Before last March, Clay was a neighborhood magnet in West Harlem, its 76 seats typically packed with regulars most nights of the week. After the shutdown took effect Gabriela Davogustto and her partners, manager Andrea Needell Matelliano and chef Gustavo Lopez (also her husband) quickly pivoted to a takeout model.
“It’s a different business model altogether, especially with wine. People don’t order it to go,” says Davogustto. One of her immediate concerns was inventory.
“When we shut down in March, it was very sudden,” she says. “I had been buying wine like normal, so I was sitting on a lot of inventory, and the wines I carry are meant to be drunk young.” At first, they thought it would be a few weeks and then back to business as usual, but the shutdown stretched on until June. “As soon as they let us open [ for outdoor dining ], my first goal was to get rid of as much of that wine as I could.” Davogustto’s list had stood at 160 selections, and, given her limited storage capacity, she typically carried about six bottles of each selection. “I started to sell every wine I could by the glass to run through the inventory.”
Clay continued to offer takeout and delivery, but most of the wine sales came from the limited in-person dining. They claimed a stretch of the curb on 123rd Street and built a three-sided structure with plenty of ventilation and space between tables. When temperatures dropped, they installed heat lamps that hang above each table. They can only seat 20 diners at a time, and the mandated 10pm closing time means fewer seatings, but Davogustto and her team are committed to safety. “You walk around the Upper West Side and see these little plastic greenhouses that some restaurants have set up. I would never ask my servers to go inside of that. Greenhouses are designed to trap gases, what do you think is going to happen in there? We would rather lose money than expose ourselves and our staff, and our customers for that matter. If we are all going to clap every night at 7:00 for the doctors and nurses, we should be protecting them at our restaurants, too.”
Clay’s wine team has always been lean—just Davogustto, with Needell Matelliano stepping in as needed—so they didn’t have to let wine staff go. Davogustto’s list is built on artisanal producers of natural wines, primarily from Spain, Italy, France and the US. Most are priced under $100, and most come with a personal story that Davogustto relates tableside, a practice she has continued, albeit through masks and with an online list accessed via QR code. Her Spanish list is particularly interesting and includes off-the-beaten-path wines like Victoria Torres Pecis 2018 Negramoll ($100) from the Canary Islands, her top seller in 2020. “I’ve been following her for the past 7-8 years. Her white wines were always fantastic and the red wines have really gotten good lately.” This was the first vintage that she made under her own name [previously, it had been her father’s name, Mattia Torres, on the label]. The label had featured the outline of a little house, and Torres Pecis changed it to include her fingerprint inside the silhouette of the house, indicating that she was finally putting her imprint on the wines. “People really don’t know what to expect, especially from a smaller island like La Palma, and from a female winemaker, but they are interested in the story. And the wine is light and bright, with beautiful structure, so they are happy.”
Her next best-seller is also Spanish—César Márquez Pérez 2018 Bierzo El Rapolao ($120). “It’s a little more expensive than most of the wines on our list, but people are curious about it. César is a nephew of Raúl Pérez, and I’ve been a big fan. He’s very young, and I think, very talented.” Davogustto says that Raúl Pérez has been inviting other winemakers to vinify plots in the El Rapolao vineyard, and she carries bottlings made by Raúl Pérez and Argentine partners Gerardo Michelini and Andrea Mufatto. Her top glass pour was Bodegas Finca Torremilanos 2017 Ribera del Duero Los Cantos, the entry-level bottling from this biodynamic producer. “Unlike many Ribera del Dueros, it isn’t oaky or heavy; it’s a fresh, easy red, and everyone loves it.”
Italian wines also do well at Clay. La Stoppa 2018 Trebbiolo Rosso (#3 in top ten) is a blend of barbera and bonarda from Emilia-Romagna’s iconic and organic producer Elena Pantaleoni, and it’s a favorite with regulars. “There are people who come in and order this every single time. They love La Stoppa, it’s just what they drink, and they sometimes order it to go as well because maybe it’s not easy to find at retail.” Pacina 2013 Toscana ( #4 in top ten), a sangiovese from an organic producer in Chianti Colli Senesi, sells well at $84 a bottle. “It’s the wine that made me fall in love with natural wines,” she says. “It’s a natural wine that doesn’t taste faulty. It’s super clean but with lots of character, very electric.”
Davogustto says that her interactions with guests have evolved, and she notices a sharp divide, with most people being great and others who are “just terrible.” On one of the first evenings after they opened for outdoor dining in June, a big rat ran along the curb near the tables, and the guests just laughed. “They were so grateful and happy that we were open and they could dine out again. They were like, ‘It’s New York, whatever.’” But then there are those who insist on monopolizing a table well after they’re finished dining, despite limited seating and waiting customers, or who complain about seating policies for full parties only, or who refuse to wear masks when the server comes to the table. “Most people have been very supportive, but there is this group of people who think, ‘you need my business more than ever so I can do whatever I want.’ We are not essential workers. All these kids [ her servers ] are here exposing themselves. That can be depressing, when you see people who really don’t care. Every day is a challenge, and we have to be leaders to our staff in these conditions. Even though we’re mortified by all of this, we can’t bring that to the table. Sometimes I feel like I’m an extra on Dr. Zhivago but without Omar Sharif.”
Still, Davogustto remains optimistic that Clay can pull through. “I think the really hard part will be until the end of February. We invested a lot in air filters for every AC unit, and a lot of people will start getting vaccines, so once we can do some indoor and keep the outdoor, we will be fine. I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The next six weeks or so will be rough, but then we’re ready for a new chapter.”
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