The last year has been a journey of ups and downs for restaurants in New York. After transitioning to takeout and delivery only, building outdoor setups, and preparing for indoor dining to have it taken away and reinstated, restaurants have done their best to adapt and keep their doors open. With the reopening of indoor dining at 35 percent capacity, many restaurants in the neighborhood polished their glasses, printed out new menus, and decorated their interiors in preparation for the return to a more normal dining scene.
Morningside Heights has seen more stability than other parts of the city. In January, Spectator found that 169 out of 190 restaurants in the Columbia area remained open, with a portion, including Community Food & Juice, reopening in February after a temporary break. Some restaurants have even opened their doors for the first time during the pandemic. Within the last few months, eateries like Anār, Miss Saigon, Trufa Pizzeria, and The Calaveras Cafe have joined the Morningside Heights restaurant scene.
As early as the summer, the Morningside Heights community will welcome two more small businesses. Roberta’s, a pizzeria based in Bushwick, and SAPPS, a Japanese restaurant located in Long Island City, will open new locations along Broadway in the summer and early fall respectively. Roberta’s will open at 2913 Broadway at the former site of Aerosoles Shoe Store, while SAPPS will open at 2888 Broadway where e’s BAR once stood.
The two restaurants will join other local businesses, including Hex & Co., Blue Bottle Coffee, and Dos Toros, which have recently opened in Columbia-owned buildings in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville.
According to a recent article published by Columbia University Facilities and Operations, “The signing of Roberta’s and SAPPS is consistent with Columbia University’s long-standing retail approach which favors local businesses that bring a variety of amenities and experiences to the diverse Columbia community and surrounding neighborhood.”
Roberta’s has gained recognition across the city for its brick oven pizza and hipster vibe. The restaurant has locations in Bushwick and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn, as well as a spot in the Urbanspace food hall in Midtown. Roberta’s also recently set up a ghost kitchen, cooking facilities that produce food for takeout or delivery, in a commercial kitchen space on Stanton St. on the Lower East Side.
Roberta’s, which opened its first location in 2008 in an unassuming Bushwick building, grows many of its ingredients in its onsite garden. At the Bushwick location, Roberta’s offers eight pizzas along with 20 toppings, which include Calabrian chili, ricotta, and soppressata. Notable pizzas include its Famous Original with tomato, caciocavallo cheese, mozzarella, and oregano; the Four Emperors with arrabbiata sauce, ricotta, asiago, and sesame seeds; and the Bee Sting with soppressata, chili, and honey.
In addition to pizzas, Roberta’s menu features four pasta dishes, including cacio e pepe, which translates to “cheese and pepper”; campanelle alle vongole with littleneck clams; and spaccatelli pasta with pomodoro sauce. Appetizers include cured meats like duck prosciutto and ‘nduja pork sausage, as well as garden dishes like marinated cucumbers and grilled shishito peppers. Dishes like grilled pork collar with summer melon and crispy squid with salsa verde aioli are also popular.
SAPPS, a trendy Japanese restaurant and bar, opened in 2017 when Shih Lee, who also owns the nearby restaurant SHI, wanted to create a more modern Japanese spot with a New York City feel. Lee partnered with Lehrer, who was a bartender at SHI, and long-time waiter Selix Lai to open the spot. The restaurant’s founders drew inspiration from a restaurant along First1st Ave. called Sapporo East, whose diners would often call it “Sapps.”
“It was a place where people in the neighborhood would go and hang out and you got to know the people who would go there,” Lehrer said. “We had an opportunity to work with our current landlord to recreate that and bring it back to life and put our own little twist on it.”
Lehrer hopes that the close-knit community at the Long Island City location will carry over to its new spot on Broadway. According to Lehrer, the partners decided to open a new location near Columbia’s campus partially because “the space also chose us.” The space had the right layout for a social bar and casual dining room, and its proximity to Columbia’s campus would contribute to this desired communal vibe.
“I think we add a lot of character to the area, especially because we’re for the community, so we want to be a place like that. People can come in and whether it’s for a quick bite, whether it’s for a nice dinner, whether it’s just to grab a drink. We want to be that kind of neighborhood place that people come to, and if things go well, I think we’ll just expand our footprint in the neighborhood,” Lehrer said.
Lehrer noted that the interior of the Columbia space will likely incorporate many elements from the Long Island City location, including exposed brick and bright dynamic colors. Additionally, the Columbia location will try to assimilate into the community through Morningside Heights- and Columbia-related art and design. The menu may change a bit as well to cater to the student body, yet many of its Japanese and fusion staples will remain.
SAPPS offers a selection of ramen dishes including its shoyu ramen with soy sauce flavor and its spicy miso ramen. Appetizers range from kara-age—fried chicken with spicy mayo—to grilled squid to takoyaki, octopus cooked in a wheat flour-based batter with a sweet glaze. In addition to 10 types of yakitori and classic entrees like salmon teriyaki and pork katsu, SAPPS offers donburi, rice bowls with options like unaju eel or Japanese beef curry.
SAPPS’s menu includes sashimi like striped bass, sea bream, and sea urchin. In addition to 30 standard rolls, the restaurant features a dozen special rolls like Salmon Salsa with spicy crab and tomato salsa, the Robster with garlic lobster wrapped in pink soy paper, and the Medusa with salmon and jalapeno alongside melted mozzarella cheese and caramelized onions. Sushi appetizers also include modern interpretations of sushi like “pizza pie” with scallion pancake and spicy tuna and as Tostitos ceviche with tuna, salmon, and yellowtail.
Although Lehrer acknowledges that the decision to open a new restaurant location during a pandemic is a risk, he thinks that now is the right time to join the Columbia community, especially with the return to indoor dining increasing patronage to many restaurants. With a relatively successful summer of outdoor dining and takeout in Long Island City, Lehrer says that he is “very optimistic about the future of the restaurant business.”
“We see this opportunity to join this community and be in this neighborhood with Columbia University at its heart,” Lehrer said.