12/10/2012 09:45:00 AM

First Look: Willow Road, Serving Cocktails and Small Plates in the Former John Dory Space

Will Malnati and Doug Jacob were getting sick of the focus on trendy, big-box dining in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, so the longtime friends - who met working in the restaurant industry - decided to open Willow Road, a new spot with a laid-back, down-to-earth vibe in the space that has been empty since the original incarnation of April Bloomfield's John Dory closed up shop.

“We wanted to create an approachable alternative to the bigger, more expensive restaurants,” said Malnati, a former EMM Group GM who grew up in the business (yes, he’s one of the Lou Malnati’s Malnatis from Chicago). “We wanted it to be a fun, cozy hideaway.”

Cozy it is, but it’s also buzzy. Within an hour of opening for the first time ever this past Friday night, the place had already begun to fill up with hip young things from nearby offices and galleries, to the point where it was hard to find a seat at the bar. We braved the hot happy hour to see what the new spot has to offer.

The Food: Executive chef Todd Macdonald (Clio in Boston) and chef de cuisine Grayson Schmitz (of Top Chef) have created a menu that’s “seasonal, rustic American, with lots of shareables,” Malnati said. Think a charming jar o’ pickles, a hunk of aged cheddar served with bread, duck confit salad with pickled cherries and chanterelle mushrooms, spiced lamb burgers and mussels a la plancha served with kumquat-drawn butter. One of the highlights is the “Willow’s Mac ’n Cheese,” a unique take on the classic dish made with sweet sausage, lemon, parsley and a healthy sprinkling of fennel pollen. Continuing the “approachable” theme, everything on the menu is under $30, with many smaller plates coming in under $15.

The Drinks: Mixologist Greg Seider created the cocktail programs at Minetta Tavern and Le Bernardin, and now he’s working his magic here, creating concoctions that are – as Malnati put it – “a step above the classics.” Case in point: the Japanese Old-Fashioned, made with Japanese whiskey.

The Look: Located in the old Nabisco Factory building, the restaurant pays homage to the history of the space (and the surrounding neighborhood) through its design. Subway-tiled walls, exposed brick and a poured-cement floor embedded with blue neon letters spelling out “Willow” create an urban look that’s complemented nicely by rustic elements like the reclaimed-wood bar, long communal table and wine cabinets covered in chicken wire. Perhaps the two most stunning design features, however, are the neon “Baked by Electricty” sign that hangs overhead (a witty appropriation of Triscuit’s original slogan) and the large, New Yorker-esque mural of Chelsea – complete with a cartoon fashionista carrying the newest Chanel bag – by artist James Gulliver Hancock.

The Music: “It’s rock ’n’ roll – classic rock ’n’ roll and modern rock ’n’ roll, but nothing trendy or hypnotic,” said Jacob. “We’re going to play music by artists like Jack White and The Kills, with some retro hip-hop mixed in when it gets later in the night.”

The Details: 85 Tenth Ave. (bet. 15th & 16th Sts.), 646-484-6566


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