The Extraordinary X2O
It may be the most heralded restaurant opening in the history of the Hudson Valley. After six long years, hometown hero Peter Kelly has finally opened his new eatery, X2O, on the Yonkers waterfront. Find out what all the fuss is about.
By Lynn Hazlewood
photos Ken Gabrielsen
If you were in Yonkers on June 12, you may have heard a loud buzzing coming from the waterfront — specifically the pier. Peter Kelly’s long-awaited new restaurant, X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, had finally opened, and swarms of diners were clamoring to be among the first in the door. It had been six long years since Kelly first conceived of the project, six years of frustrating setbacks, zoning problems and a great tangle of red tape to navigate.
As the building took shape over the past few years, the anticipation rose to a fever pitch — and not just locally. It seemed the tables were only just set when writers and reviewers for national publications like GQ, the New York Times and Esquire were racing to Yonkers to check the place out.
Why all the excitement?
It’s true that the restaurant is stunning: a 13,000-square-foot, multilevel space designed to a fare-thee-well, with wraparound windows overlooking the river — the Tappan Zee Bridge to the north, the George Washington and Manhattan skyline to the south. Step out onto the balcony facing the Palisades, and you feel like you’re on an ocean liner. As Kelly likes to say, “There are a lot of restaurants on the Hudson River, but this one’s in it.”
It’s also true that two of Peter Kelly’s other restaurants — the bijou Xaviar’s in Piermont and its neighbor, the Freelance CafÃ© — consistently rate highest in the region in the Zagat dining guide (both are listed in Zagat’s guide to America’s Top Restaurants as well). Kelly’s bigger, more casual spot, Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers, is a near contender. All have a devoted following.
And then there’s the national obsession with chefs and food. (As Kelly says, “You can’t pick up a copy of Popular Mechanics these days without finding a story on food — cooking a hamburger on the carburetor or something.”) In a May episode of the Food Channel’s Iron Chef America, Kelly entered that spotlit arena and beat grill master Bobby Flay at his own game.
But even dramatic surroundings, a posse of fervent admirers, and a food obsession don’t quite explain the hoopla surrounding X2O. There’s a sense that what’s happening is something more important than simply the opening of a new place to eat. Perhaps it’s that Kelly’s multimillion-dollar venture is giving a terrific leg-up to the rebirth of Yonkers — a city, like many on the banks of the Hudson, that has seen better days.
Back in 2001, Yonkers officials were bent on attracting development in their struggling town. Deputy Mayor Phil Amicone (he’s now mayor) asked Kelly to consider opening a restaurant in the Gazette building on Main Street. “I liked it,” Kelly says. “But the thing that really excited me was the waterfront.” (Other enterprising pioneers transformed the Gazette building into the Italian restaurant, Zuppa). What particularly intrigued Kelly was the Victorian pier, which the city had restored in the mid-’90s. “It was an open-air steel structure that had been closed off for 40 years,” Kelly recalls. “Nobody was using it but pigeons.”
Kelly is an affable, down-to-earth guy despite his significant achievements (“Being the best chef in Rockland County is like being the tallest midget,” he says). But major players were showing interest in developing the waterfront, and Kelly saw the potential not just for a money-making enterprise, but as a way to do something for Yonkers. “I needed another restaurant like a hole in the head,” he says. “But I thought, if we do this, it could have a lasting impact. I wanted to build a landmark restaurant.”
Kelly lives in Rockland County, but he grew up in Yonkers, the tenth of 12 children — and he was not to the swanky restaurant born. His father died when he was 12, leaving the family without much money. But Kelly’s mother, Harriet, imbued her children with a positive outlook, a strong work ethic, and, not least, an appreciation for quality. “When I got my first job as a busboy, she insisted I should spend $100 for my shoes,” Kelly remembers. “This was 30 years ago! She said, â€˜Buy the best and they will last.’”
Now 47, Kelly knew early on that he wanted to be a restaurateur, although he didn’t picture himself as a chef. “I worked in a couple of places when I was going to school, and then I took a job at Laurent, a four-star restaurant in New York,” he recalls. “I was smitten with the idea of working in a dining room with extremely wealthy guests who had good taste.”
In 1983, when he was just 23 years old, Kelly opened his first restaurant, Xaviar’s, at the Highlands Country Club in Garrison. “It was a wreck of a place,” he recalls of the dining room he and his older brother Ned transformed into a tranquil, chandelier-lit haven. Although money was scarce, the brothers worked to create an atmosphere of tasteful luxury. “When we opened, we had mismatched silverware and plates,” Kelly says with a laugh. “But the plates were Lenox, and we’d set two tables of this pattern and another of that.”
After a falling out with the chef he’d planned to go into partnership with, Kelly decided to become the chef himself. His culinary education began with a month’s tour of the best restaurants in France, followed by a careful study of Jacques Pepin’s treatise on cooking, La Technique. Then he headed into the restaurant’s kitchen and learned by trial and error.
He’s dismissive of the notion that the best chefs have innate talent. “I’m not a big believer in the chef as artist. It’s a lot of baloney. I’m good at what I do — reproducing the same thing over and over again. It flies in the face of artistry, really.”
He taught his staff the gracious, professional service he’d learned at Laurent — a calm, polite style that’s become a hallmark of his restaurants. With that, the excellent food, and the fine china and glassware (not to mention Ned’s gorgeous flower arrangements), Xaviar’s quickly became a regional favorite, earning three stars from the New York Times. (A sigh of regret was heard across the mid-Hudson Valley when Kelly closed the Garrison branch in 2003.)
Later, Ned, Peter and Peter’s wife, Rica, went on to design the interiors of Xaviar’s and Freelance CafÃ©, which are almost as well-known for their tasteful dÃ©cor as for the tasty food. So when Kelly embarked on the ambitious enterprise in Yonkers, he wanted an architectural firm that would welcome their ideas. Highland Associates and interior designer Denise Lukhardt earned the commission.
Right from the start, the project inched forward. Because the pier is state-owned, Kelly’s plans to raise the roof and enclose the two top floors had to be approved by the glacial powers in Albany. Divers were sent to see if the underwater pilings could handle the weight of the proposed new second floor. (No — they had to be reinforced.) Because the structure is slated for landmark status, the impractical corrugated metal roof had to be retained.
River watchdog groups had their say, too. “Just to scrape the steel, we had to completely wrap the structure so that nothing would hit the water,” Kelly reports. Some people were against having a restaurant there at all, protesting that the pier should be public access. (The lower, open-air level is, in fact, available for public use, with a water taxi that heads to Battery Park on weekdays.)
Funding came from the city, the Port Authority, and the state, with Kelly contributing a sum that he won’t divulge, but which makes him roll his eyes and remark that he’s “bet the ranch.” Certainly no expense was spared when it came to designing the interior (see sidebar).
As soon as the doors opened, sophisticated crowds started piling in. “Traveling from other neighborhoods, yes,” Kelly says. “But Yonkers has hospitals, schools, government offices, an ungodly amount of real estate people — all professionals who dine out.”
Seventy percent of the staff are from
He’s well-liked by his staff, and quick to credit them in return. “I have the best team in the industry,” he says. “The only reason I’m able to take on a project of this magnitude is my support staff.”
One of the three captains at X2O is Greg Vann, who beams as he works the room. When he heard about plans for the new restaurant, he immediately sent his resume to Kelly — and sent it again every six months until the time came to hire staff. “I stalked the chef,” Vann says with glee. “I knew it would be a phenomenal restaurant, and I wanted to hitch my wagon to his star.”
“Building a restaurant in Yonkers wouldn’t be anybody’s first choice,” Kelly says. “But I believe that â€˜If we build it they will come.’ I believe it will be financially successful. But it’s bigger than a restaurant, bigger than Xaviar’s, bigger than Peter Kelly — it’s supporting a community.”