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Saturday, September 23, 2023
Home Food Review: Contento Treats Accessibility as a Right

Review: Contento Treats Accessibility as a Right

As I write each week’s restaurant review, I call an owner to ask whether somebody in a wheelchair would be able to enter the dining room and enjoy a meal. By that time, I’ve already eaten there and spent a few minutes looking around for features that might make a space inaccessible, like steps, narrow passageways and small restrooms.

When I file the review, I will summarize minor obstacles (“A short step up from the sidewalk can be bridged by a movable ramp”). If the obstacles are major, as they sometimes are in a city full of old, narrow buildings that can’t easily be altered, I’ll 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 very hard about that until my first meal at a new restaurant in East Harlem called Contento. Two of its owners use wheelchairs, and they designed Contento so that they and others like them would be as comfortable as possible.

Word has gotten around. The first time I ate there, I arrived right behind a diner in a motorized chair. She maneuvered into a spot at one end of the bar that was lower than the rest — wheelchair height. The next time I went, a customer at the bar was in the company of a guide dog, another thing I almost never see in restaurants.

Contento is obviously doing something that most other places aren’t. To get insight into what that was, I brought a guest, Beth Wiesner, a pharmaceutical advertising editor who gets around in a lightweight, rigid-frame manual chair. That night and in a later phone call, she pointed out all the things she’d noticed that were out of the ordinary: the smooth concrete path from the sidewalk to the front door; the placement and height of the tables and bar tops; and a dozen other things that allowed her to get through the meal without help.

“I marvel at how accessible that place is,” she said the next day.

Listing all the ways Contento accommodates people with various disabilities, not just wheelchair users, will make the place sound like some kind of accessibility theme park. But it is, above all, a very enjoyable place to have dinner and a few glasses of wine.

The wine list alone, packed with bottles under $60, should get Contento noticed well outside East Harlem. It is the project of Yannick Benjamin, one of the owners, who has obviously made efforts to find wines that will introduce his diners to fresh territory. One section is drawn from ancient winemaking centers where Odysseus and his crew might have gone drinking — Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, the West Bank and Georgia.

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

You can see “Wines of Impact” as another example of how the restaurant business in New York has become more attuned to racial equity over the past year or two. It’s also a great way to operate in a neighborhood where more than three-quarters of the residents are Black or Hispanic. Contento has several bilingual servers and owners; at times you hear more Spanish than English in the dining room. There’s often Latin jazz and boogaloo and salsa in the background. And why shouldn’t there be in a restaurant around the corner from the building where Tito Puente was born?

This is not usually the way restaurants with $30 main courses typically make their entrance into neighborhoods where gentrification is on the march. Normally, everybody who works in the place looks and sounds (and spends) like the new people who are moving into the area. Even if the servers wave from the entrance, the old residents stay away. They can tell they’re not the intended audience, the way people in wheelchairs can when they see tables and chairs jammed together with not enough room between them for a well-oiled ferret to squeeze through.

If the neighbors have any such doubts about Contento, they may be dispelled by seeing George Gallego, one of the owners, who grew up on the block. And people with disabilities may well 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 has had a carpenter friend build a wooden tray for his chair, with slots for stemmed glasses and holes for bottles to make decanting and pouring easier.

Contento can be a wine bar or a full restaurant, depending on what you want from it. If you are just having one glass, you can get by with snacks such as the quietly spicy deviled eggs (the heat comes from the Peruvian yellow chile, ají amarillo, which is effectively camouflaged by the yolks) or the stack of golden panisses meant to be passed through a green dip called uchucuta, fragrant with mint and pulsing with rocoto peppers.

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

His classic ceviche of local fluke is confident and potent. The tiradito he makes with raw salmon may be even more exciting, if only because the dish is less likely to be done well in New York. Reflecting Peru’s Japanese influence is a Berkshire pork cutlet, fried katsu-style and stacked up next to shaved daikon and a dish of aioli brightened with yuzu kosho.

My guest, Ms. Wiesner, was attentive to little details, from the deep flavor of the unhulled black barley served alongside a handsomely seared salmon to the Salt-N-Pepa salt and pepper shakers.

I also learned from watching her navigate the space. The night was comfortably warm and the front door had been propped open, allowing Ms. Wiesner to wheel herself up the sidewalk’s slight incline to the threshold and into the dining room in a single, unassisted shot.

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

She needed no help to take her place at one of the tables that are designed to allow a wheelchair to fit under the surface, or to get into and out of the restroom, at the end of a wide runway between the bar and a row of tables. The restroom itself she declared “a dream,” with several grab bars and a touchless sink, soap and towel dispenser.

Ms. Wiesner can’t take any of this for granted. “Ninety-nine percent of restaurants may call themselves accessible, but they’re not,” she said.

When she’s thinking of trying a new restaurant, she has to call ahead with a list of specific questions about the layout. If she doesn’t, and arrives to find a dining room that doesn’t take her needs into account, she’ll leave (“It’s so awkward to do”) and retreat to one of her regular spots.

Restaurants in buildings constructed in the past 30 years tend to have entrances and restrooms that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Even so, they may jam the seats in too tightly, fail to leave a clear path to the restroom, or provide no dining surfaces at wheelchair height, a common mistake at more expensive sushi bars and tasting counters.

In older buildings, layouts are often worse. The A.D.A. requires owners to remove barriers to wheelchair use when that is “readily achievable.” This exception explains why diners in New York may still find restrooms the size of a broom closet, hallways about as wide as a goat path, and steps or full staircases in the most inconvenient places.

Getting rid of these obstacles may not be “readily achievable” for a typical new restaurant, watching every dollar, hoping for full tables from the first night. But too many places in New York let the pre-existing conditions of their space determine who is going to be able to eat there. And too many owners treat the A.D.A. as if it were a building code.

It is not. It is a civil-rights law.

Contento suggests how different dining rooms might look if all restaurateurs thought about accessibility as a right, rather than a business decision. Mr. Benjamin and his partners there share a vision of hospitality that seems radically new but is in fact quite simple: to make it easy for people to enter the front door and enjoy their time inside, whether they arrive in a wheelchair, with the help of a guide dog, or with no assistance at all. Everybody who owns or designs restaurants, particularly in New York City, should spend a night there to see what it looks like when a restaurant goes out of its way for customers who often feel unwelcome or unwanted.

Before we left Contento, Ms. Wiesner offered Mr. Benjamin one small observation. “The grab bars in the restroom …” she began.

“Too hot?” Mr. Benjamin asked.

He guessed it. Votive candles in honor of Anthony Bourdain were burning on the tile floor directly below one of the metal bars, and the flames made the metal uncomfortable to touch.

A few minutes later, they’d been moved to a safer spot.


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