Caviar served on potato chips, five varieties of wine flowing to tables lining an otherwise quiet Greenwich Village block: nothing about Niche Niche looks ordinary. It’s a dinner party for the ages and one born of a bygone era, when Instagram feeds and e-mail were not yet suitable dinner companions—even though the party, as of this summer, has shifted outside.
Niche Niche is one of four restaurants Ariel Arce runs in New York City. Air’s Champagne Parlor, Arce’s first spot, on MacDougal Street, offers an extensive variety of sparkling wines. Occupying Air’s lower floor—and, now, its makeshift patio—is Tokyo Record Bar, a reservations-only izakaya bar. There are two seatings each night, and diners are invited to choose from the restaurant’s extensive vinyl collection. Similarly, Niche Niche, Arce’s newest project, offers two dinner seatings per night, where wine tastings are curated by a rotating cast of sommeliers and guests are encouraged to get to know each other (at a distance). It is, as one employee puts it, “the only restaurant in New York where the wine comes first and the food comes second.” Downstairs is Special Club, an old-school supper club featuring live music; this one has had to close temporarily, but Arce hopes to reopen it as regulations are eased. (This week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the city’s restaurants would be permitted to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity starting at the end of the month.)
You wouldn’t know it from her wildly popular spots, but Arce—a native New Yorker whose wisdom belies her 33 years—is relatively new to the restaurant world. She graduated from college in the middle of a recession and opted for a restaurant job in the hope of a steady income. “I thought, I kind of like this business, and I’m interested in learning more, but New York is scary,” Arce says, so she headed to Chicago. “That’s where I really saw how theatrics and hospitality could together play into an experience. It was also the place where I really fell in love with champagne and decided that it was the thing I wanted to focus on.” Arce spent two years at a Chicago champagne parlor before moving back to New York, where she worked at the subterranean Riddling Widow, a fledgling bar on MacDougal Street just south of Washington Square Park. When the owner decided to sell, in 2016, Arce jumped at the opportunity to buy it. She would open Air’s there a year later and, soon after, Tokyo Record Bar downstairs.
As was the case for so many other restaurants, the coronavirus brought major challenges. “It was a whole new model for the industry that we kind of had to learn overnight, so in the beginning, a lot of it was just getting creative and seeing what would stick,” Arce says. With Niche Niche and Tokyo Record Bar operating solely outdoors, she worried the dinner-party approach would lose some of its allure. Soon after resuming service, though, she realized that “even though people aren’t screaming about wine in the middle of the dining room of Niche Niche or physically able to touch records at Tokyo, they’re coming back for the people that they’ve been hanging out with for the last three years, and that makes the experience really positive.” Throughout the pandemic, Arce has largely stuck to her original strategy: affordability and accessibility. It’s the approach she took at Air’s in 2017, when she transformed bubbly from rarefied luxury to everyday delight, and it’s a concept she’s carried over into outdoor dining. “The goal is always to take things like vinyl, like the dinner party, like live music—which I think are really life’s pleasures—and to create platforms for them to be enjoyed,” Arce says, a glass of vintage brut in hand.
Gabby Shacknai is a writer based in New York City