Asking Carlos Baz and Michael Reynolds (known simply as Reynolds) about how they met is like asking an engaged couple to tell you their story of courtship. There’s the eagerness to share, the rapid exchange of finishing each other’s sentences, the knowing looks and sideways glances. They are as close as business partners can be because their friendship is as strong as they come.
“We met when Reynolds was running the bar at Black Market on 7th Street. One of my best friends introduced us. We were pleasant and cordial and then I made a dick joke and he laughed,” says Carlos. “I was like, ‘He’s just like me!’” They’ve been best friends ever since.
That was five years ago. Today, the two own and operate Black Crescent alongside their third partner, Richard Martin of Wild Edibles. They have an impressive 55 years of combined experience in the restaurant industry and have done everything from waiting tables and bartending to cooking and managing. “A bar was the logical course for us. When you spend this much time in the industry, you either move up or you’re an actor,” says Carlos.
Before settling in New York six years ago, Reynolds was traveling the country in an airstream for a year and a half. “New York was just a stop along the way but then I stuck. Or it stuck on me,” he says. Since then he’s made a name for himself bartending at popular places like The McKittrick Hotel and Momofuku’s Booker and Dax. “I just hopped around so I could learn things from everyone and every bar.”
Carlos studied writing and literature in Connecticut and figured it was either “Go home to Florida where there’s no publishing or come to New York where there’s plenty of publishing.” He spent the whole of his eight years working at and managing parts of Richard’s Wild Edibles business. He still writes frequently and is finishing a novel.
Stepping into Black Crescent feels a bit like a homecoming. The custom wood walls, high top tables and spotlit bar make for an inviting atmosphere that feels familiar even if it’s your first time. That warmth and polish is the melding of both Carlos and Reynolds’ inviting personalities. They’ll welcome you loudly, pour you a stiff drink and banter with you like old friends. In New York, that brand of hospitality will go pretty far — even further than a dick joke.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI
How would you describe Black Crescent in a nutshell? What kind of a bar are you?
Reynolds: We’re a bar that does amazing food and mediocre drinks.
Carlos: I thought it was the bartenders that were mediocre? No, it was “rude.” That’s a quote from a Yelp review.
R: We’re a bar that does good drinks and great food and we want to be a neighborhood spot.
C: We’re just a bar. We’re not an oak cocktail bar where you come in and watch somebody stir a drink for fifteen minutes. Not to say that there aren’t times for those kinds of bars — I’m glad they’re there because they’re fun to go to — but that’s not us. It’s not the game we’re trying to play, especially in this neighborhood. We just want to be a good neighborhood hangout. We’re doing really killer cocktails and we have a fun beer and wine list and that’s that. The product we’re putting over the bar matches the space in that it’s fun and no frills. It’s delicious and that’s it.
When and how did the idea for Black Crescent originate? Has it evolved over time?
C: Our partner Richard Martin is the president of Wild Edibles. I ran his restaurant for seven years and that’s how Richard and I met. Reynolds worked with us too. We talked about doing something together for a couple of years and then finally got serious in July 2012 when we started putting all the pieces together and coming up with the concept. Fast forward 18 months and we were open. It’s a pretty short timeline for this sort of thing.
R: When we first opened we wanted to be a raw bar with oysters, crudos and ceviches. We did that for the first two and a half months. We got more and more feedback from customers and neighborhood people who said they wanted to eat heartier dishes and hang out longer. So our chef, Dustin Everett, switched it up and introduced more New Orleans influenced food. Now we’ve hit our stride. Our menu is where it’s supposed to be and it’ll stay that way, save for seasonal changes. The spirit, wine and beer programs have stayed the same. All the cocktails are seasonal and change four times a year. We already have a rolodex with 25 original cocktails.
What do you like about the restaurant industry?
We get to meet a lot of different people all the time. We have plenty of friends who work office jobs and see the same people everyday. But we get to meet strangers and throw parties.
There’s not a whole lot of pretense involved. Everyone’s kind of the same, whether you’re a CEO or some asshole off the street. You’re all here to have a drink and have a good time.
It’s a dynamic industry that changes day to day, even hour to hour. From 6pm to 10pm you can come in and have a meal, and after 10pm you might just end up dancing on the bar.
This space belonged to a staple neighborhood restaurant for several years, Alias. What was involved in finding and leasing this space?
C: One of our servers at Wild Edibles did real estate on the side and was helping us look for spots. We wanted to be in the Lower East Side or the East Village from the get-go. They’re fun neighborhoods that fit with our personalities. We both live here and it’s what we know. We were looking at Verso on 8th Street and Avenue C, but then Hurricane Sandy hit and Avenue C got blown out.
R: It’s actually for the better because that block is so saturated. We lucked out by being the only spot down here for a little while. A lot of people thought it was a sad story that Alias was closing, but it wasn’t at all. The two sisters that ran it were retiring; they had restaurants around here for 20 years. Now they’re traveling around and having fun. We bought out the remaining nine years on their ten-year lease.
Can you explain the process of obtaining a liquor license in New York City and the role community boards play?
C: Have you ever been to the circus? Watch the part where they make the lions jump through all the hoops. It’s similar to that. The community board makes you jump through a lot of red tape to prove yourself as a business owner. For us, it was good because they got what we were doing. Richard’s owned businesses all over New York for 25 years. Reynolds and I have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. We weren’t trying to do anything weird and that’s exactly what we said in our meeting with them. Everyone was pretty receptive. As I understand it, the state follows the community board’s recommendation. The New York State Liquor Authority issues the actual liquor license.
R: The community boards do a good job of making sure the right kinds of places are going into certain neighborhoods. They protect the community and the majority of people on the board are members within that community. This is one of the more difficult ones because this area has one of the highest percentage of bars per capita in the world.
Opening a bar in New York can be extremely expensive. How did you find funding and how much did you need to open?
C: We were lucky in that Richard is our partner. His business with Wild Edibles generates a huge amount of money and because he’s been in business for so long, he’s got investors that he works with that were more than willing to get in with us once they met Reynolds and me. But the money in this industry is a nightmare. Nobody makes money inside of two years unless they’re really, really good. And even then, you’re kind of like well, we spent all this already. It’s an uphill battle for a long time. But good concept — and proof of that concept — goes a long way.
R: New York City is one of the worst places to do it because it’s so fucking expensive. But that being said, it’s still fun to try and fight that uphill battle. Usually restaurants and bars don’t make money in their first year and a half, almost two years. But we turned that corner. We’re no longer in the red, we’re in the black.
C: So let’s just say for a little less than one million dollars, you too can own your own 35-seat bar on the Lower East Side!
How does your partnership breakdown? Do each of you have defined roles or do your responsibilities overlap?
C: When we originally sat down and talked about it, the deal was Reynolds and I would be here making sure costs and operations were running smoothly and Richard would handle our support system. He does all the back-office operations like payroll and accounting and we’re more up-front operators. We’re the ones charging the beachheads and he’s in the boat on the megaphone telling us “Don’t spend too many bullets because bullets are expensive!”
R: He’s very laid back when it comes to letting us do what we need to do, but when it comes down to numbers it’s understandably different. Carlos and I have defined roles but most of them are shared. We both deal with staff issues; we both stock the liquor, wine and beer; we try to keep our hands out of the kitchen as much as possible except for when we’re needed; we both promote the space. But there are things that Carlos is better at than I am, like wine. I used to be better at making cocktails, but now he’s become better than me.
C: It’s the moustache.
a winter cocktail to end all winter cocktails
The Lower East Side has long been inundated with places to drink — bars, clubs, lounges, restaurants. What sets you apart from the rest?
C: I don’t think it’s so much a question of being set apart as much as it’s a question of being another piece of the puzzle. New York is one of the biggest cities on the planet, but the restaurant industry is a small world. Everybody knows everybody, especially in the quality places. To say “set apart” isn’t accurate because you don’t want to put yourself in a place of competition; you want to be buddies. It’s more about where we fit in. Our friends around the corner at One Fifty One have a slick, cocktail lounge thing going; Nitecap is more of a speakeasy party bar; Donnybrook is a sports bar. There’s plenty of room for everybody. What makes good bars and restaurants stand above the mediocrity is being who you are. You just have to be yourself. If we were trying to work around an idea of what we think we should be instead of what we are, it wouldn’t work.
In the last year, Clinton Street has become a go-to destination for restaurants. What do you think about this and how has it affected your business in particular?
C: We’re like the waiting room for a lot of the restaurants on the block. If Pig and Khao isn’t ready for reservations, they send ‘em here. Same with Sushi Ko and Yunnan Kitchen. Even though we’re not quite a year in, a lot has opened within that year: Ivan Ramen, Thelma, Seoul Chicken, One Fifty One, Nitecap. It’s awesome. Everybody helps each other out. There’s a lot of back and forth. Our ice machine breaks, we borrow from WD-50. They run out of oysters, they come to us. Sushi Ko needs fluke, we have fluke for them. We need sake, we get it from them. We need KFC, we go to Seoul Kitchen.
R: You can feel the divide between the east and west side of Essex Street. This side is a little calmer. You can still have a drink and hear the person next to you, which is a big deal for a lot of the people that come in here. They’re neighborhood people on their way home. We’re their last stop.
What did you learn your first year in business? What are your plans for the future?
C: I learned I can’t wear denim to work. I ran around so much here that I blew out the crotch on three pairs of jeans in the first two months. So I just gave ‘em up. Now I wear slacks and those have been holding up. Aside from that, I’d say separating life and work is important. I’m not around on my days off because I have to have the separation. I learned that from being at Wild Edibles a lot.
R: I’m more stern with people in terms of letting them know what I need and want, and also what I want them to do or not do in business. During the opening process we were dealing with all these different companies and suppliers and contractors. We played foreman and it was interesting to see how our authority stood up. That was a cool learning experience and what I’m looking forward to most for the next spot. We’re moving forward really quickly, especially now. All three of us are very interested in doing more bars. So we’ll talk about making babies. It’s either that or go back to acting.
Any advice to future bar owners who are doing it for the first time?
R: Don’t think you’re always right.
C: The biggest piece of advice is to do the homework and know your shit. You gotta know your shit and you gotta care. You gotta dial in. Part of the reason we’re successful is because we’re both in it everyday. You gotta be in it and know what you’re doing. You have to live it. A dishwasher has a better idea of how a restaurant works than a guy who thinks he can open a restaurant just because he makes good chicken parm on Christmas Eve. If you haven’t done it, research it. Figure it out. It’s like anything else — you can’t just say “I’m going to be a doctor” or “I’m going to be a lawyer” or “I’m going to be a truck driver” and be one. If you don’t know how to drive a truck, you’re gonna fucking crash into Tracy Morgan.
Suggestions from the Black Crescent Boys
Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London, England: Penguin Books, 2012.
Stewart, Amy. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks. New York, NY: Workman Publishing, 2013.
Vaynerchuk, Gary. Wine Library TV. www.tv.winelibrary.com.
More on Black Crescent
Alexander, Kevin and Liz Childers. “The 21 Best New Bars in America, 2014” www.thrillist.com. November 23, 2014.
Tallarico, Nicola. “Oysters, Cocktails and Wine… Oh My!” www.bottomlesspitnyc.com. November 21, 2013.
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