You may have seen his dry, clever cartoons in the New Yorker. You may remember him charming customers during his days as the barkeep for the famed Union Square Cafe. Or you might just know him as one of the masterminds behind 8th Street Winecellar, a driving force in the revitalization of a once-lonely Greenwich Village block. His name is Jonny Cohen. He sat down with us and effortlessly told his inspiring story of finding his passions, running one of the Village’s most popular wine bars, and bringing 8th street back to life.
Originally from Boston, he remained in his home city for college and managed to earn a rigorous dual degree in microeconomics and social psychology. Jonny always loved the arts and desired to be an actor, ultimately taking his aspirations to New York where his older brother worked in advertising as a writer. He spent some of his time acting, some of it working in restaurants, and soon enrolled in the New York School for Visual Arts to hone in on each of his artistic skills. This is where he found a passion for cartooning, combining his love for crafting poignant dialogue and drawing meaningful visuals.
Despite his passion for the arts, Jonny fell further into the restaurant industry when he began working at the acclaimed Union Square Cafe. He ascended from waiter to bartender to director of their wine program, finding himself on this rising star journey with fellow waiter and bartender Michael Lagnese. Michael would always attempt to persuade Jonny that they should go out on their own and start a restaurant or bar together, and for quite a while to no avail. When Jonny finally budged, they began another journey: their quest to find the perfect space in Greenwich Village.
With vacant storefronts from end to end, their realtor brought them to West 8th Street. There were no restaurants, no bars, few stores, yet there was still something lovely about the street. As they viewed various spaces, none of them seemed quite right. Walking further West on the street, they passed by a space below street level with a big for sale sign. While the realtor kept walking without a second glance, Jonny and Michael pressed their noses up against the glass and asked to see the space. After many objections by the realtor, they insisted and were finally let in to view it. The space was in need of some serious work, but they thought it would be perfect for a wine bar.
They took a serious chance on 8th Street and immediately got to work, building every bit of the bar themselves: laying the brick in the walls, cutting wood for the tables, and so on. They take pride in their work, even feeling possessive over the brick work and effortless style of the beautiful space they created. Opening in 2007, 8th Street Winecellar became the only bar or restaurant on the entire block, yet had faith in the fact that it would get business due to its location in between all the train lines in the area. Local 8th Street residents became regulars who supported the bar, and Jonny and Michael were able to lean on their close former colleagues from the Union Square Hospitality Group. Though 8th Street was still seedy and not well-lit, business began to grow and grow. As Jonny slyly said, “people put on their brave pants when they want a drink.”
In just a few short years, 8th Street was on the up-and-up again. After Jonny and Michael came French wine bar and cafe Amelie, followed by others like Rasa and the Marlton Hotel. This rising domino effect brought more and more successful bars and restaurants to 8th Street, from high-end sushi and authentic Italian paninis to craft beer and fried chicken fingers. As Jonny took us on a verbal tour of 8th Street, he explained that though multiple bars or restaurants might serve the same type of food, drink, or sweet, each unique establishment has their own style. These businesses might not be the mom and pop shops from years past, but the individual entrepreneurs of West 8th have made certain that nothing is repeated in the same way. It’s this high-quality combined with originality that makes today’s vibrant strip so special.
8th Street Winecellar’s globally-sourced wine list and carefully curated cocktails draws in a crowd of mostly women, local residents, and even families with its cozy yet classy atmosphere. Their rotating wine list and genuine affordability keeps people coming back for more. Amazingly, 8th Street Winecellar is the only bar on the block with a license to stay open until 4 a.m. For years you could find Jonny closing up in those early morning hours. Now, he’s able to spend time with his beautiful wife and 5 year old child, trusting his fun and knowledgable staff with his real first child! Between selecting wines and spending time with his family he doesn’t have much time for cartooning, but you can still spot his clever artistic creations on the walls of 8th Street Winecellar’s restroom.
With the immense support of the neighborhood and street, Jonny and Michael are celebrating the incredible 10 year anniversary of their beloved bar. They are believed by all to be the ‘pioneers’ of 8th Street and its growing success. Each day they’re open, more history is being made. They are the true survivors of 8th Street’s ups and downs, and we look forward to many more wonderful years of wines, community, and West 8th memories.