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New Mexican bistro, EM, gains approval

By Lisa Brody

EM Market bistro, standing for “Employee Meals,” received approval from the Birmingham City Commission on Monday, December 7, after debate over the number of outdoor seats requested and where they were to be located, allowing Joe and Kristen Bongiovanni, owners of adjacent bistro Market North End, to proceed with opening.


The new bistro, to be located at 470 N. Old Woodward, came before the commission for final site plan and design and special land use permit. The commission had unanimously approved the concept in April 2020 for a potential 2020 bistro license, sending it forward to the city's planning board for final site plan and design and special land use permit reviews. The planning board recommended EM for approvals in October.


Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said the applicant met the requirements for a bistro, which requires a full service kitchen, no more than 65 seats, with no more than 10 at a bar, tables in the storefront window, at least 70 percent glazing in the window, and outdoor dining. She said it has a small but full service kitchen, although it was proposing to share restrooms with Market North End, which caused a great deal of discussion and concern amongst the commissioners and public who spoke at the meeting.


The plans, which Ecker said had been resubmitted right before the meeting, initially had 44 indoor seats. The updated plans had 52 seats with 10 around the bar. Plans indicated 28 outdoor seats adjacent to the building under a suspended steel pergola, similar to an awning over the sidewalk, as well another 32 seats on an outdoor platform in the street, on one to two angled parking spaces, for a total of 112 seats.


Hours would be 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week, with the outdoor dining closing at midnight.


The menu is to be eclectic Mexican, inspired by the coast, with an emphasis on fresh seafood.


“We've worked on creating a restaurant that complements the north end and the city,” said Joe Bongiovanni. “It will most definitely be a separate restaurant from Market North End and will feel completely different from a guest effect. It will be small, intimate and the blueprint of what a bistro should be.”


A long corridor will separate the two establishments.


“To have 64 seats outdoors is to have a large operation,” objected commissioner Rackeline Hoff.


“We have the shared bathroom, with one male and one female at Market. Where are they going to queue people for the restrooms and where are they going to queue people for the restaurant?” asked commissioner Stuart Sherman.


“We're good for an occupancy up to 300 with those restrooms,” said designer Roman Bonislawksi.


“I want to go back to the intent of the bistro ordinance as a standalone establishment. Looking at the relative size of Market and the relative size of EM, EM Market does not appear to have the infrastructure to be an independent space. If you took the wall out, you'd have a 250-some restaurant,” said mayor pro tem Therese Longe. “I'd be more comfortable without the outdoor dining platform.”


Commissioner Mark Nickita, who was part of the planning board when the bistro ordinance was developed and has helped approve every bistro in the city so far, said it was exactly what the city had in mind for bistros. “This falls directly in line with the criteria.”


Hoff noted that while she enjoys the Bongiovanni families restaurants, which include Luxe and Salvatore Scallopini, she objected to the idea of taking parking spaces, and would not support the bistro.


Sherman agreed, and suggested lowering the intensity of use, as has been done with other applicants in the past, and not take up parking, just utilizing the sidewalk. Longe concurred.


A motion to approve keeping the street platform failed with a tie vote and commissioner Clinton Baller absent.


A subsequent motion to approve without the outdoor seats on a platform passed 6-0.

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