When they arrived on the New York scene a decade ago, chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske, then just 28 and 23, represented a whole new style of New York restaurant. It was an affordable, no-frills tasting menu experience (just $55 for five courses back then) that appealed to a new generation of diners. Now, the duo believes the restaurant has run its course, the dining scene has changed, and they have new priorities as chefs, so they will close the Michelin-starred spot in October.
“Our type of dining has died out so much—that mid-section of trying to be fine dining but trying to be a little more casual,” von Hauske tells Robb Report. “Of our restaurants, Contra is the most personal and time consuming. I spent half of my youth chasing stars and chasing lists and it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t translate into a successful, sustainable business. You get older and want more of a sustainable business.”
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If they wanted to chase that second Michelin star or land themselves on World’s Best lists, the humble, narrow, Lower East Side space on Orchard St. was going to be a difficult place to do it. They’d need to move to a new location or do a dramatic remodel to the current space. If a remodel were what was needed, Stone and von Hauske figured they’d want to do something new. So the duo decided to hold onto their location but reimagine it as a more casual offering. They couldn’t share all the details now, but they hope to open that new concept later this year.
“New York dining is changing, and we’re trying to figure out where we fit in,” von Hauske says. “A lot of places are doing natural wine and small plates. We became part of the matrix.”
Last decade, the duo helped define the city’s dining scene, inspired by the dining they saw overseas. Stone, born and raised in Maryland, and von Hauske, a Mexico City native, had each decamped to Europe in the 2010s to build their culinary chops. Von Hauske explored the ascendant New Nordic scene at Fäviken and Noma, while Stone worked in Paris as the city’s influential bistronomy movement blossomed.
“It was an exciting time,” Stone said in 2018. “It returned to cooking very humbly and simply. A sauce may not have had all the little details like you would see in New York, but man, once you tasted it, it was mind-blowing. We stripped away everything you didn’t need.”
Contra is rooted in European cuisine, but the chefs called it modern American, while also pushing the ascendant natural wine movement forward. “There’s a lot of influence from France, and all these little Japanese and Spanish influences, but nothing is too ethnically driven,” Stone said. “It’s a New York restaurant.”
Now, what constitutes a New York restaurant is different. And von Hauske has acknowledged his tastes have changed over the years, too. “If you came to town to meet up, I probably wouldn’t take you to a tasting menu,” he says. And the new spots opening in town are not in the mold of Contra. “It went to extremes, either very serious or where you went to have a good time. Every place tries to be on the World’s 50 Best or tries to be a clubstaurant—those are good too, but that whole thing we grew up with, you don’t see many of those anymore, and in New York that’s not what it’s looking for anymore.”
Of course, this is far from an ending for them. They still have Wildair, Jac’s on Bond, and Peoples in the city and Day June in the Catskills. And Contra may return some day, but not the way it was. “We still want to do Contra, but in a different location and with a little more funding,” von Hauske says. “We’re trying to take a break and re-approach.”
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