When Chef Nicole O’Brien moved to the Hudson Heights in 2004, the first place she felt drawn to was Fort Tryon Park.
Now, nearly 20-years-later, she will be running a restaurant, The Bonnefont, at the park’s nearly century-old cobblestone cottage. It will open its doors to the public in August.
“I have always loved the space in the park,” she says. “I feel really privileged to be entrusted with it.”
After the restaurant on the park’s premises, New Leaf Cafe, officially closed in January 2020, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation put out a public bid for the esteemed edifice.
“When it became available again, I jumped at it,” O’Brien, who was running the Pandering Pig at the time, recalls. “I couldn’t pass it up.”
Knowing what a grand undertaking it was and wanting to give it the respect she believed it deserved, she swiftly decided to shut down her famed flagship, The Pandering Pig, also located in the Hudson Heights, after eight-years of service.
However after being abandoned for some time, the building she bought was far from picture-perfect. The coveted cottage had holes in its walls and its wires were chewed up by critters who also left behind their droppings. But O’Brien has been more than happy to clean it up.
“It’s been really cool to breathe new life into it,” she says. “It’s really something kind of spiritual. I feel like the building’s happy. It’s finally getting cleaned and restored to what it should be.”
She’s also pursuing renovation projects like flipping the kiosk bar to be more accessible to park goers, which will have a select curation of wine, beer and liquor.
Her new eatery will offer “FreNoCal” cuisine, a term she says her husband came up with to describe her background as a native northern Californian with a French culinary flair. Although the fare will be similar to her flagship, it will have a distinct woodsy flavor to enhance the experience of being amidst the park’s 67-acre forest. Think seeds, herbs, edible flowers and quail, she says. The produce and poultry will also be seasonal.
Its decor will draw inspiration from the color palette of the park with deep green velvet and medium brown leather furniture, as well as dandelion-looking chandeliers. She also hired a local artist to paint nature motifs in the newly renovated bathrooms.
“I’m really bringing in the elements of the park,” she says. “I want you to feel when you go there that you’re really in the woods in this magical place.”
There will be a select number of special events held on the premises, which she is purposely limiting to avoid public accessibility issues that the park has had in the past.
Although O’Brien didn’t pursue hospitality until later in life, she says she comes from a “very culinary family.” Her sister studied at the prestigious Parisian culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, and her family spoiled her with French-inspired cuisine cooked with produce from the famed farmer’s markets that abound in Sonoma County where she grew up.
She started cooking as a side gig, working as a private chef for whom she calls the “Hillary Clinton crowd,” including the likes of Huma Abedin. They were primarily high-performing professional women. While doing so she worked with nutritionists, which primed her to pursue healthy cooking habits that have followed her since.
She has lived in various neighborhoods in the city, from the East Village to the Upper West Side, but she says she has taken a special liking to Hudson Heights. Although it’s controversial, she stands firm that Fort Tryon is the best park in the city.
“It’s a really magical neighborhood,” she says. “You’re right on the Hudson River but it’s quiet.”