An Upper West Side Restaurant Becomes a Two Level Lounge

Opening a restaurant in New York is a difficult endeavor. Doing it in the midst of COVID is like scaling a glass mountain. Australian Dean O’Neill is not a novice. Both his background and approach are, however, unusual.

We’re sitting at one of two spacious, theatrically lit bars at Pekarna Restaurant on 89th and Amsterdam.

O’Neill was by trade an avionics engineer. He joined with a custom technology and construction company that would do fit-outs that people dreamed up. “Over time,” he says, “you do more and more complex installations and become good at most trades so you can do anything when it comes to construction and tech” (designing sound, lighting and technology for businesses, boats, planes, restaurants, night clubs…)

A client who’d seen a completed project in Australia flew him to Slovenia. There, in collaboration with an architect, O’Neill designed an award-winning bar/lounge and restored the nationally treasured skyscraper, Nebotinik, built in 1933 by Serbo-Croation statesman and revolutionary Josip Broz Tito. Spending considerable time in that country, he established bonds and set up businesses.

Falling in love brought him to New York where O’Neill took over and for five years ran The Infirmary, a Cajun/Creole restaurant/bar on the Upper East Side. When hel resolved to close the venue and move on, the iconoclast didn’t, as might be expected, scout locations. Instead he reviewed his business experience with a number of Manhattan landlords and chose one with whom to proceed. “A great relationship with a landlord is necessary to run a good business.”

Shown several locations by the property owner and clearly undaunted by a challenge, O’Neill fixed on two derelict buildings that housed a Papa John’s/Subway franchise, a 99cent store and a Mrs. Kim’s Laundry. One of the buildings had been a 150 year-old bakery. He found five ovens built into the foundation which unfortunately had to be bricked up. “A year earlier, I’d renovated a 350 year old bakery in Slovenia turning it into my first hotel called The Pekarna Boutique Hotel. The word ‘Pekarna’ means bakery. So when I found this was a bakery, I took it as a sign,” he tells me.

The facility features an upstairs restaurant with two good looking bars, one of which can be roped off for private parties. Downstairs are two rooms which can each accommodate about 50 guests (with doors between and separate restrooms), an area currently rented by The Alice Cocktail Experience, and a backyard which will, when the season changes, host 30-40. Pekarna was configured for events.

It was O’Neill’s intention to share the culture and food of Slovenia. Then COVID happened. The well known chef he hired, having lost her own restaurant and signed with a hotel, couldn’t break contract to get out of the country. “People have to survive, to pay their rent,” the owner comments with understanding. “So we pivoted and changed to New American with a few Slovenian recipes.” 

The sampled menu is uneven with a few notable exceptions and excellent appetizers/ bar food. These are on the Banquet Menu and include, in part, Pekarna Sliders of wagu beef, chicken schnitzel, mushreuben, or salmon, and crispy wild boar (balls) with rice. A prix fixe banquet menu is also offered.

Doors opened December 2020. “It’s amazing we’re still here, but I’m determined and hyperactive,” O’Neill tells me with a grin, right leg pumping like a piston. Apparently, despite COVID, Pekarna was packed with private parties the first two weeks in December. Then Omicron arrived. Business nosedived 75%.  Once again, the venue intends to pivot. January will see renovation including high top tables and a DJ Booth.

On February 1, 2022, Pekarna will become White Rabbit, a bar/lounge, offering DJ music from 10:00 or 11:00 pm. The grand opening will “run all night with special promo’s and surprise performances from various artists.” This is where the host in O’Neill excels. Until that time, the restaurant is open and its bar is a comfortable place to sit and imbibe imaginative, quality drinks.

There are 32 original cocktails on the menu ranging from an affordable $14.00- $18.00 with only one, Ramos Gin Fizz, a ten minute concoction, coming in at $28.00.  This doesn’t include several pages of traditional mixed drinks and one of non-alcoholic offerings. “Simple drinks” like Scotch, Tequila, Bourbon, House Rum and more- even Absinthe are a mere $10.00. 

“A lot of operators put cheap liquor in expensive bottles. Often people can’t tell. When they can, how do they prove it? Desperate times create desperate measures,” he says ruefully shaking his head. “That’s why there are measuring devices. Someone gets a drink here, they get 1 ½ oz. measured out so they know whether they can drive or not. We don’t over or under pour.”

O’Neill often replaces sugar with liquors and makes muddled fruit cocktails with real, strained fruit. Serious about bar experience, he has on hand a bottle of Clase Azul Black Tequila which goes for $95.00 a glass. It’s almost gone.

Photos Courtesy of Pekarna

About Alix Cohen (1284 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.