Years ago, on the Upper West Side, an unknown actor named Bruce Willis tended bar at Café Central, while a few blocks away Ruelles hosted the likes of Calvin Klein, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro. Barbra Streisand dined on not-yet-ubiquitous sushi at a neighborhood restaurant named Nishi. Amsterdam Bar & Grill served late-night denizens until four in the morning. In the era before Seinfeld, the Upper West Side was more bohemian than bourgeoisie and predictably packed nightly with youthful energy and celebrity sightings.
Three decades later, a similar scene unfolds at Tessa, the Michelin-recommended restaurant at 77th and Amsterdam. It’s a Wednesday evening in the middle of January — customarily a dead month for New York restaurants — and this modern Mediterranean bar and restaurant is packed and buzzing with a high-spirited crowd that appears oblivious to recent ominous events and more inclined to eat and party while there’s still time.
Located mid-block with discreet signage, the restaurant feels like a popular speakeasy with a vibrant tavern at the front of the house and a main dining room up a few steps in the rear. What was once a sports bar called Time Out has been completely redesigned by the architectural firm Bates Masi whose streamlined modernism in the Hamptons and Manhattan has been the recipient of numerous design awards since 2003.
At Tessa, where the design vibe is urban industrial, black iron subway (or security) gates adorn the ceiling and bar and also serve as lighting fixtures. A polished wood horseshoe bar is surrounded by wood-and-metal high-backed stools, which makes for a pleasant perch when dining alone or sipping a signature cocktail such as a smoky mezcal Fig Fashioned, with agave and orange. (Imagine a smoldering fire on a cool desert night: warm and comforting.)
Owned by Will Tracy and Larry Bellone, Tessa benefits from Tracy’s years as a New York restaurateur — and the unfailing hospitality of Patrick Duxbury and Eldric Bashful, two gentlemen who wander the house like the convivial hosts of a private dining club. The 65-seat dining room, which adjoins a private dining room and wine pantry, is accented with rough-hewn wood and brick walls and a wall-length banquette and metal chairs.
Executive Chef Eric Cope appreciates the pedigree of Mediterranean cuisine with a menu that includes mezze and charcuterie. An appetizer called Drunken Mussels was an evocative amalgam of Marseille, Mexico, and Malaysia with the addition of kaffir (or makrut) lime leaf, cilantro and tequila. Once the Hollander mussels were consumed, the tomato-infused broth was as delicious as Pierre Franey’s “billi bi,” the fabled mussel soup that originated at Maxim’s in Paris.
A wunderkind with experience in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud, Cope has been a part of Tessa since its opening. His octopus a la plancha, accompanied by squash caponata, green olive tapenade, and an herb salad, nods to the best of Provencal cuisine, while a perfectly-seared tuna entrée special is served with oven-roasted tomatoes. A filet of branzino sandwiched by fingerling potatoes and broccoli rabe furthers the Mediterranean reverie—and for a few bites, I’m returned to the Mediterranean fishing village of Sète just outside of Montpellier.
For dessert, Pastry Chef Yarisis Jacobo (formerly of Sorella and The Lion) offers both glazed and vanilla cream bomboloni, served with an equally addictive pear jam—yet the revelation at the end of the evening is Jacobo’s vanilla cheesecake. You might think you know cheesecake, and especially if you’re a New Yorker, but then there’s Jacobo’s version served with carrot cake crumbles and roasted pineapple curd and pomegranate kernels, topped with microgreens. The explosion of flavor, underscored by the savory of the greens, evokes the bounty of an autumnal greenmarket
In clement weather, a sidewalk café beckons to passersby—but for now, the party at Tessa is happening inside. Named for Bellone’s daughter, Tessa does its namesake proud while recalling a halcyon era on the Upper West Side.