Mott Haven’s pioneer of gentrification makes no apologies

Part restaurant, part art gallery and part karaoke spot, the Bruckner Bar and Grill is a hang out for local artists.

Bruckner Bar and Grill lures artists and the coat and tie crowd

By Lindsay Lazarski
[email protected]

When people compare Mott Haven to Williamsburg or call it “SoBro” or otherwise tab it as the next up-and coming-place to live, they almost always follow by mentioning the bars where artist and yuppies congregate. There is G-Bar on the Concourse, Alexander’s Café south of the Major Deegan Expressway, and tucked below two overpasses that merge onto the Third Avenue Bridge, the pioneer of them all, the Bruckner Bar and Grill.

Part restaurant, part art gallery and part karaoke spot, the Bruckner Bar and Grill which opened 10 years ago, has become a hangout for local artists, city workers, and young professionals in business suits and heels on their lunch break and after work.

A glass garage door that opens during the summer and a woodstove that burns in the winter keeps patrons cozy as they sit at mismatched tables on mismatched chairs and survey the latest art on the walls. With the hum of Coldplay in the background, customers order grilled salmon with mixed greens or the Mediterranean platter with eggplant salsa and Israeli salad. Dressing comes on the side.

At the bar, European soccer plays on one of the televisions and Sports Center plays on the other.  A friendly blue-eyed bartender in a t-shirt that reads “Bronx” greets each guest by yelping hello from across the restaurant as he wipes the wood counter or pulls from one of the six beers on tap.

“If it feels like downtown, then I accomplished my mission,” says owner Alex Abeles, who plans to expand the restaurant to include an outdoor seating café during weekend brunch.

At the cost of $10 for a specialty cocktail and the “downtown-like” atmosphere, the Bruckner Bar and Grill represents change and gentrification in Mott Haven.

“It used to be a real drug-infested area,” said Christopher Garcia, who has worked at the air-conditioning company next to the Bruckner for seven years.

“You would have homeless people sleeping under the bridge and a lot of drugs and prostitution going on,” Garcia said.  Now, he says, the area has been cleaned up dramatically.

But with a “for sale,” “for rent” or “for lease” sign affixed to the outside of nearly every building in a three-block radius, the Bruckner Bar and Grill remains a lonely outpost, in its own isolated corner, disconnected from the larger part of the community.

Its menu and its prices make add to the feeling.

The Bruckner charges $10 for a salad, while at La Familia, a Latin restaurant down the block, $6 buys a plate piled high with homemade stewed chicken and mashed potatoes, but customers and the bar’s owner say the prices make sense.

“It’s different from what’s usually in the area,” said James Skinner, a first timer at the Bruckner who grew up in the Bronx. “This is the South Bronx: there is a lot of ethnic cuisine, Latin, Caribbean, African-American cuisine. Traditionally, you would have to go into the city to go to a bar like this.”

Abeles, who formerly managed, the Coffee Shop, a restaurant in Union Square, does not apologize for the “downtown” atmosphere or the downtown prices.

He said he took a huge risk in 2006 by investing in a place with zero foot traffic. He needed to make many changes to attract the professional crowd from the Bronx Courthouse and Lincoln Hospital, he added.

He started with a fresh coat of paint on the walls and improved service, and added more options to the menu than just a burger.  The original owners “brought in the wrong crowd,” he said.

“We raised prices, not Manhattan high, but out of certain people’s price ranges.  We lost a lot of the crowd – troublemakers, but it was replaced by other people,” said Abeles.

“Its nice to see that most of the tables are filled,” said William Jordan, a physician who was coming from a friend’s gallery exhibition.  But he added, “It’s hard for me to say how many of the people who are eating at these tables here actually live in the numerous housing projects that are within a few blocks of here.”

Steven Gallegos, a regular who owns Sobro Studios, a recording and rehearsal space for bands a few doors away from the Bruckner Bar and Grill, eats at the restaurant three to four times a week. Gallegos, a New Rochelle resident, said he was first attracted to the industrial feel of the neighborhood and patronizes the Bruckner because of the family atmosphere.

“SoHo gets a name, NoHo gets a name, why not here?” asked Gallegos. “Things have to change at some point. But I would hate to see this place turn into condos and high rises.”