Pix of owner Bart Potenza at:
August 6, 2003
Feng Shui and Vegan Fare Battle a Neighborhood Curse
By ALEX WITCHEL
IF you noticed them at all, you would think they were part of the
restaurant's new design: two small octagons outside, each with a
mirror at its center. The point? To protect the restaurant from the
building across the street, whose sharp edges, according to Judith
Wendell, a feng shui consultant, "create a knifelike effect on the
restaurant's energy, cutting into it - so we're reflecting it back."
Yes, it's come to this. Opening a restaurant in New York has always
required a certain combination of savvy and insanity, especially at
problematic addresses. Everyone can think of a space that has had a
run of bad luck, no matter how many menus were tried. So when Joy
Pierson and Bart Potenza, the owners of Candle Cafe, a successful
vegan restaurant at 1307 Third Avenue at 75th Street, decided to
expand into the property recently vacated by the failed Dining Room,
they took its karma into their own hands. They hired Ms. Wendell to
go where no contractor had gone before and fix what seemed to be
ailing the two-story town house at 154 East 79th Street at Lexington
Candle 79, as it is called, is the building's fifth tenant in 20
years; others were Trois Jean, the Living Room and Jams, which
started out white hot with Jonathan Waxman at the stove, was shaken
by the stock market crash of 1987 and finally closed in 1988 after
being renamed Jonathan Waxman and lowering its prices. So rather than
rely on the purity and healing powers of the food alone to conquer
unseen demons (vegans omit not only meat and poultry but all animal
products, including fish, eggs, dairy, even honey) Ms. Pierson and
Mr. Potenza have taken out supernatural insurance instead. Although
they will devote this month to private parties and not open full time
until September, they claim to feel the benefits already.
"We used feng shui in the Third Avenue location," Mr. Potenza said,
"and after being in business there for nine years and going strong,
we think it's an element that has added to its overall success."
The front door to Candle 79 was built on a diagonal, which means it
is slanted in Ms. Wendell's parlance, and she says that is no
"Slanted energy can cause accidents, bad business and lawsuits, and
we want to cut that off immediately," she said. She hung a bamboo
flute above it on the inside. "Usually you hang a sword, but it
didn't match the décor," she said. "The flute symbolizes the sword."
An identical bamboo flute hangs over the doorway to one of the
bathrooms near the kitchen; according to a feng shui map that Ms.
Wendell consulted, that particular bathroom is located in a zone
symbolizing wealth. "Because there is a toilet and sink there, you
don't want the wealth going down the drain," she explained. (When Mr.
Potenza added a mirror to a bathroom at his first restaurant, the
Healthy Candle, to counteract a similar problem, he said he received
a tax rebate of $1,700 the next day.)
At the 79th Street space, Ms. Wendell said, she will also perform a
number of "blessing and clearing" ceremonies that will "cleanse the
negative energy and augment the positive," including one that will
have Ms. Pierson and Mr. Potenza mix a concoction of cinnabar (a
component of mercury known, Ms. Wendell said, for its protective
qualities) with alcohol (Ms. Wendell prefers Bacardi 151 proof).
"They will then literally anoint the space," she said, "sealing the
doors, putting it down drains and toilets and touching the center
part of each burner on the stove."
In still another ceremony, she will use rice to "feed the negative
spirits so they are sated and no longer need to occupy the space,"
Ms. Wendell said. "One of the things that prevented me from coming in
at first was the yin, or what I call predecessor chi." (Chi is the
Chinese word for energy.)
Which means the place had ghosts. "And they could be here from long
before there was even a 79th Street," she said.
Well, depending on what they like to eat, they might be getting out
just in time. Clarkson Potter has recently published "The Candle Cafe
Cookbook: More than 150 Enlightened Recipes From New York's Renowned
Vegan Restaurant," by Ms. Pierson and Mr. Potenza with Barbara
Scott-Goodman, featuring ingredients like Tofutti cream cheese, soy
margarine and seitan (pronounced say-tan), which is wheat gluten.
Whether or not that food appeals to ghosts, there are plenty of
people who are fans of the restaurant and its signature dishes, like
ginger-miso stir-fry and paradise casserole (sweet potatoes, black
beans and millet), including Brooke Shields, Woody Harrelson, Alicia
Silverstone, Michael J. Fox, Tracey Pollan and Eric Schlosser, author
of "Fast Food Nation."
There is also enough noncelebrity customer demand for Ms. Pierson and
Mr. Potenza to keep open the original Third Avenue location, with its
cafe feel, so its devoted regulars can choose between it and the new
space for a more upscale ambience. Candle Cafe 79 seats 85, double
the capacity of the original, and, like it, will serve organic wine
"There is still a hippie perception about this kind of food," Mr.
Potenza noted, a copy of Vegetarian Journal tucked under his arm, as
he and Ms. Pierson bade Ms. Wendell farewell and walked to Candle
Cafe for lunch.
Ms. Pierson agreed. "A lot of the vegetarian ambience is not fun,"
she said. "Some of it can be spiritual, but a lot of it just feels
morose. The attitude around the food is so negative, that it's about
deprivation, but it's really the opposite. These flavors should be
eaten with fine wine and good crystal and appreciated as its own
cuisine. You don't even necessarily have to eat it every day, but
culinarily it's vibrant. How can you not like fresh fruit from the
Mr. Potenza nodded vigorously. "That's a beautiful point," he said as
Ms. Pierson smiled. The couple have been together since 1987, when
Mr. Potenza made her an avocado and hummus sandwich and, as he likes
to say, "her life was never the same."
Mr. Potenza, now 66, bought Sunny's, a popular heath food store and
juice bar on Lexington Avenue at 71st Street in 1984 from two women
who were in the habit of lighting candles all over the store each
night to bless their establishment, so Mr. Potenza renamed the place
the Healthy Candle. Ms. Pierson, now 41, was working as a
nutritionist then and became a customer there. She became the
restaurant's in-house nutritionist, then Mr. Potenza's in-house
They wanted to open a new restaurant - less juice bar, more dining
room - and on Friday the 13th in August of 1993 played a combination
of their birthdays in the New York State Take Five game and won
$53,000. Raising the rest of the money they needed from family,
friends and customers, they opened Candle Cafe in 1994. (The
restaurant does use candles, but only soy-based, never beeswax,
petroleum or lead-wicked.)
On a recent weekday, the restaurant was packed. A family with three
generations sat at a large table up front.
"We've been feeding them for 15 years," Ms. Pierson said proudly,
adding that the place is popular with pregnant women and new mothers,
and indeed there were babies at many of the tables. It looked more
like the Upper West Side than the Upper East Side, though Mr. Potenza
said that the neighborhood had been supportive of his food from the
"Ladies in limousines eat rice and beans," he said. "That's not
exactly Stephen Sondheim, but it's true."
Certainly, vegan cuisine has been getting a glossier profile of late.
The techno rock star Moby opened Teany, a vegan tearoom on
Manhattan's Lower East Side last year, and Roxanne Klein, the chef
acclaimed for raw vegan cuisine at her restaurant, Roxanne, in
Larkspur, Calif., has joined with Charlie Trotter to write "Raw," a
cookbook that is to be published in November by Ten Speed Press.
"The whole raw movement is getting chic," Ms. Pierson said. "Demi
Moore is eating raw now."
Mr. Potenza nodded. "Trend is our friend," he said. "Look at all the
Whole Foods stores opening. And we use the same farmers as Union
Square Cafe and all those kinds of restaurants." Candle Cafe gets its
organic breads from Amy's Bread.
"This is good stuff," Ms. Pierson said staunchly. "People think
they're not going to like it, but that's just a preconceived notion."
As they spoke, customers stopped by their table to embrace them; one
couple, a London-based art dealer and his wife, made a reservation
for that night, having just finished lunch. A waiter brought over a
dish for Ms. Pierson and Mr. Potenza to try that the chef, Angel
Ramos, was perfecting for 79th Street: curry and mustard-seed-crusted
tofu with black rice and coconut black-eyed-pea masala, served with
paratha bread and peach chutney. It was delicious.
"If it were an exotic fish, everyone would just eat it without even
thinking about it," Ms. Pierson said. "What we're doing here is
feeding people food that goes straight from farm to table. I feel
good about that."
She can only hope the ghosts will, too.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company