New York state of grind – how Dante fought its way through coronavirus to keep its team alive

Mark Sansom - 07/01/2021

US bar Dante picked up The Best Bar in North America title, sponsored by Asahi Super Dry, at The World’s 50 Best Bars 2020. 50 Best catches up with co-owner Linden Pride to discuss how he forged a path to keep his bar in business, the team in work and launched two new venues in the process

It’s been snowing heavily in New York. Overnight, 15 inches fell onto the serried structures along the sidewalk of MacDougal Street, where Dante and its neighbours have built temporary shelters to accommodate outdoor diners in keeping with the city’s rules and cessation of indoor restaurant and bar spaces.

While others’ plastic- and wood-reinforced buildings bow under the weight of the fresh snow dump, the Italian-style café’s foundations – cast from steel – stand tall. Dante’s co-owner Linden Pride is in this for the long haul: “It became pretty clear to us that restrictions were going to come and go for some time as the local authorities try to apply measures and keep up with the virus,” he says. “We decided to invest in a proper annex for Dante – it was just convenient for us that it was actually cheaper to build with steel, as so many other venues were buying up the wood and reinforced plastic driving the price right up.”

Dante’s attitude towards its new outbuilding makes an appropriate metaphor for its approach to the pandemic. Pride and his wife and Dante co-owner, Nathalie Hudson, have never been ones to build their house on sand. Dante has been in place for over a century and its roots run deep in the local community. Since Pride and Hudson took on the business in 2015, they vowed to maintain the café’s heritage, while bringing it bang up to date. They relaunched with a modern take on a classic aperitivo bar that remained a hub for locals, while creating a simple and accessible drinks list that became a beacon to the world’s cocktail cognoscenti. In The World’s 50 Best Bars 2020, it was voted as The Best Bar in North America, sponsored by Asahi Super Dry, and ranked No.2 overall in the prestigious list.

Dante's co-owners, Linden Pride and Nathalie Hudson

For regular followers of 50 Best, it won’t escape attention that in 2019 Dante was named The World’s Best Bar. Awkward questions first: how does it feel to vacate the top spot? “We are absolutely fine with it,” laughs Pride. “Ultimately, for us to be The Best Bar in North America, sponsored by Asahi Super Dry, it doesn’t really get much better. In such an unusual time for everyone when we had literally been closed for six months, it was great to know that people’s experiences with us had reverberated so strongly that they still wanted to give us their votes.”

Early adopter advantage 
The pandemic brought several changes in the New York bar scene. Arguably the biggest – and certainly the quickest to be implemented – was the legal amend to say bars would be allowed to serve takeaway cocktails. Within 24 hours, Dante was ready to go. “We launched our Dante at Home range on the Tuesday, after the law passed on the Monday,” says Pride. “We got started really quickly and people started buying straight away and these people are still buying them today. It really helped in allowing us to keep on some staff to make the drinks and fulfil the orders.”

Being a first mover in the RTD [Ready To Drink] space is paying off today. A very successful Christmas delivery period was assisted in part by Dante’s appointment of a new big-name head bartender: Chris Moore, previously of Coupette in London.  Moore launched a festive range including a Gingerbread Negroni and Toffee Apple Manhattan that flew off the virtual shelves. “Getting Chris on board has been a blessing,” says Pride. “We were hoping to get him over last February, but with Covid he didn’t arrive until September. He’s really put a new energy into the drinks programme. I’m not joking when I say that some of the drinks he’s been coming up with have been the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. I can’t wait for the world to try them.”

Dante's RTD Americano 2.0, made with Mancino Vermouth

Operating with agility has been a trademark of Dante across the course of the past year. Pride and Hudson eschewed the GoFundMe model adopted by many other restaurants and bars New York, where venues would look for donations and pass them on to staff while they were out of work. “It just didn’t feel right for us,” starts Pride. “I saw all the donation requests and I thought that at the time, we had 50 employees. Even if we got a great response, we might raise $50,000. What was I going to do? Give everyone $1,000 and send them on their way? It would have been about two weeks’ rent.

“Nathalie and I got thinking and after to speaking to a friend who worked in an ER space in a local hospital and told us that they were in dire need of food, we decided that we would start cooking for health professionals. The same friend gave us the first $500 donation to make 50 meals for his unit, so we got straight to work and opened our kitchens. It allowed us to call back the chefs into work and within a short period we were serving 1,000 meals a week, paying the chefs and delivery staff a wage which amounted to getting 75% of our employees back in work. The other 25% didn’t feel ready to come back for various reasons, which we completely understood.”

After three months supplying the health service, it reached a point where the doctors started declining the free meals as the numbers on hospital wards returned to a controllable level. “The doctors told us that they were all good and one of them actually came back to me and said he wanted to give something back to us. He came in that night and spent $1,500 on bottled cocktails for his unit. The level of camaraderie has been great to see.”

Watch this video to see how Dante has been helping the local community:

Opening a new venue in a pandemic

After two years planning, devising and sourcing a new site, Dante West Village opened in June 2020. Was it madness to launch a new venue in the midst of a health crisis? “You would think that, but we actually had a really good summer in West Village,” counters Pride. “The weather was great so outside dining was really popular and the response from the community was overwhelming. Because everyone was anchored in the area, nobody was travelling and there were very few tourists, the locals would be coming in two or three times a week. We ended up doing around 80% of the trade I had forecasted [pre-pandemic], which is amazing when you think about it.”
Dante's classical aperitivo bar-style interior

To further the brand’s workload, Dante has also recently launched a pop-up site on the slopes in Aspen. Skiers can grab a drink as they kick off their skis and begin the day’s après. “It’s been another project where we had to move quickly,”  he says. “The opportunity to take the keys for the site for the skiing season was too good to turn down. I couldn’t be prouder of my team as they worked in the driving snow to fill up the truck with our RTD drinks to drive down and sell. The way we have pulled together makes me feel that all the work we have put in this year has been worth it.”

Pride is less complimentary about his NYC landlords. “The guy has given us no breaks,” he says. “He’s been awful to deal with all the way through. These restaurants and bars are living creatures; you can’t just stop and start them easily, not least because all the bills back up when you try and reopen. There’s been no consideration for us and the families we employ. Personally, I find it baffling.”

With New York again plunged into hospitality closure along with many of the world’s metropolises, Pride looks to the future: “It’s important for us and all bars to try and stay relevant and be ready for when the world opens up. All the pointers I’m getting suggest there is going to be unbelievable pent-up demand. We have to be ready for it when it comes.”

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