A Hamburger Today
How Charlie Bird Got Its Wall of Boomboxes
"We'll start the playlist off with Lauryn Hill, something a little softer," says Ryan Hardy, chef-owner of Charlie Bird. "We listen to a lot of Biggie. We love Jay-Z. He lives down the street. We could easily end the night getting into Wu-Tang."
Hardy doesn't mean in the kitchen. Diners at his "American Italian" restaurant in Soho can eat a $39 veal chop or drink from a $90 bottle of Verdicchio to, say, a hypnotic riff over which Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre are spitting rhymes.
"In restaurants, people listen to hip hop everywhere," Hardy says. "We were in ABC Kitchen and they listen to Biggie. Nobody notices because it's not very loud. We turn it up. That's our thing."
Charlie Bird has some 20 speakers. Squint and the perforated steel lining first-floor windows looks like a speaker up close. (The similarity was intended, Hardy says.) Across from the windows on the second level, four boombox prints hang. The frames around them are white, and the space around them is negative.
For a half a second, they seem like conventional photographs. Look again. The colors contrast very sharply. The switches and dials have an exaggerated depth, giving the boomboxes a grungy, computer-generated look. But they are photographs, digitally altered by the Canadian artist Lyle Owerko.
"A lot of the work was done in-camera," Owerko says, skirting the specifics in order to keep them secret. "The idea was to make the boomboxes look like they went to battle, war, or space."
Owerko's book The Boombox Project collects many of these photographs. He is very into boomboxes, their history, and how, starting in the late 1970s, they opened a world of expression. "Boomboxes to me were defiant," he explains. "They incubated so many genres of music—metal, garage rock. They are much bigger than hip hop."
Not at Charlie Bird.
Hardy first saw Owerko's boombox prints when walking past Clic Bookstore & Gallery downtown. Two days later he returned and bought the four prints now hanging in a row on Charlie Bird's wall.
Hardy also came across Owerko's book. "The book went back to an era that we found inspirational," Hardy says. "It was about looking at something in a very different way. That's what we wanted to do with the restaurant."
Charlie Bird's menu skews pretty heavily Italian (lots of pasta, pork in pancetta and guanciale form, chickpeas as ceci). But Hardy is quick to say the menu is rooted in New York, where influences melt together. He traces his own to Italy and also Greece, Spain, France, Austria, and the American south, where as a kid in Kentucky he was the exception for cranking the hip-hop beats instead of the country twang.
So it's not surprising that the restaurant's New York and hip-hop angles arose organically.
"Right before we opened the restaurant, there was a moment where we gathered and opened a great wine and wrote down inspirational things. Music. Downtown New York 30 to 40 years ago. Those are things that we drew from."
The result of that brainstorming session is an "American Italian" eatery named after graffiti of an American jazz icon (Charlie Parker) that blasts hip-hop and, like New York, is where many unlikely influences and ingredients come together—like uni and guanciale, like "Mo' Money Mo' Problems" and Chablis.
Owerko's boombox prints in Charlie Bird are these themes represented visually. "He made it classic, modern, and throwback at the same time," Hardy explains. He was referring to Owerko's prints, but he could easily have meant his own restaurant.
About the author: Chris Malloy is a writer from the Philadelphia area. He has a Master's in Food Studies from Boston University. If you enjoyed this story, check out some of his other work.