If local restaurants got the same gossipy tabloid coverage as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, then Café Trio's move from 35th Street and Broadway to the Country Club Plaza would have been the talk of the town for the first half of 2009. Ever since the owners, Chris Youngers, Tai Nguyen and businessman Al Richey (who keeps a low profile), announced last year that they would pack up and move their then four-year-old bistro 10 blocks south, the Café Trio loyalists were split: Was it a good idea or a bad one?
I've been in the good-idea camp all along because I never liked the dark, cramped dining room at 3535 Broadway, with its antiquated parking garage, terrible bathrooms and uncomfortable banquettes. But my friend Truman was a fan of the old place and had serious misgivings about the move. "Why leave a location where you were successful?" he wails. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The original Café Trio was a comfortable, lovable joint. Now it's just another slick Plaza restaurant."
The new version of Café Trio is a lot more sleek and shiny and glamorous than the previous location — and I think that's a good thing. The food and the service are better, too. But the fact that the new Café Trio has stayed busy since opening on June 8 doesn't impress curmudgeonly Truman. "It's the honeymoon period," he says. "Every new restaurant has one. Everyone comes to check the place out. But does it have staying power?"
It's true what he says about honeymoon phases. I've seen restaurants take off like crazy from the starting gate; I've seen others with successful openings last about 30 days and, in one sad case, barely 30 minutes. But after two months, Youngers and Nguyen are still pleased with their gamble: Their longtime fans continue to come in, and the Plaza tourists, who might have been wary venturing to 35th Street and Broadway, are strolling over from the nearby hotels.
This new Café Trio doesn't seem as "clubby" as the former venue, but another friend of mine says later in the night, when the regulars crowd the outdoor deck and the dining room for cocktails and appetizers, the noisy, festive spirit of the old place (which can be either charming or annoying) is very much alive and well — particularly on weekends. "It's still the place to go after a stuffy society function," confessed one of those regulars, "to finally get something decent to eat and to unwind with a couple of drinks. It's got a good energy."
To its credit, Café Trio does have a unique vibration, which few of its predecessors in this space ever had. Even the congenial Frondizi's, which Café Trio replaced, never had much of a reputation for being vibrant and exciting. What Frondizi's did have was a talented chef: former Lidia's executive chef Linda Duerr, who now oversees the kitchen at Zest.
Café Trio's new executive chef is Duerr's equally talented husband, Leon Bahlmann, who was promoted to the top spot several months before Trio moved south. Café Trio's food used to be notoriously inconsistent; Bahlmann has definitely classed it up.
Old favorites remain, of course, including the rack of lamb, which Youngers and Nguyen kept on the menu after they took over Papagallo at 3535 Broadway back in 2004. It became a signature, and it's still the most expensive dish in the house. But it's not as if the fare at Café Trio has suddenly gotten more modest. Of the 16 dinner entrées, only five of them — mostly pasta dishes — are priced less than $20.