef at the helm, the name change also brought a new menu featuring rainbow trout and veal, as well as an increase in prices that turned away many potential customers. When the restaurant changed its name back to Vareli in January, General Manager John Roesch mentioned that response to the prices was a contributing factor in the decision to retire Domain.
“A big negative about Domain was it was really ... pigeonholed in a three-dollar-sign kind of category and it was over the heads of students,” Roesch said in January.
Now, Executive Chef Chris Abbamondi is taking the restaurant back to its Mediterranean roots, focusing on producing seasonal, new-American fare. But the management has also kept some of the favorites from Domain, such as the raw bar of oysters and fish roe. Managing Partner Rich Bill said in January that the plan is for Vareli to offer “global comfort food—a little something for everyone,” and judging by its warm welcome back to Morningside Heights, Vareli has found its niche again.
Columbia Cottage’s Closing
Columbia Cottage, which had been in Morningside Heights for 22 years, closed in February after several years of conflict with the restaurant’s landlord, James Goldstick. Manager Susan Yii told Spectator in February that the closing was caused by hostile actions on Goldstick’s part and a rising rent. In turn, Goldstick said the restaurant was not in compliance with its lease.
“They wanted to move, and that’s the end of it,” Goldstick said in February. “The rent had nothing to do with it.”
Regardless of the reasons for its departure, Columbia Cottage’s longtime customers were sad to see the Morningside staple go.
“A lot of customers can’t let this place go,” waitress Linda Chong told Spectator in Mandarin in February. “They’ve gotten used to us being here.”
“I’m going to miss them as neighbors, as friends, and as a place to eat,” Philip Binioris, the owner of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, said in February.
Dig Inn’s Grand Entrance
The vacant storefront at 2884 Broadway, between 112th and 113th streets—formerly occupied by Card-O-Mat—was filled in February by farm-to-counter restaurant Dig Inn. At its opening, 1500 people welcomed the restaurant to the neighborhood, taking advantage of a “pay what you want” day, whose proceeds went to nonprofit FoodFight NYC. Dig Inn offers healthy fast fare, typically precooked or pre-assembled in large pots or containers, served in compostable takeout boxes. You can build your own meal by choosing fiber or grains as the base and then selecting the protein and sides from there.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is exceptional, high-quality food at affordable prices,” Adam Eskin, Dig Inn’s co-founder and CEO, said at the opening.
[Related: Read our review of Dig Inn]
The chain was quick to join the Columbia discussion, with Eskin writing an op-ed about its support of Columbia College Student Council creating a sandwich ambassador position. He placed a petition to create the position in the restaurant, offering a 10 percent discount to students who signed it.
“Talk is cheap, but sandwiches are not,” Eskin wrote in March. “Let’s teach people to eat and live well on a budget. Let’s bring food literacy programs into schools where students, teachers, and parents alike can learn to feed themselves balanced meals at a low cost. Let’s end the gap between food producers and food consumers.”
Pita Grill’s Opening
Pita Grill is a recent addition to Morningside Heights that opened in April in the storefront next to Insomnia Cookies on Amsterdam Avenue, between 110th and 111th streets. Offering an eclectic menu—from salad bowls to schnitzel to flatbread pizza—the restaurant aims at providing healthy food to customers.
Havana Central’s Curtain Call
On May 7, employees and managers at Havana Central, located at 2911 Broadway between 113th and 114th streets, confirmed that the restaurant would close on May 28. Havana Central, which opened in 2007 as the successor to well-known dive bar The West End, Havana Central has plans to reopen in New Jersey, according to Manager Neyda Sanchez, who didn’t know what would replace the Senior Night hot spot.
Sanchez also mentioned that the decision was one that came suddenly. “They just finalized it this week,” Sanchez said. “So it’s practically new to us.”
Havana Central will see itself out with a $12.95 all-you-can-eat special on May 28, and serve drinks at happy-hour prices all day.