Pierre Gaona set high expectations for himself when he opened his first café, Léna, near NYU in 2014. “I said that I would open five cafés in five years, or that I would return to France after six months,” he said smiling. Three years later, the French restauranteur is still living in New York, and has just opened his second restaurant on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side. “I had already planned on opening a second Léna café as soon as I got to New York. Living here is so expensive, you don’t really have a choice. Even if your first business is a success, you still have to take risks.”
Unlike Gaona’s first Léna, a coffee shop known for its macarons, the second Léna is more in line with the “l’esprit Basque” (Basque spirit). With only twenty seats, this intimate location is both a wine bar and a restaurant. Regional Basque dishes, cheese plates, and charcuterie platters are make up the majority of the menu. “I wanted to make my place like the ones you find in the Basque Country. You go for a hot chocolate in the morning, a quick lunch, and you come back for a long dinner with a glass of wine in the evening,” he explains.
Gaona explains, however, that despite the up-and-coming feel to the neighborhood, drumming up business can be difficult. “The Lower East Side is a neighborhood with potential. It’s changing. It’s the new Chelsea,” Gaona says. “People are looking for affordable neighborhoods. Things are usually pretty lively at night, but not on Eldridge Street. The street is completely dead even though there are subway stations everywhere.” Laure Ohayon, the former events planner at Ladurée SoHo, was brought on to the restaurant’s team to plan and curate events that cater specifically to the neighborhood. In addition to throwing anniversary and wedding parties, Gaona hopes that Léna can also host art exhibitions in the future.