Gjovalin Nikçi was a high-schooler when he first saw Groucho Marx, in the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts.
“He was a brilliant, brilliant performer,” Nikçi said. “They didn’t even have to say anything—just their body language.” It ignited a mania that has followed Nikçi throughout his career: Marx’s likeness appeared in the logo for a restaurant Nikçi opened in 1997, and for another, he opened in 2000. So it was almost fated that Nikçi would oversee a venue Marx himself once frequented: George’s at Kaufman Astoria Studios.
In January, the Astor Room, the bistro previously housed within Kaufman, closed for renovations. Mid-process, studio chairman George Kaufman, responsible for revitalizing the production site in the mid-’80s, died. When the restaurant reopened in March, anchored by a new menu, bar manager, chef and emphasis on its old Hollywood heritage, it was christened George’s in his memory. The new restaurant occupies an old space: Kaufman Astoria Studios was a Paramount Pictures lot in the days of founder Adolph Zukor; what is now George’s was then its commissary.
As Paramount’s mothership, the studio once hosted productions like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, another Marx Brothers film, the Gloria Swanson film Manhandled and The Sheik with Rudolph Valentino. By day, it’s still a functioning studio space; to access the subterranean restaurant, one must pass sound stages where Muppets and Jennifer Lopez alike film their shows, catering trucks and craft services tents lining the sidewalk.
By night, the main building goes quiet, while down a vintage marble staircase, in a dining room lined with the original hand-painted tiles, George’s is just waking up. On a recent weekend evening, two middle-aged women split a Tarte Tatin while a young family wrapped up their meal; at the bar, couples tucked into cocktails and French fries.
George’s, even more than its predecessor, pays homage to its Hollywood heritage, with a handful of Prohibition-themed bourbon drinks, live music “to keep it jazzy,” as assistant manager Sarah Epstein explains, and dishes inspired by classic Hollywood stars’ dining habits.
Nikçi plumbed New York Times archives from the ’20s and ’30s for inspiration: For famously vegetarian Gloria Swanson, he included a grilled vegetable starter, a collage of radicchio, asparagus, eggplant, carrot and fennel; for Marx, there was, until recently, New England clam chowder, reportedly his favorite meal, paired with animal crackers.
The cocktail menu, concocted by bar manager Jamie Ricalde, often takes inspiration from movies and series shooting upstairs. (“Orange Is the New Peach,” a vodka-laced iced tea inspired by the series Orange Is the New Black, joined the summer roster.)
The restaurant’s offerings, devised by Nikçi and chef Claudio Fajardo, are united by a tendency to play with unexpected ingredients. For example: A vegan cauliflower soup spiked with white chocolate or a Coca-Cola-marinated pork chop. Astoria native Tony Bennett, who recorded his duet album with Lady Gaga at Kaufman, recommended more pasta on the menu— specifically, his mother’s lasagna, which includes a hint of nutmeg. And Nikçi commissioned six-foot-long spaghetti, an oddity actor Rudolph Valentino once cooked as a parlor trick, from Borgatti’s Ravioli & Egg Noodles in the Bronx.
Between the studio lot’s rich history and the restaurant’s ambitious menu, which changes monthly, there’s plenty to mine for inspiration for future dishes. When we spoke, Nikçi was already onto his next project: a dish from a Buenos Aires restaurant named for an Argentine tango dancer who made several films at Paramount in the ’20s.
Naturally, baked into the recipe is a dramatic, continent-spanning tale. If you sit down with Nikçi, he’ll surely tell you all about it.