Photo by Clayton Patterson
Restaurateur Lucien Bahaj and his son Zac Bahaj at the Pink Pony on Ludlow St., which just closed.
BY CLAYTON PATTERSON | It’s one thing to be anti-gentrification and against the corporate development that is destroying the fabric of the community and plowing under the elements that make a neighborhood, and another thing to be engaged in helping to save what is left of the community.
If we don’t support our local family- and neighborhood-owned small businesses then we are contributing to the destruction of the community. It’s not always the unregulated rent increases, it can be the lack of customers or a combination of both.
In the last few months on Ludlow St., just between Delancey and Houston Sts., we have lost the Pink Pony Cafe Littéraire & Ciné Club, the Cake Shop independent music venue, the print shop at 139 Ludlow St., Press Tea, Earth Matters natural food store, and soon Motor City bar, and possibly El Sombrero Mexican restaurant, at the corner of Stanton and Ludlow Sts.
Uli Rimkus, the owner of the Max Fish bar, opened the Pink Pony in 1989. The two businesses, Max Fish and Pink Pony, are on the ground floor of the same building and are connected by a lease and a shared emergency exit. Phyllis and Lucien Bahaj took over the running of the Pink Pony in 2001. Phyllis was the business side of the family and Lucien created the wine list, the menu, the ambience. The Pink Pony was their second eatery in the neighborhood.
Phyllis and Lucien lived Downtown. They had one son, Zac. Zac attended the Lower East Side NEST School, and his second home was the restaurants.
Lucien was born in Morocco and grew up in the South of France, where he was attracted to the luxurious hotels and establishments that served fine food and had an intelligent clientele. He learned the proper way to serve, dress, present himself, and how to address the clients in the refined, upper-class service industry. His sense of adventure brought him to New York City. His service skills kept him alive and his knowledge of people opened the door to most of the exciting scenes happening in New York City. He worked in many of the clubs and in in-vogue restaurants. He knew the scene, the people, and hung out with the players who made the action happen.
In 1998, he opened Lucien’s French Bistro at 14 First Ave. Lucien’s and the Pink Pony are his works of art and, besides his family, his other love. He had a vision, a feeling, he knew what he wanted, and he worked to perfect it. Nothing loud or pretentious, it must be somewhat understated, subtle, a little rustic, have a low-key elegance, and exude charm and sophistication. All blending together to create the atmosphere and feeling of being in an authentic French establishment.
The visual was meant to please the eye. The atmosphere to soothe the soul and calm the body. The food was to delight the palate.
At Lucien’s a customer had a choice of grilled salmon, rack of lamb, roasted squab, as well as traditional hors d’oeuvres, like escargots de Bourgogne, moules mariniere traditionnelle (mussels) and soupe de poisson traditionnelle (fish soup). Lucien made sure that there was something on the menu for a person on a limited budget.
Lucien’s is the more expensive fine-dining experience. Pink Pony more casual, less expensive, good food, of course, but less European, closer to a more American taste. You could get one of the best steaks Downtown smothered in his special pepper sauce.
Typical customers tended to be connected to the world of culture: publishers, filmmakers, writers, artists, actors, photographers, gallery owners.
Losing the Pink Pony is just one more death blow to what made the Lower East Side culturally alive. We trade culture for 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts. We go from the special and the unique to what one can find anywhere in America. It’s not just about authenticity but also about the loss of the family business.
I watched Zac grow up and pass through the various trials and tribulations that challenge a youth in the city. I saw him go from an innocent, bright-eyed kid hanging around the restaurant to chilling with some of the more notorious home boys. Letting his hair grow wild and his pants hang low and his underwear hang high. Then, in what seemed like only a short period of time, he morphed into a fine, upstanding, sharp-looking, mature young man who had developed the skills to manage the business on his own. Thankfully, he never got into any kind of serious trouble and he was not attracted to hard drugs and didn’t fall into the trap of uncontrollable drinking.
Lucien always welcomed his customers. At the Pink Pony a customer could eat or drink coffee and people-watch, or just relax by oneself with the wide selection of books, newspapers and magazines to choose from. Lines from a René Ricard poem were painted on the wall. Jerry Pagane added the gold-leaf lettering on the place’s window. The walls were lined with photographs of local legends, like Allen Ginsberg, Judith Malina, Ira Cohen and Jonas Mekas, as well as a good cross-section of other notable customers; Spidey the rickshaw driver was a recent addition.
If a person sits at one of Lucien’s establishments, you are his guest. Lucien was always feeding someone. If an artist had no money but felt the need to be present, there was the $1 hard-boiled egg. Taylor Mead had an open invitation. Lucien supported local art establishments like Participant. He opened up the back room for book parties, art exhibition celebrations. He catered shows at my place. Zac curated art shows that he hung on the Pink Pony’s walls. He did a Monday night film series there, too.
The Pink Pony was an asset to the Lower East Side. I have no idea how these new luxury builders think. The Norfolk St. Blue building intrigued prospective renters using the local culture as bait — yet they drove their neighbor Tonic, the highly respected experimental music and bookstore venue, out of business. The luxury, 27-story hotel next to the Pink Pony could not have asked for a better local flavor and good eatery next to it.
What happened to the Pink Pony is many of the patrons moved to Brooklyn, the new people don’t get it, and the rent increases made it impossible to continue. Down the block from the Pink Pony, El Sombrero is on the verge of extinction, as is El Castillo De Jaguar, on Rivington St. Goodbye to the flavor of the French Moroccan, the Dominican and the Mexican — traded in for what?