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Melissa Rodriguez On Carving Out New Spaces From Old Places

Melissa Rodriguez is chef-owner at Mel’s, first of three venues inhabiting the space at 85 Tenth Avenue in New York—previously best known as Del Posto restaurant. Rodriguez was most recently the executive chef at Del Posto before it closed for good. She and her partners Jeff Katz (also a Del Posto alum) and James Kent acquired Del Posto, auctioned off its furnishings and equipment, and are transforming the space into three distinct new venues. After Mel’s, fine dining Italian restaurant Al Coro is set to open in spring 2022. A cocktail bar, Discolo, will follow sometime afterward.

Auctioning off everything from Del Posto was really hard, I’m not going to lie. There were many, many things that you end up collecting through the years that were not only nostalgic, but, from a monetary standpoint, we were like, “Oh man, we spent so much money on those. I hate to get rid of them.” There was a very harsh moment weeding through what we knew we needed to keep, and what we knew we shouldn’t keep.

My partner Jeff Katz was like, “No, we can’t get rid of that.” All of a sudden a switch flipped and he couldn’t get rid of anything because everything was a very special memory for him. It was very sweet, but it was hard, and it was kind of cathartic at the same time. It felt good to make a clean break. It was time for a change.

When you work in a space, and you aren’t the person who has the final word on how things get to happen or what happens within the space, or how it functions and what the expectation is—at some point you just feel like, “Well, I’m the one who’s here.” You start to see all the things you want to change. We’ve been in this space, we know what the faults are, we understand the things that need to be adjusted, we understand the things that we can push to do, and we understand the constraints.

The dining room at Mel’s. Photo: Emily Schindler.

But the new restaurant needed to feel like a new space. I didn’t want to walk in and feel like, “Oh, this is Del Posto and it got a paint job.” It needs to have a new identity because it is a new restaurant with new ownership. I want to be able to start with that clean slate. I don’t want to be constantly spoken about only because of Del Posto. I needed a forward-looking staff as well, so curating that through the spaces, and the way that they behave, and the way that they look became a big priority.

We looked at the areas we saw as dead space, or unused space, or space that could be delegated differently. For example, the staircase in the center of Del Posto was very beautiful, and it was a special moment when you walked into the restaurant, but it was also very definitive for the Del Posto experience. We needed to change the way you feel when you walk in the door, so changing that staircase felt very necessary. There was also this huge pool of dead space because the landing of the staircase had this very odd, round railing that covered a hole in the floor that went way down to the lower level. We used to close it up and put a Christmas tree in it during Christmastime.

We’re a big restaurant. We have big parties. Having a 10- or 12-top arrive at the restaurant is very normal. But having somewhere for them to wait or have a drink before they sit down at their table was almost impossible at Del Posto. Our bar and lounge area was pretty tight because we did a full dinner service at the bar. So removing the staircase freed up dead space that no one even knew existed.

A lot of people may be like, “It’s a beautiful marble staircase. Why would you tear that out?” But it just gave us this entire lounge area that’s now also very beautiful, makes a lot of sense, and has so much potential. I’m actually really excited about this little space, mainly because it sits below where we’ll be having live music every night. We used to always have a live piano, which I loved. We used to have a band on New Year’s Eve too, and it made the room feel really awesome. This whole new area sits below where the music entertainment will be. It’s this nice seating area where you can enjoy a cocktail or wait for the rest of your guests to arrive.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

We’ve definitely changed compensation and benefits for staff as a result of the pandemic. But even previous to closing Del Posto, we weren’t operating in a way that everyone was working 60 to 80 hours a week. Everyone was working a reasonable amount of time—a regular schedule of five days, or sometimes even four, and regular, consistent days off. That’s something we just keep applying. Everyone works 40 to 50 hours, nothing more, because having a work-life balance in place is something we’ve been putting an effort towards over the past few years, regardless of the pandemic. And the way we hire people has changed. There’s a lot more energy put towards having the right people—the people who want to be here—and trying to get a broader spectrum.

Mel’s came about because we talk a lot about how we eat, what we eat, and where we eat out on our days off. To be very honest, I’m not dining at an Al Coro once a week on my night off. It’s just not realistic for myself. Looking around at what’s happening over on our side of the city along Tenth Avenue, there’s just not a whole lot over here at all. We were talking about reaching a broader spectrum of people, developing a restaurant that made sense for the neighborhood as a more regular dining experience rather than this very celebratory occasion. What we were doing felt very fun and made us more accessible. Ultimately, I just wanted this to be a restaurant that I would want to eat at on my night off.

Turning the space into more than one restaurant was something we had toyed around with previous to even closing De Posto. This space that we took over has been two or three things in the past 12 years, and none of them were around for very long. The space is so unsupported—there’s no storage. You had to walk out the front of the restaurant, into the front entrance of the main building, and go downstairs to the basement to get to your storage space. There was no prep kitchen. We realized all that many years ago.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

During the holiday season, we would rent space from the building and use it as a private dining room extension of Del Posto, which was great. We could do a party of 40. It was a good outlet for us during the month of December, when most of our party rooms were booked on a regular basis. We were like, what would we want to do in that space? What do you think would work there? We always spoke about pizza because everyone loves pizza. I love pizza!

We tried speaking to some of our friends about taking over the other space, and we would somehow figure out how to connect the restaurants and make our prep spaces available. That didn’t really work out for Del Posto. When this new arrangement kept moving forward, that conversation came back up. We thought doing pizza would be a very fun and cool thing to experiment with. It was totally against the grain of what I’ve been doing. And it’s being received well, which is really great.

When it comes to Al Coro, I want to change the dining service, definitely. I love fine dining, and I’ve been doing fine dining for a very long time. But I do think that there are many updates that need to happen within that realm, and I don’t count us out of that. I want to modernize our offering and our service. I want it to feel a little more like a really awesome dinner party. Some of the food will be slightly communal. Some of it will be precious and plated and beautiful. Some of it we want you to feel like you’re eating with your family.

It’s funny, because there’s definitely a group of people that are really excited to be out and just want to be taken care of and pampered and feel like they’re having a special experience. And then there are those who are hesitant to go out and don’t want you to touch anything and are a little afraid. In New York right now, it feels like a lot of people are ready to be out. Even for myself, coming out of the pandemic and lockdown, I just want someone else to make me a drink or something to eat. I’m really over this.

But it’s made me appreciate how much creating a special experience for someone means. It’s important to me that the diner feels that, and that it’s mutual to a certain extent. We took those celebrations for granted until now.