At Lovely Day, The Only Thing That Matters More Than Food Is Personality
Kazusa Jibiki and Dan Sutti have built a haven for downtown's creative class. How did they do it?
Friends In Service is a monthly column that features friends who work at restaurants. From the manager at Le Dive to the server you always see at Lovely Day, to the girl behind the bar at The River, every friend is someone to know (and has stories worth knowing).
When I first moved to New York, I had one friend, Luke. We met on the first day of orientation, and we were an unlikely pair—he made black latex dresses for his older girlfriend and his favorite movie was Kids. I had just moved from Maine, freed from bucolic monotony, but was wobbly on my feet in the city. The first month I couldn’t sleep. My body wasn’t used to the thumping music, or klaxon-like sirens that rattled against my dorm window.
Luke took me to a restaurant he’d heard was cheap. The place, an amber-tinted cavity nestled on a wide treeline street in Nolita, was warm in every sense. Plates of pad thai scattered around friends, leaning back in their wooden chairs, while others slouched in the red booths, playing cards. The floral walls reminded me of the peeling wallpaper of my childhood kitchen. A couple weeks in the city, Lovely Day was the first place in New York that felt like home.
If everything is a nail to a hammer, everyone is a friend to Kazusa Jibiki. Hailing from Japan in the 90s, Kazusa opened Lovely Day in 2002 with a dream of blending Thai cuisine with European-cafe culture. Her Boston Terrier, Luisa, perches next to Kazusa in the booth. The restaurant, it seems, is truly an extension of her. She grins when I ask who her favorite customers are, and replies thoughtfully, “I like everyone, from the kids at Supreme to the ladies in their eighties.”
Dan Sutti, sitting next to her, partnered with Jibiki, after Beverly’s, his bar-meets-arts space (described in 2016 The New Yorker as a “paradise for people who value conversation, music, and getting crunk”) closed in 2020.
Relevancy, a word that tastes bad but dissolves on tongues, is not a priority for Kazusa or Dan. Creating a community is. Their intention has always been to “have a home for lots of orphans” and provide a kitchen for those who feel like they don’t have family in New York.
On a rainy morning, the dregs of fashion week settling, we chat about opening a restaurant on a budget, the web of NYC restaurateurs, and how to create a place that feels like home.
Eloise King-Clements: You opened Lovely Day in 2002. What was your vision at the time?
Kazusa: I was looking in this area, and there was a big community of artists living here, like Vincent Gallo lived on this block, and Jim Jarmusch, but there were only two places to eat. I had this idea of a place to have Asian food, but also other food, like steaks, so people could come every day and not get bored, because in Chinatown you ate and left, you didn’t hangout. I wanted people to come in and hangout.
Dan: In the European-cafe style.
EKC: Did you have a restaurant that you hung out at before that you were inspired by?
Kazusa: Yeah, I was hanging out at Bread, which closed, Cafe Gitane, and before Cafe Select there was Cafe Lebowitz. There were all these expert restaurateurs that really inspired me.
EKC: Who were they?
Kazusa: So, Luc [Levy] at Gitane and Luigi [Comandatore] at Bread, now he's like the main guy at John-Georges Restaurant, and Brian [McNally] from Cafe Lebowitz, he used to own The Odeon. They all really helped me to do the layout for the kitchen and for the interior. When I bought the place it was a produce distributor, and (in) the back was a big walk-in storage fridge. It was all covered in tar paper so I couldn’t see the floor, and it had no door. It looked very raw, but the rent was good, it was like $5,000 dollars.
EKC: How did you renovate it?
Kazusa: Me and my friend rented some kind of machine, and we hired friends to peel the tar. Then me and a friend, who also drew the Lovely Day sign, we went to Brimfield Market with a big truck. We saw this set of tables and booths, but we thought “maybe too red,” and passed on them. But then we changed our mind, went back, and they said, “someone already bought the set, but he’s a dealer so maybe you can buy them back from him.”
Dan: So you got the upcharge?
Kazusa: Yeah, exactly. And when opening Lovely Day, my intention was to have a home for lots of orphans because I think that lots of people in New York feel like they don't have families. I wanted to be people’s kitchen. And I think also that's why I wanted the booth—it’s comfortable and private, and it feels safe. I also got vintage wallpaper, and it was very fragile, so we took that motif and we did a stencil with paint by hand.
EKC: Okay, you had this vision of people hanging out, did that happen immediately, or did it take a bit?
Kazusa: It kind of started in a small way. The first year was not busy at all. Only people who knew us, or our staff, started coming to hang out. Or like if neighbors walked by, they’d come in and hang out.
Dan: Who was your early staff?
Kazusa: The first set of staff was like someone who was working at Gitane. He walked by, I was here, and he said, “Hey, if you need any help, let me know.” And now he owns Five Leaves.
Dan: And JB [Humbert] was your first bartender?
Kazusa: Oh yeah, you know Wine Therapy? He has opened that now.
Dan: Yeah, a lot of times people feel like they've discovered something.
Kazusa: I see our staff who used to work here becoming really successful these days. One server who worked here, maybe six years ago, said “I’m gonna start taking photographs,” so all our staff modeled for her, and everyone was, you know, half naked in the photos and having fun. And now her work is on billboards. Just in six years!
Dan: And Sabrina [DeSousa] and Alissa [Wagner], who started Dimes, met here and worked here for five years.
Kazusa: Yeah, they were always saying, “What should we do? Should we do a food truck?” And they tried but they couldn’t get a license, so they ended up starting Dimes. It’s really a community that’s always expanding and supporting each other.
EKC: So how do you create that environment where people can be themselves and explore what they want to explore?
Kazusa: When we interview people…we always ask, what's your real goal? Because we know that oftentimes being in the hospitality business isn't their ultimate thing unless they want to open their own restaurants.
Dan: And, it’s important to have a staff that knows that their personality is valued, and they’re not just here to serve food. The Pink Pony was like that, where your personality is part of the job. I think that really allowed me to be like, “Oh, I can be myself.”
A week after the interview with Dan and Kazusa, Luke and I get dinner in the basement of Lovely Day. They send over a slice of blue cake, and it’s delicious. I ask Luke who originally told him about this place. He laughs and says he thought I was the one who brought us here all those years ago.