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Next Round: How Caffe Dante Went From Neighborhood Coffee Shop to ‘World’s Best Bar’VinePair

When Linden Pride took over ownership of New York City’s Caffe Dante in 2015, he inherited its rich history, too. Dante opened in 1915 as a small coffee shop in the West Village and quickly became a beloved spot among locals. Over a century later, the 900-square-foot café is still serving up coffee, but has also gained global accolades for its cocktails — including a 2019 distinction as “World’s Best Bar.”

In this “Next Round” episode, Pride chats with host Zach Geballe about what brought him to New York from Australia, how the historic Italian café came into his ownership, and how the pandemic helped Dante define itself as a brand. Part of the key to Pride’s success? Doing classic cocktails really, really well.

Tune in and learn more about Caffe Dante at https://www.dante-nyc.com/.

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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes so that we can explore a wider range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I have the privilege of speaking with Linden Pride, who is the co-owner of the world-renowned bar, Caffe Dante, in New York City. Linden, thanks so much for your time.

Linden Pride: Zach, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Z: Yeah, my pleasure. As I was mentioning to you before we started recording, this is very fun for me because Caffe Dante was one of my favorite haunts when I was an NYU student back in the aughts. It’s so cool that it’s become this whole other animal now. The coffee’s still good, by the way. Last time I was there, I had an espresso as well. But now, onto this cocktail bar. Tell me, first and foremost, what’s your background like and what were you doing before you wound up in New York City?

L: To your point about the history that you had with Caffe Dante previously, we still have people walking in off the street every week, telling us stories about when they used to visit Caffe Dante. I have to say, taking over the ownership of such a public institution comes with a great deal of responsibility in ways that were totally unexpected. I’m looking forward to talking a little bit more about that, but I love to hear that it was a haunt that you used to enjoy, yourself.

Z: I have to ask, since you brought this up, do you get people who come in who have no idea that it’s a cocktail bar?

L: Oh, yes, absolutely. We have people come in and say, “I’ve been coming here for 30 years and it’s not quite as I remember it.” Or, they’ll come in and say, “I’ve been coming here for 30 years, and nothing’s changed.” I think to myself, we’ve been here for seven years and I don’t remember seeing you once. It certainly holds a very important piece of culinary or gastronomic nostalgia for people in the village. We feel very privileged to be a part of that long story. I grew up in Australia. My mom is a chef and a food writer. I was always kind of in the hospitality industry. I think this is unknown to a lot of people in the States, but Australia has a very rich Italian and Greek culinary culture. We had a lot of Italian and Greek expats move to Australia post World War II. With them, they hung on to the traditions of great coffee and wonderful seasonal produce and food. Growing up in Australia, on every other corner there was a deli with cold cuts and so forth. Italian coffee shops and great little trattorias were very much a part of life as we grew up in Australia. I’ve been working in restaurants from the age of 17. I started with a chef in Australia who has a wonderful restaurant group. It was always a dream of mine to be able to travel to and eventually work in New York. I always saw New York as the mecca of the restaurant world. I think a lot of that had to do with a lot of these wonderful, old institutions. They were almost like living history and were so inspiring. In Australia, sometimes things feel a little bit new and without that great history. New York was always on a pedestal for us. Finding our way here was somewhat inevitable, I think.

Z: Gotcha. So, how do you view Caffe Dante at this moment? How do you describe it? What is it? Was that the idea all along when you came to New York? Or, did that idea come to you at some point after arriving?

L: The way that I would describe Caffe Dante is that it’s an all-day, all-occasion café, bar, and eatery. We open every morning for breakfast and coffee. We trade all the way through the lunch and aperitivo hours into dinner and late night. We’re open 14 hours a day, every day of the year. It’s an amenity to the community. People are able to fall in and grab a coffee or sit down and have a three-course meal or grab a cocktail. We certainly view it as an all-day, all-occasion venue. I’ve been bartending since I first got into restaurants. Initially, I wanted to be a chef, but I was talked down from that promptly, which I’m grateful for.

Z: Probably for your own good.

L: I found it a lot more fun in the bar, where I could explore, have fun with great cocktails, and be a lot more social. Bartending and bars always came naturally to me because it was what I’d focused on and how I got my apprenticeship in hospitality. When I came to New York, I moved here initially to work with a design and conceptual agency called AvroKO. They did a lot of hospitality design, but also concept development, and so on and so forth. I spent nearly five years with them in New York, and I learned a lot about sides of the business that I didn’t understand and hadn’t learned in Australia, which was largely the design and conceptual side of things. My wife had moved to New York at the time. She had been supporting me from Australia because, when I first moved here, I couldn’t afford to pay my rent. I’m grateful that she was supporting me, but by the time she got here, she said, ‘You’re never around, you’re always traveling, you’re always working, and if you want me to stick around, we need to do something together because there’s no other way to get your attention at the moment.” We decided that we wanted to open our own space. At the time, we were looking at a few other different venues in this area, in the West Village. One of them was a space on Grove Street. We got to a final negotiating point with the then-owner, and at the last minute, he said to me something along the lines of, “I’m not going to pay the brokers, so, just fold that into your costs.” That basically put the price that we had agreed upon up by about 20 percent. I said, this is ridiculous. I was still learning my way around things at that point. The next day, he signed the space to someone else and she opened a wonderful restaurant, Via Carota, in that space. But, it shifted our focus. We were approached with an off-market deal for Caffe Dante. It had been in the Flotta family for the better part of 40 years. The father, who was very much a hospitality man, ran it. He was in his 80s and he’d handed it to his son. His son had run it into the ground, somewhat. He’d made it into an internet café and all sorts of strange things. Mario Sr. had said to us, I want Caffe Dante to live on, but I don’t want my son to run it, and I’m not interested in doing it anymore. Magnolia Bakery, at the time, was banging on the door and trying to put a cupcake store in there. We said that we would love to retain the name. I think it was a blessing that we missed out on the space on Grove Street, because we’re now able to channel something that we’d really grown up around, which is this Italian all-day café. We channeled it into a space that represented something far greater than we felt that we could create in five, 10, 15 years, which was this historical, legendary coffee shop.

Z: Caffe Dante goes back over 100 years, right? To sometime in the 1910s?

L: 1915. That area is fascinating. It was known as South Village. Little Italy and the South Village were on either side of SoHo, which was the industrial production of the garment district. Italian migrants used to live in this area, the South Village. It was always very strongly Italian, especially around that period, around the turn of the century into the early 1900s. To the point that we spoke about before, a lot of those people who come in and share stories with us have so many wonderful stories about the old Italian ways. There’s a table in the window, which we call table 20. It was the widow’s table, and everyday at 4 p.m., a group of women would come and have coffee. It was always reserved for them. There was always a big game of poker that was played downstairs in the basement. We converted it to our walk-in. But, to this day, it’s got this huge steel door and very heavy bracing that you wouldn’t otherwise need to store paper straws and things. During the renovation, when we demolished one of the walls, I found a stack of five packets of bullets in the wall.

Z: Wow.

L: There are all sorts of wonderful old things going on.

Z: I want to ask a question about operations that I find really fascinating. You mentioned that you are not just a cocktail bar. You do breakfast, lunch, and dinner services. You’re open for very long hours. It’s maybe not completely unique among some of the great cocktail bars in the world, but it’s definitely unusual for what we think of as an evening and late-night establishment. I find it impressive that you’re able to have an operation that includes all of these services that aren’t necessarily connected all that often to cocktails. That said, presumably, people walk in at any time of day and assume, since this is one of the greatest cocktail bars in the world, they can get a great cocktail at 10 a.m., 10 p.m., or anywhere in between. How do you handle that from an operation standpoint as opposed to a lot of great cocktail bars that probably don’t open until 5 or 6 p.m. in many cases.

L: It’s a good question. It certainly wasn’t something that we were able to do right from the beginning. We really had to work at it. It was as Dante evolved. It’s a small space. It’s only 900 square feet, 55 seats. We were averaging around 550 to 600 covers a day, through 2019, pre-Covid. We had to be able to keep up with volume. We had to evolve the drinks menu because it had to be engineered in a way that could be based on speed and ease of replication. All our draft lines, except for two that have beer, have cocktails on them. We do a lot of cocktails on tap. There’s a lot of bottled cocktails that are batched, diluted, and frozen. Those obviously lend themselves to be able to get drinks out quickly. It also means that at any time during the day, when we’re busy enough, we’re able to sustain it. Somebody could jump behind the bar, make one of the drinks, and they would be perfectly served, consistent, and exactly as they always should be. That’s because we developed these systems that allowed us to keep up with the volume. A lot of work and time had gone into developing those processes. Also, our philosophy has always been: Whether we’re serving a cocktail, great coffee, or non-alcoholic tea, whatever it is, we really want to try to chase excellence in all of those fields. You see that in some of our regular customers who come in. We have a regular who comes in at 4 p.m., pretty much every day of the week, and has his cappuccino, biscotti, and so forth. He’s one of our great regulars, not just for the cocktails, but because we try to focus as much on all the beverages and items as much as each of the cocktails.

Z: Very cool. I want to talk a little bit about the cocktails, because for most of our listeners, that’s what they know you for. One thing that’s also interesting to me is, and I’ve experienced this when going to Caffe Dante a couple of years ago when I was last in New York, how much of the cocktail list seems really about what you might consider the perfect renditions of very established cocktails. Sometimes, people think about craft cocktail bars and talk about what they’ve created out of thin air. What cocktails have they invented? What I think of — and tell me if I’m on the right track or not — is that so much of what you guys do at Dante is perfection of established classics. Does that sound right?

L: Yeah. It’s funny. The phrase we use and what we always come back to is innovation through authenticity. We try to find ways of going back to the root, traditional service method, ingredient, or even ritual that surrounds some of these classic cocktails. We try to find ways that we can use better produce, a different technique, or more advanced technology to elevate what would otherwise be a classic cocktail that you can get anywhere. I think the Garibaldi is obviously a great example of that. That was inspired by, funny enough, an Italian restaurant in Australia where you’d walk off the beach on Bondi Beach and there was a place there called North Bondi Italian. You could still be dripping wet from the ocean, stand up at the bar, and order a Campari. There were just mountains of grapefruit and oranges behind the bar, and they’d squeeze it for you fresh. There was just something so tantalizing about the fresh orange with a bit of Campari and the saltwater in the ocean. We wanted to find a way to emulate that sensory moment around a drink that was a very simple classic cocktail that was probably better known as Campari and orange as opposed to the Garibaldi. That pursuit of finding the best way, glassware, and so forth to be able to present these drinks has always been at the core of the way that we develop the menu. The bartender who worked with us when we first opened, who I’d worked with previously, we spent a lot of time really pushing in those early months. We were asking, what will we be known for? We didn’t want to bring along anything that we’d done previously. We wanted to start fresh. A big thing that we used to talk about was about some of the world’s most famous brands. You might love the quality and splash out to buy a beautiful pair of Gucci shoes or one of the well-known brands. Now, there might also be a beautiful pair of black shoes that you love so much. Next season, you go back and don’t just buy the same pair of black shoes again. You want to see the same tailoring, the same innovation, the same attention to quality, but you want to see how they’ve evolved. That was our question. What are we doing that is interesting, but is still core to our beliefs of presenting classics and innovation through an authentic approach? It’s still really cool how we continue to evolve the brand now.

Z: I want to talk a little bit about the last couple of years for you guys. In 2019, you’re named the best bar in the world. That obviously is a big deal and very exciting. It probably made you happy and maybe also a little scared. I don’t know. That’s a lot of expectation. Is there anything you remember from the time when you found that out? Was it expected? Was it a surprise? How did that strike you?

L: It was an interesting year. We won Best American Restaurant Bar for Tales of the Cocktail. They take the finalists who win, out of the eight categories, then announce their World’s Best Bar out of those eight. We won that in July. That was unexpected. We literally fell off our seats. Tales of the Cocktail is a special industry accolade. That was astounding. We had to, immediately, really lift our game. People walk into any establishment with certain expectations, and it’s your job in hospitality to exceed those expectations. All of a sudden, the expectations got pushed. That presented challenges. In October, two and a half months later, it was the World’s 50 Best. We were No. 9 the year before. We got in the top 10 that October, and watched as the results kept getting closer to the top spot. We were all standing there with our arms around each other, embraced. It was incredible, and such a huge surprise and accolade. When I really distill down why Dante is held in such high regard by so many people to be able to win those two awards in the same year, I think it’s really about how people are made to feel when they walk into the space. It’s not necessarily just the drink in their hand. It’s a combination of the history of the space, the sense of hospitality, the service, and the drinks. It all comes together in a way that’s transportive. It takes you to a happy place. It was an amazing, incredible 2019 to come off those two awards. We were very excited to be building towards opening a second Dante in the West Village at the start of 2020. That was due to open around March 5. That didn’t happen. We were coming off such a high into such unknown territory. We could probably spend a whole podcast talking about the Covid process. But, I think Covid’s actually defined our brand, restaurant, bar, and program. It helped us define it so much better than we’d ever anticipated, because we had to strip back to basics and focus on what we were passionate about and stood for. It allowed us to grow in a very special way, without the mania and the frenzied reaction we had to have to winning those awards.

Z: Makes sense. Let’s talk a little bit about that challenge and growth. We’ve chronicled on this podcast the many, many different ways that people have gotten through this last year and a half. We can talk a little bit about this. What I’m mostly curious about is what you said. It’s this idea of redefining, or more finely defining, what Caffe Dante stands for and also, how you’ve started to come out on the other side. Correct me if I’m wrong on the details here, but you do now have a second location in Aspen, Colo., right? Was that always in the works? Did that timing get shifted around because of Covid? How have things transformed in the last year and a half?

L: The Aspen project was not planned. It came out of Covid. That’s the third location, actually — two in New York and one in Aspen. We announced to the staff on a Monday that we were going to close because of Covid. We reopened again on that Tuesday with to-go cocktails, because they changed the mandate in New York. For us, and with my wife and I especially, it just didn’t make sense for us to stop. First of all, employer-based health insurance is something that never really made sense to me.

Z: Sure.

L: During a pandemic, especially, we’re going to close our business and send all the staff out with no health insurance? It just didn’t feel right. We had an employee who was pregnant. Serving and looking after people is obviously at the core of what we do. We wanted to continue to help. That was our No. 1 goal coming into that Covid period. With that as our North Star, we were able to continue to evolve in what we were doing. We started supplying hospital meals to the local hospitals. We ended up doing about 500 meals a week. We did that for 15 weeks. There was also the development of the cocktail to-go programs, which then evolved into bottled cocktails. I’m fast forwarding through a lot of this, but the bottled cocktails helped us end up with Jean-Georges here in New York. He was in a similar position, but he wasn’t able to retain bartenders. He asked us to help develop bottled cocktails to sell in the restaurant so they could keep going. That landed us in a project in South Seaport called The Greens. They have outdoor, glass cabins through the winter during Covid. We were serving our bottled cocktails there. The innovation and the striving to stay open enabled us to be very creative. There were no limits. Interestingly enough, you spend your whole hospitality career thinking about, how do I lift the guest experience within these four walls? How do I make the music better? The lights better? The plates? The glassware? Then, all of a sudden, we had to ask ourselves, how do we create our experience entirely outside of the four walls? How does our brand travel? How does it end up in people’s homes? What’s that experience when they open the bottle in their house? What music are they listening to in their home? How do we connect to people outside of these walls? It totally changed the way that we thought about our business. That really was core to how we were able to not only stay relevant, but survive, then realize this opportunity with Jean-Georges, and then, ultimately, Aspen. You know, I remember talking to a journalist in June of last year who asked me this question: A lot of people are very interested in how to develop a bottled cocktail program and the strategy behind it. Could you provide some pointers, please? I remember saying, “OK, pretend that somebody takes away your business. Your landlord is still asking for the rent. You want to make sure your staff gets health care. You want to provide a home for your kids. That’s basically the motivation and the strategy. Do whatever the hell you can.”

Z: You mentioned that one of the things you had already realized, in terms of designing a program and a service that could work in the Caffe Dante space, was that what worked was a lot of pre-batched, bottled, draft cocktails. You were maybe more positioned than someone who had a great cocktail bar where everything was made to order and would have a harder time translating that. Does that sound right?

L: Yeah. Funny enough, our coffee cups for to-go coffee had a promotion for our Negronis. At the start, people were just coming in for coffees, and they didn’t know about our Negroni program. This was also 2015 and the Negroni didn’t quite have the same following that it does now. We put on the other side of the coffee cup, next time, join us for a Negroni. That was literally sitting on the counter when we were talking about how to do to-go cocktails. I was like, well, look at this. Let’s just serve the Negronis in this, what it was maybe always deemed to be in. Negroni in the coffee cup that says Negroni. We also had stickers left over from a Tales of the Cocktail activation that said “one for the road.” We stuck them on plastic cups. We certainly had collateral. Those were visually appealing things to be able to put on Instagram to get people to think, that’s fun and cool. Let’s go check it out. I would agree, we had a head start with some of the science behind making sure the dilution is perfect and the temperature’s right and so forth, in some of those more complex cocktails. We could produce them and get them out, to go, much more easily. It really came down to constantly trying to understand who our consumers were and what they were looking for.

Z: I’m sure you were also understanding that that was evolving over the period of the last year and a half. What people wanted in May, June, and July of 2020 is maybe not what they want this year.

L: Absolutely. Fascinatingly, it hit a pinnacle for us, with the evolution of these whole new service standards, when we came into the holiday season last year. We were able to sell bottled cocktails as gift packs for Christmas. It was fascinating. We turned into what I felt like was a scene out of “Breaking Bad,” with batches of cocktails and pouring them. It felt like a bootleg operation, because people were buying gift packs and all sorts of things. It was amazing to see how people had evolved and responded to that. Here we are now, in New York with no to-go cocktails, unfortunately. We still get many inquiries every week. It’s amazing how much that resonated with people when it was around. Very interesting.

Z: I want to hear a little bit more about the Aspen project, and then I may have one final question. That just recently came online, right?

L: Yeah. We opened at Christmas last year.

Z: What is it like? I’ve never been to Aspen, so you’ll have to help me understand.

L: The impetus for Aspen was, at Christmas time last year, that there was no indoor dining in New York. We had a pretty good summer and fall. We had a good team of staff and we realized that we were going to lose a lot of business, because who wants to sit on the sidewalk in New York in the middle of January? Some people did, bless them. Not a lot of people. A lot of smaller towns had taken off. People had moved out of the big cities. There was definitely a spike in places on Long Island and so forth, in terms of where consumers were. We thought Aspen and the mountains in winter would be a great place to be outdoors, safe, and healthy. If we could provide an amenity there, then it would be very appealing to send some of our staff out to work so that we didn’t lose them. And at that time the Surf Lodge and Snow Lodge owner approached us and said, look, we’re not going to go ahead with the project in Aspen this year because we can’t maintain it at 25 percent occupancy, but we do have this big outdoor deck. He thought, because we had bottled cocktails, it could really work. I headed out to Aspen. We said “yes” on a Monday and we were open on a Saturday. Bottled cocktails really could travel very easily. We opened with a big menu. The infrastructure and space was there, and we just went for it. We had a wonderful winter there. Even with no indoor dining, we were able to provide a great service to people who were safely living within the mountains outside of a big city. The winter was wonderful. We shut it down, as you do, coming into the spring. We reset for a summer program. We reopened in May for the summer season and moved down the street to the St. Regis, which has a place called the Chefs Club. It was a very different crowd, but there were, interestingly, a lot of people who we know from New York and supported us. We’re coming to the end of the summer season, which will culminate in the Food and Wine Festival in September, which we’re very excited about. The goal is, now, to repurpose and do winter 2.0 in Aspen with a full-service bar, not just the bottled cocktails. We’re excited for that.

Z: Gotcha. Very cool. Well, Linden, I really thank you so much for your time. It’s really fascinating to hear about the evolution of Caffe Dante, what you’ve been through, and what you see coming up in the future. So, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I look forward to stopping in for coffee and a cocktail next time I’m in New York.

L: Thank you, Zach. Thank you so much for your time, and also for taking the time to speak to us. I really appreciate it.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself, Adam Teeter, and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, who is VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

The article Next Round: How Caffe Dante Went From Neighborhood Coffee Shop to ‘World’s Best Bar’ appeared first on VinePair.

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