The Little Owl is not Central Perk. Despite its gorgeous location on the corner of Bedford and Grove Streets in New York’s Greenwich Village, the restaurant — which operates breakfast, lunch, and dinner service — hasn’t fed into the Friends tourism frenzy it found itself a part of since opening in 2006. (For the uninitiated, the corner served as the primary exterior for many of the characters’ apartments in the sitcom.) It’s pretty much the opposite: Owner and chef Joey Campanaro wasn’t aware of the significance of the location when he signed the lease, only realizing that something was afoot when busloads of people were dropped off to gawk at the building at any given time. Now, he estimates he deals with “1,000, maybe more” tourists standing at that corner every single day.
The majority of these Friends fans, Campanaro tells Vulture, are respectful during their pilgrimages, and just want to snap a photo or take in the beauty of the neighborhood. However, some bad behavior has cropped up over the years, and dealing with inconsiderate fans has become an integral part of the duties of Little Owl’s staff. With the show celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, Vulture sat down with Campanaro — at the restaurant, of course — to learn more about how being located at a major tourism hub affects business. He has a great David Schwimmer story, too.
Were you aware of the history of this street corner when you leased the property?
Not at all. I had no idea why hundreds and hundreds of people were gathering on that corner. The owner of the French restaurant that was here beforehand also didn’t know. I had to eavesdrop on a tour group and figure out what it was. No red flags came up when I was researching the building. Obviously, when you take over a lease on a building, you do due diligence on what you’re getting yourself into. Any open violations, things like that. Not even a Google search brought up any relationship to Friends. It was never a business decision based on Friends to lease this space.
When did you eavesdrop on that tour group?
We opened in the spring, so, naturally, there’s more people on the street during those nice-weather months. It was a Wednesday morning and there had to be 400 people on that corner. It was unbelievable. I just didn’t understand. When the person in the tour group told me it was the Friends building, my first reaction was, “Oh, that’s cute.”
Do overzealous fans often wander into the restaurant to take photos?
Once in awhile, tourists will come into the restaurant and say in very heavy accents, “Is this the building of the Friends?” They ask to buy coffee mostly. I mean, we sell $5 cups of coffee on the menu, and they’re not to-go. We have to pay the West Village rent. The restaurant is reserved for people who want to eat. Some people get upset that this wasn’t Central Perk, or that it wasn’t about Friends. It’s a neighborhood restaurant with zero pretension. The economics of it all is you have to pay the rent. Not one tourist has come in here expecting to hear that very realistic news. [Laughs.] They’re looking for that orange couch.
Would you say that the fans, overall, are respectful toward the restaurant and don’t cause too much trouble?
Generally speaking, yes. A few stories of bad behavior stick out, though. A good buddy of mine does graffiti, and about four years ago, he came to the restaurant one night and I bought him dinner — free pork chop on the house. When he walked out, he was carrying a piece of sidewalk chalk with him and wrote “I love Joey” on a wall outdoors. It was for me, not Joey Tribbiani. He didn’t know the Friends connection either, I think. Little by little, people started defacing the property with “Pivot!” and “Joey doesn’t share food!” and “We were on a break!” Soon, it stretched over the entire building. People had the audacity to come in and ask for Sharpies.
Ultimately, I felt like I was responsible for it and I had to remove it all. “Annoying” might not be the right word, but the fact that fans think that type of thing is okay is scary. When I explained to these people they couldn’t do it, they were like, “What about all these other people?” I was like, “If everybody jumps off a bridge, would you jump off the bridge?” You know that bridge in Paris with all of those locks? It was just like that. There’s no demographic to it, either. It’s people in their sixties to little kids.
Was that graffiti incident the worst fan behavior, in your experience?
I’ve been yelled at a lot because it’s not Central Perk. I’ve been called stupid. The repetitiveness is expected at this point. I sense it in the staff, too. We’re in a hospitality-driven business and to say “no” over and over and over again is taxing.
Do you include Friends-related scenarios in your staff training?
No, not specifically. If someone comes in and asks a question, obviously we’re going to respond, “Yes, this is the Friends building, welcome.” I encourage the staff to embrace it in public. I can’t control what they do behind closed doors.
Have you ever thought about really capitalizing on your location for Friends fans? Like, themed dinners?
I’ve never decided to “capitalize” in the strongest sense of the word. The only thing I’ve done, occasionally, was sell coffee mugs with a picture of the building on it. I sell them with permission from the landlord. That’s not totally specific to Friends, though.
Have any of the Friends actors dined at the restaurant?
David Schwimmer came here a few years ago wearing a hat. He was sitting right by the front window — a super-visible spot to anyone passing by. I offered to move his seat and he looked at me like I was crazy. I was like, “Hey, lots of people take photos here, it might be better if you moved.” He had no idea where he was. [Laughs.] Once he saw 100 people walk to the corner, he took me up on my offer. His immediate switch from bewilderment to appreciation was amusing. I took the risk of pissing him off to protect him! He hasn’t been back since.
Do you see yourself at this location indefinitely?
That’s my plan. I don’t want to go anywhere.