Steve Olsen began working in the restaurant industry at age 16. He started in the kitchen and worked his way through every position in the business. Steve opened the West Bank Cafe when he was all of 24. A passionate wine collector, he has amassed over 250 labels and holds vinification, viniculture, and blind wine tasting certificates from the American Sommelier Association. In keeping with West Bank Cafe’s close ties to the theater and film worlds, Steve has nurtured young actors, writers, and directors—including Lewis Black, Sean Penn, and Side Man playwright Warren Leight—many of whom appeared in and staged performances at the downstairs Laurie Beechman Theater, on their way to accomplished careers.
T2C: When did you move into Manhattan Plaza and how did you get into the building?
Steve Olsen: I moved into Manhattan Plaza in 1980. I applied for an apartment and moved in almost immediately, like within a month.
There was no waiting list and nobody wanted to live in Hell’s Kitchen because is was too run down and dangerous. I had opened my restaurant, West Bank Cafe in 1978, so for me it was totally convenient to “live above the store”.
T2C: Were you there during the AIDS’s crisis? Tell us about that time.
Steve Olsen: When the AIDS crisis hit, it hit Manhattan Plaza hard.
The Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project was established by Rodney Kirk, the Director of Manhattan Plaza, and I served on the committee along with several community leaders, merchants and MP residents. We raised money and awareness in several ways, including producing an annual fundraiser event which featured a cabaret show at the Westside Theatre followed by a post show reception, which my restaurant, West Bank Cafe, catered every year (pro bono).
T2C: How did the West Bank Cafe Come to be?
Steve Olsen: I opened West Bank Cafe on June 29th. 1978. I was the first commercial tenant at Manhattan Plaza. I met with Richard Hunnings and Rodney Kirk and signed a lease. I was 24 years old but had been working in the restaurant business since I was a young teenager at my uncle’s tavern, Gleason’s and other restaurants as well, so I had a few years experience in the business and thought I knew what I was doing.
One year later, in 1979, I opened the Downstairs Theatre in the basement of WBC and started presenting shows.
T2C: What have been the biggest changes to the neighborhood and your business?
Steve Olsen: My mother and father both were born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen and moved to NJ after WW2, and my father was a longshoreman on Pier 90. I had a lot of relatives who lived on the West Side. As a kid we were in the city all the time visiting the cousins and I have a lot of memories about what the neighborhood was like in the 1960s and 1970s. It was really run down and the people were poor. It always seemed hotter in the Summer (nobody had AC) and there were no trees. The biggest change in the neighborhood in the 42 plus years that I have been operating my restaurant is that Hell’s Kitchen has gone from being an undesirable neighborhood to being a desirable one. Hell’s Kitchen was never featured in any tour guide books, except to warn tourists to stay away because it was dangerous, and there were no attractions to see. Nowadays, for the last 15-20 years or so, over 30 hotels have opened in the area and it’s still striking to me when I see tourists with suitcases walking around looking for their hotel. Also, there’s been an explosion of bars, restaurants and many other attractions that have opened up around us.
T2C: What has living in the building allowed you to accomplish that you’re the most proud of?
Steve Olsen: Living at Manhattan Plaza has given me the ability to run a restaurant without having to commute to work everyday. Therefore, it’s a quality of life issue where I can come and go all day long. Also, I have shared history with so many friends, neighbors and customers through all the highs and lows, triumphs and disappointments of life. Also, being that our restaurant is located in the heart of the NY Theater District, I think we have the best clientele in the city; a real cross section of customers from all walks of life.
T2C: What has been your biggest triumph?
Steve Olsen: I have had so many triumphs throughout the years both personally and professionally. I guess surviving two very serious illnesses (kidney disease and cancer) and surviving in an industry that has a 80-90% fail rate are high on the list, but forging the friendships I have made throughout my life is the best accomplishment of all.
T2C: What would you change from your time in Manhattan Plaza?
Steve Olsen: I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
T2C: What is the restaurant currently doing during the coronavirus to help people get food?
Steve Olsen: West Bank Cafe is offering curbside pickup and delivery service Wednesday-Saturday from 2-7 pm. serving our Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea neighbors. We are taking orders on the phone from noon-6 pm. The menu is discounted and specials change weekly. We offer an additional 10% discount for senior citizens. There are no service fees.
T2C: What would you like us to know that we haven’t asked you?
Steve Olsen: My proudest achievement is being the founder of the annual “Steve Olsen Run For Rogosin 5K”, which has raised over $1 million since 2009. for the Rogosin Institute Kidney Center.
The documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, is available on Amazon and will soon be available to stream.