By Chris Mohney
Maneesh Goyal grew up in Dallas, where his father owned a restaurant. Goyal eventually moved to New York, founding a successful marketing company. In 2021, he opened Sona, an elevated Indian restaurant in the Flatiron neighborhood.
My dad left the restaurant business after nine years. I don’t know that I would have hit “go” on opening a restaurant myself without those nine years of my life, which left an indelible mark. So in some ways, this felt like it was bigger than a professional aspiration. This was a continuation of my family’s immigrant story. Even though I was born and raised in Dallas, in America, me getting this restaurant open was, for me, in my blood.
I’m an insatiable people person. I’m an extrovert. And as I became a New Yorker over the past 22 years, I would get asked this one question all the time. People were like, “Oh my God, you seem great, Maneesh. Nice to meet you. Where do you like to have Indian food?” When I got the question, I didn’t love that I didn’t have an answer. I was like, “I can tell you where to get Japanese food before I can tell you where to have Indian food.” So for me, it felt like it was a family story. But also the New Yorker in me wanted this restaurant to open.
It’s a Herculean task in general to be a restaurateur, and in New York City, even moreso. But then you throw COVID into it, because we broke ground on the space in January of 2020. It’s worth noting that I’d lost three spaces before that because landlords had a lot of power, especially because I was a first-time restaurateur. What landlord is going to take a risk on me? So I ended up on my dream block, but it was my fourth attempt at a location. Thankfully I broke through enough and we signed a lease, but it was ultimately untenable. Come the lockdown in March 2020, I had to spend months in serious, heated negotiations. We had to rethink every term we had signed.
Ultimately we made the case to the landlord that we didn’t have to open. But the landlord didn’t want to be yet another one of these empty storefronts. So let’s work towards a solution that works for all parties. Candidly, if we were fully built, it would have been harder. But because we were so new to our game, in some ways we stood on firmer ground. We did find our landlord to be very willing to talk. We both walked into it with the same goal, which is to say, “Let’s keep this alive.”
We really went back to the drawing board and said, “In what world could this exist?” Without going too much into specifics, we were able to renegotiate in totality so that it was more dependent on the success of the restaurant than it was on a hard and fast number. But ultimately it would kind of catch up to what an original lease might have looked like.
At the beginning of my journey as a restaurateur, a friend of mine, Ben Leventhal, said to me, “Nobody matters except your repeat diners.” I didn’t really get it then. Now I’m a year in, and I get it even more. At first, I was like, “Well, we’re full every night.” But now as the honeymoon has subsided, I see that he’s absolutely right in the sense that I’m learning how you build a loyal following. You’re always going to have people that come in and check you off a list. We especially will have those. But what about those that come back and want to have a relationship with the restaurant, and have a relationship with our team, and want to come in for our specials and our menu updates? That is in many respects the most important thing.
What I’m realizing is that it’s about freshness and giving people something that they want to try. Sona is the Hindi word for gold. So we’ve instituted a Monday to Friday “golden hour”—between 5 and 6:30pm, there are drink specials and food specials at the bar or in the front dining room. It’s a great place to meet people after work for drinks, for a conversation, and for a catch-up at a pre-dinner hang.
We just introduced lunch, as we really are bullish about businesses coming back to the office. It feels like people sometimes have a misconception about what Indian food is and how heavy it might be. So we’ve introduced a thali, which is basically an Indian version of a bento box, and it’s delicious and has a lot of customization. You can have rice or you can have no carbs. In terms of the lightness and the quickness of what lunch can be, it offers something different than just a traditional Caesar salad.
While there have been a lot of gay and queer and LGBT people employed by restaurants, when it comes to gay restauranteurs or executive chefs, the list isn’t as long as you might think. Oftentimes, it’s a business of white men, or white straight men, I should say. Because of that, our Saturday brunch is now hosted by drag queens. And it’s super fun and light and different and not overwhelming, but it’s just silly. It’s very New York. And it’s me stepping into the fact that I am gay and a very, very active member in the community, and very, very out. If there’s ever going to be an Indian restaurant that has a drag brunch, it should be this one. You’ve got Tribeca moms coming in with their kids who say things like, “It’s about time my kids met a drag queen.”
I’m turning what used to be my event marketing business into a hospitality company. So it’s Sona, but I’m also a partner in Temple Bar. And shortly I’m launching a line called Sona Home, which is inspired by the many people who have loved our plateware and our dishware.
We have been very deliberate about the experience at Sona because a lot of people have an idea about what India is, or even what an Indian restaurant is. My whole intention was to change that perception—not even change it, widen it. Our plates feature these beautiful palm trees. India is very tropical and has a big beach culture in South India, but people don’t think of it that way. I relentlessly searched for this plateware because I wasn’t happy with anything I saw. I just kept clicking on catalogs and showrooms and I finally found these plates that had never been used at a single restaurant in America because they were from a crockery house based in the UK. But then all of our linens that we’re going to be using and selling through Sona Home are all bespoke to us. We have a whole barware collection, et cetera. And a bunch of the product, of course, is the product we use in Sona itself, but then some of it is new.
When I think about Sona, I think about what goes into a great New York restaurant, like Balthazar and Indochine, which have multi-decade-long staying power. That’s almost unheard of in this industry. The reason is they’ve been very specific about their experience and very specific about their point of view of who they are as restaurants. You never mind when somebody suggests one of those restaurants. That’s hard to achieve, and I don’t pretend that it’s easy, but that’s certainly the goal.
Could Sona be one of New York’s great restaurants? Because when I think about New York’s great restaurants, there are some French restaurants and there are some Asian restaurants, but I don’t know if there are any Indian restaurants on that list.
What’s funny is that I never imagined Sona to have whie tablecloths. I thought we would use the tabletops because we had designed it with beautiful tabletops. But once we got in there and we opened the restaurant, we knew we needed to have tablecloths to elevate the vibe and the experience. We are not fine dining, but we are definitely elevated dining, and we are fun dining. That’s where the music, the art, the full experience kind of plays into it. We use vintage saris that we cut up as lampshades on the little lamps that are on each table. As opposed to being overwhelmed by the Indian-ness of it all, we’ve made a very nice, subtle nod to it.
New Yorkers really pick up on it. Others are probably still trying to figure it out because they might be looking for a more traditional Indian restaurant experience. Candidly, that’s been a little bit of a challenge for us. You can’t be everything to everybody, but how do you stay true to who you are and who you want to be? That has been a challenge when people come in with a certain expectation. Oftentimes your own family can be your harshest critic. We want to keep everybody happy, but keeping Indians happy might be the hardest thing to do.