With the recent passing of restaurateur Dino Bakakos, the former proprietor of the now-defunct Lafayette Bar and Grill in Tribeca, many in the dance and performing arts community worry that the climate for live performance downtown may be forever changed.
Bakakos, 63, who passed away a little more than two weeks ago as a result of complications from a brain hemorrhage, had been trying up until “the day he died,” friends says, to find another suitable location to resurrect the venerable Lafayette, Bakakos was forced to shut it down a year ago due to a lost lease and rent hike.
Located at 54 Franklin St. and open since 1996, the Lafayette came to be known as much more than a neighborhood restaurant. Due to its proximity to the nearby courts on Centre Street, it was a frequent stop for police, judges and court officers.
But it was Bakakos’ support of all manner of artists, from dancers and painters to musicians and writers, that helped transform the Lafayette into something of a United Nations for performing artists across the city and beyond.
On any given night, one could hear music, instruments and influences from Greek, Armenian, Israeli, Turkish, Arabic or other Middle Eastern cultures.
Dancers in particular—whether belly, tango or salsa—held a special place in Bakakos’ heart and at the Lafayette as well.
“If you were an artist, Dino would give you a chance to perform,” said Chris Bakakos, Dino’s son.
Chris also recalled that traffic at the restaurant grew steadily along with the rhythmic drumbeat of music and performers.
“I remember when the tango classes started and then they picked-up steam. The Lafayette became part of the tango circuit,” Chris said. He added that Dino gave many performers their very first opportunities to perform.
One performer who got her first shot at Lafayette was Cristine Andriopoulos, a veteran patron and performer under the stage name Athena Najat, who now lives in Istanbul, Turkey.
“Several generations of dancers, artists and musicians have memories of the Lafayette,” Andriopoulos said via phone. “I started as a baby belly dancer there and so did other generations. Everyone has stories about the place.”
Bakakos was almost uniformly described by those who knew him best as being honorable, generous and giving to a fault, creating a nurturing, supportive environment that thrived for the better part of 15 years.
A former Lafayette patron, writing to Bakakos’ son Chris, said, “The Lafayette bar was my port, my shelter and my home because of Dino Bakakos. He was infinitely loving and kind. I was there so many years that my butt-print is on the barstool. I will forever miss him.”
Such was the type of devotion and reverence that Bakakos evoked from his customers.
“Dino Bakakos is and was a gentleman with a kind and thoughtful heart that is rarely found today. If I ever in my life meet another person with one third of his redeeming value and generosity I will consider myself more than blessed,” wrote Roz Nixon, a former patron, on the Lafayette’s Facebook page.
Mike Stoupakis, Bakakos’ son-in-law, recalled the Lafayette as “pretty much a belly dancer hangout.”
“All the dancers would stay at the place after their performances and have a drink or dinner,” he said, noting that because the dancers all knew each other, it was like a supportive community instead of just a place to come and work.
“The loss of the Lafayette is already creating a hole in the arts and dance scenes in the city,” said Stoupakis, who played the bouzouki, a Greek instrument, and was also in charge of the club’s Greek night. “The place will be missed. There’s not another one like it.”
There are still live music places left in the city, said Andriopoulos, “but not in the way the Lafayette had their tango, Greek and Mediterranean nights. You didn’t have to check a listing to know if something fun was going on there … you always knew there was.”
Chris recalled the Lafayette’s star-studded history, noting that during the 1990s, several episodes of NBC’s Law & Order were shot at the bar, and movie companies would routinely rent out the bar for location shoots.
Celebrities spotted at the Lafayette included NYC newscaster Ernie Anastos, actress Olympia Dukakis, actor John Stamos and actor Matthew Broderick.
While the Lafayette survived many different crises through the years, including Sept. 11 and the blackout of 2003, the venue couldn’t survive a steep rent hike.
The new landlord nearly doubled the rent, Chris said. “It wasn’t economically feasible to stay in the place.” He said many businesses in the area went out due to rising rents.
Morocco, a legendary belly dancer and dance researcher, who at age 73 has been dancing for more than five decades, called Dino a “marvelous person,” who didn’t have a mean bone in this body.
“The Lafayette was one of the most welcoming places I’d ever performed in,” said Morocco, who was born in Transylvania and now teaches dance out of a studio in Chelsea. “Dino made friends with everyone… Nothing bad I could ever say about him.”
Dino’s brother, Billy, said he’s thinking of trying to reopen another incarnation of the Lafayette as a way to carry on and serve as a tribute to his late brother.
“I’m going to see if I can find the right partner,” he said. “We had such good times at the Lafayette. There were better shows there than on Broadway.”
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