Let the Sun Shine In
Sometimes a good face-lift makes all the difference in the world, for movie stars and coffeehouses. That’s how I feel about the 60-day-old Room 39, where the owners have turned the dingy space formerly occupied by Muddy’s at 1719 West 39th Street into a sunny and inviting dining room with a sophisticated menu and custom-blended java. The contrast between the two venues is downright shocking to some, including my friend Cynthia, who lives in the neighborhood and frequents several of 39th Street’s more well-worn bars and restaurants. For her, Room 39 is almost “too bright and cheery” for 39th Street.
I love the change, however, because I prefer happy endings. It’s as dramatic a transition as the moment in the Bette Davis movie Now, Voyager when the frumpy and unattractive Charlotte Vale reappears as a chic glamour girl. The food is as tasty as the interior is tasteful, as I discovered one afternoon over a cup of the best clam chowder in town and a thick, juicy $8 hamburger sided with a mountain of crisp french fries.
The story behind the coffeehouse even has a cinematic spin: Two good-looking local chefs, Ted Habiger and Andrew Sloan, were on their way to sign a lease for a space in the City Market when they both agreed it just didn’t feel right, Habiger says. They needed a perfect setting for their coffeehouse concept: a breakfast and lunch spot that served traditional coffee drinks but with the primary focus on the food rather than the brew.
The business partners got help in their quest from a former employer, restaurateur-turned-real-estate-broker Steve Cole, who had owned Café Allegro, the legendary 39th Street restaurant where both Habiger and Sloan once worked as cooks. Cole showed them the Muddy’s space; many months later, with a lot of money and hard work (and some decorating cues from Habiger’s wife, Jackie), the frumpy and unattractive storefront was reborn as a dining room with warm yellow paint, red-oak floors, sleek tables with linen napkins, baskets of fresh bread with real butter, and a waiter who looks just like Scrubs and Garden State actor Zach Braff.
They gave the place a generic name, Room 39, because they’re open at night only for private events, Habiger says. They serve glam breakfasts and lunches every day except Sunday, and they’re thinking of going for the Sunday-morning crowd in the spring. “We see how busy Bell Street Mama’s can be on Sundays,” Habiger says, “and we wouldn’t mind having that problem. “