Review: Contento considers accessibility a right

As I write the restaurant review each week, I call an owner to ask if someone in a wheelchair could enter the dining room and enjoy a me...


As I write the restaurant review each week, I call an owner to ask if someone in a wheelchair could enter the dining room and enjoy a meal. By this time, I had already eaten there and spent a few minutes looking for things that might make a space inaccessible, like steps, narrow passages and small toilets.

When I drop the exam, I will summarize the minor obstacles (“A short step from the sidewalk can be overcome by a mobile ramp”). If the obstacles are major, as is sometimes the case in a city full of old buildings, narrow and difficult to modify, I will write that the restaurant is not accessible.

Night after night, I see restaurants that are theoretically wheelchair accessible. What I rarely see are wheelchairs. And I’m ashamed to admit I never thought about it until my first meal at a new restaurant in East Harlem called Contents. Two of its owners use wheelchairs, and they designed Contento to make them and others like them as comfortable as possible.

The word went around. The first time I ate there, I pulled up right behind a diner in a motorized chair. She maneuvered into a location on one end of the bar that was lower than the rest – the height of the wheelchair. The next time I was there a customer at the bar was in the company of a guide dog, another thing I hardly ever see in restaurants.

Contento obviously does something that most other places don’t. To get a taste of what it was like, I brought in a guest guest, Beth Wiesner, a pharmaceutical advertising editor who rides in a lightweight, rigid-frame manual chair. That night and in a subsequent phone call, she pointed out all the things she had noticed that were out of the ordinary: the smooth concrete path from the sidewalk to the front door; the location and height of tables and bar tops; and a dozen other things that got him through the meal unaided.

“I am amazed at the accessibility of this place,” she said the next day.

Listing all the ways in which Contento welcomes people with various disabilities, not just wheelchair users, will make the place look like some sort of accessibility theme park. But above all it is a very nice place to have dinner and a few glasses of wine.

The wine list alone, filled with bottles under $ 60, should make Contento stand out well outside of East Harlem. This is the project of Yannick Benjamin, one of the owners, who has obviously made efforts to find wines that will allow his guests to discover fresh territory. One section is taken from former wine centers where Odysseus and his crew could have drunk – Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, West Bank and Georgia.

Another is devoted to the states of the east coast; it has bottles from Long Island and the Finger Lakes, as you would expect, but also from Maryland and Virginia, whose wines have been largely overlooked by buyers in New York. A third, “Wines of Impact,” focuses on Black and Native owned wineries and those with some sort of social mission; this is where you will find Licataa, the Lambrusco produced by Raekwon the Chief, of the Wu-Tang Clan.

You can see “Wines of Impact” as another example of how the New York restaurant industry has become more racially sensitive over the past couple of years. It’s also a great way to operate in a neighborhood where more than three-quarters of residents are black or Hispanic. Contento has several bilingual servers and owners; sometimes you hear more Spanish than English in the dining room. There is often Latin jazz, boogaloo and salsa in the background. And why wouldn’t there be in a restaurant around the corner of the building where Tito Puente was born?

This is not usually how restaurants offering $ 30 main courses make their entry into neighborhoods where gentrification is on the move. Normally everyone who works in the area looks and sounds (and costs) like new people moving to the area. Even though the waiters beckon from the entrance, the former residents stay away. They can tell that they are not the intended audience, as people in wheelchairs can do when they see tables and chairs stuck together with not enough space between them for a ferret well oiled can squeeze in.

If the neighbors have such doubts about Contento, they can be dispelled by seeing George Gallego, one of the owners, who grew up in the neighborhood. And people with disabilities can be reassured when they see him or Mr. Benjamin moving freely from one end of the dining room to the other. Both men use wheelchairs, and Mr. Benjamin had a carpenter friend build a wooden tray for his chair, with slits for stemmed glasses and holes for bottles to make settling and pouring easier.

Contento can be a wine bar or a full restaurant, depending on what you want. If you only have one drink, you can get away with snacks such as the spicy stuffed eggs (the heat comes from the Peruvian yellow chili, ají amarillo, which is effectively camouflaged by the yolks) or the stack of golden panisses. intended to be passed in a green dip called uchucuta, flavored with mint and pulsed with rocoto peppers.

The chef is Oscar Lorenzzi, and although there are traces all over the menu of French restaurants where he has spent much of his career in New York, his education in Peru makes Contento much more interesting than the wine bar. Middle French.

Her classic local moat ceviche is confident and powerful. The tiradito he makes with raw salmon can be even more exciting, if only because the dish is less likely to be done well in New York City. Reflecting Peruvian Japanese influence, a Berkshire pork cutlet, fried katsu-style and stacked alongside grated daikon and an aioli dish topped with yuzu kosho.

My guest, Mrs Wiesner, was attentive to the little details, from the deep flavor of unshelled black barley served with well-seared salmon à la Salt-N-Pepa salt and pepper shakers.

I also learned by watching her navigate through space. The night was comfortably warm and the front door had been kept open, allowing Mrs. Wiesner to climb the slight incline from the sidewalk to the threshold and into the dining room all at once without assistance.

She couldn’t have done this, she explained, if the restaurant had a heavy swinging door or a step from the sidewalk. “I don’t want to have to be lifted and taken a step,” she said. “I want to be able to go in and out on my own.

She did not need any help getting a seat at one of the tables designed to allow a wheelchair to pass below the surface, or getting in and out of the washroom, at the end of a wide track between the bar. and a row of tables. The toilet itself, she said “a dream,” with several grab bars and a touchless sink, soap and towel dispenser.

Ms. Wiesner cannot take anything for granted. “Ninety-nine percent of restaurants can say they’re accessible, but they’re not,” she said.

When considering trying a new restaurant, she should call ahead with a list of specific questions about the layout. If she doesn’t and can find a dining room that doesn’t take her needs into account, she will leave (“It’s so hard to do”) and retire to one of her usual places.

Restaurants in buildings constructed over the past 30 years tend to have entrances and washrooms that conform to standards. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Even so, they can jam seats too tightly, not leave a clear path to the washroom, or provide no wheelchair-level dining surface – a common mistake at more expensive sushi bars and tasting counters.

In older buildings, fittings are often worse. The ADA requires owners to remove barriers to the use of wheelchairs when this is “easily practicable”. This exception explains why diners in New York City can still find toilets the size of a broom closet, hallways as wide as a goat path, and full steps or stairs in the most awkward places.

Getting rid of these obstacles may not be “easily doable” for a typical new restaurant, watching every dollar, hoping for full tables on the first night. But too many places in New York City let the pre-existing conditions of their space determine who gets to eat there. And too many homeowners treat the ADA like it’s a building code.

It’s not. It is a civil rights law.

Contento suggests what different dining rooms might look like if all restaurateurs saw accessibility as a right rather than a business decision. Mr. Benjamin and his partners share a vision of hospitality that seems radically new but is actually quite simple: to make it easy for people to walk through the front door and enjoy their time inside, that they arrive in wheelchairs, with the help of a guide dog or without any assistance. Anyone who owns or designs restaurants, especially in New York City, should spend a night there to see what it looks like when a restaurant goes out of its way for patrons who often feel unwelcome or unwanted.

Before leaving Contento, Mrs. Wiesner made a small observation to Mr. Benjamin. “The grab bars in the toilets…” she began.

“Too hot?” asked Mr. Benjamin.

He guessed it. Votive candles in honor of Antoine Bourdain burned on the tiled floor directly under one of the metal bars, and the flames made the metal uncomfortable to the touch.

A few minutes later, they had been moved to a safer location.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: Contento considers accessibility a right
Review: Contento considers accessibility a right
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