Inspired by Paris, Made in BushwickCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Inside Cherry On Top, the new natural wine bar from a well-traveled illustrator turned bar owner. Published: November 02, 2021
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Happy November 2nd, everyone!
At the risk of parodying myself as an NYU brat, I’ll share that I studied in Paris for a semester while at said institution. (Done groaning?) One of my most enduring cultural impressions from that semester abroad is Parisian bar culture; specifically, how the categorical demarcations between bar, restaurant, and cafe that we have in North America are virtually nonexistent, and how alcohol is almost tangential to most multihyphenate drinking establishments. In Paris, bars are places for eating, talking, working, being alone, meeting friends, and just hanging out — as much if not more than they are for drinking.
My nostalgia for that kind of space was sated when I visited this week’s feature business: Cherry On Top, a natural wine bar in Bushwick that opened in September. Inspired in part by owner Cerise Zelenetz’s time living in Paris, the bar is designed for low-key wine tasting, snacking (you get a free bowl of olives when you sit down, plus there’s a small, highly shareable menu for more substantial fare), and congregating with friends and strangers alike. With a cheery color scheme of cherry red, bright green, and off-white, eclectic wall art curated by Cerise featuring her friends’ work, and plenty of cushioned nooks that look primed for posting up with a book for hours, Cherry On Top is decidedly cozy, like the apartment of a close friend (albeit one with crazy good taste). Keep reading for my conversation with Cerise.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were you doing before Cherry On Top?
Before this, I was doing freelance illustration. I was bartending, too, because I wanted something more social on the side. I ended up doing illustrations for a lot of restaurants and winemakers, which is how I got into this world.
What inspired you to open your own bar?
This project came about because I was doing illustration for OddFellows Ice Cream, and one of the owners and partners [Mohan Kumar] loves natural wine. We went to Boston to work on a mural and ended up going out after we were working and talking about opening a place so they could drink near the factory. This [space] used to be their factory. I thought I would design it and they would open it, but then we got back to New York and [Mohan] was like, "You need a business plan, you need investors." I was like, "Okay, so it's my project." An opportunity presented itself, and everything came together, so I figured I couldn't pass it up.
How did you come to take over the factory space?
They ended up moving all of their production upstate during COVID. Initially, [Cherry On Top] was going to be just in the front [of the factory], but when they moved out, we got to take on the extra space.
Do you have any partners?
Mohan is not technically a partner; he's an investor. He helped with the architecture and projections and financials. I have two partners, Amir [Nathan] and Jordan [Anderson], who came on as a management team. They have a cafe-restaurant called Sami & Susu in the Lower East Side, and they used to work at Via Carota, The Ten Bells, Olmsted, Maison Premiere ... Jordan is a chef and Amir has more back-of-house managerial experience.
What influences did you draw from while conceptualizing the space?
It all came together when I thought of the name … I woke up in the middle of the night and was like, "Cherry On Top has to be it." [Editorial note: Cerise is French for "cherry."] It's based on my family history and my experience living in Paris and Vermont and New York. I grew up in Vermont, but my parents are both from New York, and I spent a lot of time visiting my grandparents [in the city]. I moved to Paris straight after high school, and that was life-changing for me: studying art there and being treated as an adult at 17, 18. I didn't have the whole American college experience. [After] Paris, I came back here. I've been here for 10 years now. I live in my grandparents' old apartment on the Lower East Side, and that had a big influence on the design. It's had a big influence on everything I've done in art. My grandmother decorated it in the fifties, and it still looks the same. A lot of influences came together, but I wanted it to have a European feel and be welcoming and cozy at the same time as having all this space. Because I don't come from a wine background, I wanted it to be a place where people can learn about wine and try new things. Design-wise, I didn't want to take anything too seriously. I wanted to keep it fun and comfortable. I added cushions to make it homey. There are a lot of vintage objects, especially on the roof. It's funny, now that we're open and there are people in here, I notice that it feels more like a house than a bar.
How did the pandemic impact your buildout?
I think it was a day before everything shut down when we opened a bank account. We were ready to start construction, then we paused everything. It was such a strange year of [asking], "Do we start? Do we not start? Do we wait to see if everything gets better in the spring?" We didn’t know what was going to happen. In winter 2020, we found a GC [general contractor] and applied for a liquor license. There were so many times when I'd watch the news and be like, "Bars are getting shut down again." It was a strange time to be working on a bar. It also meant we had to open the roof [to have outdoor space], which meant more fundraising; that was one of the biggest challenges. Finding investors for a bar during a pandemic was not easy. But once we had that, we just went forward. We made projections for full capacity and limited socially distanced capacity.
The roof at Cherry On Top / Photography by Briana Balducci
How was the opening?
It was strange because I had spent so much time in here by myself, painting the walls and staining the tables and all of that. To see it full of strangers was surreal. Also having my friends and my parents come see it was great; it’s like being able to share my world. I've had friends walk in here and tell me it feels like they're walking around my brain. I feel that, too. With illustration, you can share it with people, but it's not as experiential. It was exciting to create an experience for people. I've always loved hosting dinner and having people over, and I definitely have this Jewish mom in me who wants to feed people and take care of them. I can do that all the time now.
Tell me about the wines.
I want to steer away from the trendy wines that everyone has and find more affordable ones with cool stories. There’s no regional focus; we have wines from Mexico, Slovenia, France, Italy. We have wines from this vineyard in Tuscany where I did a residency. And then Swick Wines — I did illustration for him [Joe Swick, winemaker and owner of Swick Wines], so I got to go to Oregon and blend a special cuvée with him for the bar, which was really amazing. On our by-the-glass list, you can taste through three different wines with completely different flavor profiles. If you're used to more classic wines, we have things that can train your palate and give you what you're looking for but with a little boost of more natural styles. Each bottle's a different experience and story.
What about the food?
Jordan and I came up with the menu together. Everything is pre-prepped, so nothing's hot right now; that was a big deciding factor in the menu. I wanted snacks that could feel like a full meal. We have small plates that you can share, which is another influence from Paris wine bars. I've always shared food whenever I go out. I'm not an "I get my dish, you get your dish" kind of person, so shareable plates were very important for me.
How do you think the pandemic has impacted our notions of communal dining?
I feel like even before the pandemic, things were shifting in a way where everyone ordered takeout and didn't cook anymore or share that [experience]. Especially in New York, there’s a very big takeout and delivery culture, which is sad for me. I think sharing food is a big way to learn about each other. Honestly, maybe the pandemic has shifted it back in the right direction because people are more thankful to be able to be out and share experiences with each other.
In less than two months, you’ve already held a bunch of different events. What are your overarching goals for the wine-adjacent programming?
Having this much space, why not host events? I've always thought about aspects of things that aren't the obvious way to go. When I paint, I mix mediums that aren't typically mixed. There are no rules. And it's fun for me because I'm here all the time, so I get to hang out and watch a comedy show, see a jazz duo. It brings people in from different communities who wouldn't necessarily know about us. We recently did a wine spelling bee that was really fun. Like a normal spelling bee, but all the words were wine-related.
Was Gewürztraminer on the docket?
Yeah, words like that. I love games; they’re another way to connect with people. We've had chefs come in and do popups. We have a jazz singer from Korea coming in next month. We're doing a string quartet this winter. I'm planning drawing events and art and design Q&As.
How are you feeling about the state of the pandemic as it relates to your business?
There's that worrying voice in the back of my head, but at this point, we have to take things as they are. There's always going to be a new route to take: I’ve thought about turning it into a bottle shop if we have to, or hosting private events. It's something I think about, but if I can't control it, then I try not to over-stress about it.
How to help:
- Visit the bar at 379 Suydam St. in Bushwick (Open 5:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.; closed Tuesdays)
- Follow on IG
Until next time,