SCHENECTADY — Burgers will be on the menu Saturday when Manhattan Exchange reopens after an eight-month facelift.
The restaurant at Union and Barrett streets is brighter and more open but new owner Doug Davis has maintained the comfortable vibe and affordable food. He’s revamped the menu a bit, with heavy emphasis on hamburgers and sandwiches.
One last tasting/training event is planned for the restaurant’s crew Friday, and then it reopens for the public at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re keeping the same nature of what this was,” Davis said Tuesday. “We just wanted to clean it up, bring it back to life, get some light in here.”
The menu is similar in scope to before but new in the details, with a couple of audience favorites returning: quesadillas and Burger Night. (That would be Wednesday … $5 basic burgers and half-price feature burgers.)
A more surprising return perhaps will be former owner Deb LaMalfa, tending bar regularly. This spring, she retired and sold to Davis after a quarter century as either the owner or an employee. But she decided to remain involved.
Davis, 31, has been working in restaurants since his mid-teens, including three others on opening day. Recent stops for the young chef have included Johnny’s, the Rivers Casino eateries and City Squire.
“This will be the fourth spot I’ve been part of opening,” he said. “It was always my thing to have my own spot. It’s so good to have an old staple in the city you grew up in to take care of now.”
He’ll start out in the kitchen but hopes to hand off some of the cooking duties.
“My goal is to get out of the kitchen full time,” Davis said. “Obviously I’ll still be there in the mornings, getting things set up. But I want to focus on events and doing fundraising. … We just want to start doing more here. I’m big on interactions.”
Manhattan Exchange opened in 1983 as an early venture by Angelo Mazzone, who since has gone on to make a big mark in the regional restaurant/hospitality/catering industry (with Davis among his employees at one point).
With the facelift, Davis has added windows and a deck and emphasized the exposed brickwork.
In the middle of it all is a cross-section of a black walnut tree, which legend has it was planted by Union College President Eliphalet Nott on campus in the early 1800s. The tree finally died a few years ago, and the lumber later went to the Northeastern Woodworkers Association, where Davis’ father-in-law, a board member, bought it for the restaurant.
The burnished slab of walnut makes a striking display on a black brick wall in the restaurant, and provides a connection to Union, whose students have long been regular customers.
Manhattan Exchange is part of a concentration of restaurants on and near that stretch of Union Street, not all of which have enjoyed smooth sailing. One has been the subject of regulatory review after violence on site and noise complaints by neighbors; several others have closed down for various reasons.
Davis said rowdiness and late night noise won’t be a problem because he’s not going to let rowdies inside and Manhattan Exchange — formerly open until 4 a.m. every night — will close at 2 a.m. two nights a week and midnight the others.
“One of the door guys used to work here, he’s coming back to work for us,” Davis said. “He was good filtering it out, just not letting it in to begin with.
“This place was never a problem, so we’re not going to let it be a problem. This was a nice place to come after work, relax, friends, conversation, not worry about who’s standing next to you. So that’s what we want to keep going here.”
Davis also isn't worried about the famously high attrition rate for restaurants.
For starters, he has the name recognition of a local institution with 37 years’ standing. For another thing, he doesn’t plan to overextend himself.
“The thing I’ve always recognized, working in the industry is, you get spread too thin, you start getting ahead of yourself, and you lose focus.
“We’re not looking to build an empire. We want one really good, really simple, approachable spot that will appeal to the masses and keep everyone happy.”