At NYC’s EMILIA by Nai, find a chic coffee shop by day and a rare Galician restaurant by night

Maitake bomba rice with squid ink and saffron aioli at EMILIA by Nai. | Credit: Kathryn Sheldon

Ruben Rodriguez grew up in a town of just 200 people in northern Spain. His grandmother, Emilia, personified the farm-to-table lifestyle, picking peaches for breakfast and catching fish for evening meals. “I’d wake up smelling fresh-brewed coffee every morning,” Rodriguez remembers. “It was a food-driven home.”

It’s no surprise that the chef named his latest Manhattan restaurant, a June 2022 opening, EMILIA by Nai. The restaurant, a thoughtful ode to his grandmother, is a minimalist, multi-use space that evokes Rodriguez’s Spanish childhood, just blocks from Tompkins Square Park.

EMILIA by Nai is just one of New York’s many restaurants that shift in usage, and even concept, throughout the day. Omakaseed operates a plant-based omakase counter inside Nomad’s Plant Bar. In Williamsburg, Emblem Sports Bar is a queer coworking space during business hours, and a craft beer bar at night. Nearby in Greenpoint, Edy’s Grocer pauses its casual lunch service and grocery vending for ticketed dinners with partnering chefs. 

New Yorkers are no strangers to multi-use spaces and subletting to afford high rents. Now, restaurants also adopt multiple identities to tackle economic hurdles. 

Though he operates several Manhattan restaurants including Nai Tapas Bar and Amigo by Nai, EMILIA is the sole concept dedicated to his grandmother. It’s also Rodriguez’s only multifaceted restaurant. 

Night and day

EMILIA by Nai’s minimalist interiors. | Credit: Kathryn Sheldon

Sunlight pours through the space’s large windows in the daytime; when night falls, they offer a glimpse of the East Village’s action. EMILIA is unfussy, with wooden furniture and clean lines, making it easy for the 40-seat dining room to toggle between identities. 

By morning, the restaurant is a coffee shop, thanks to a partnership with Coffee Project NY, a community-minded roaster. Diners graze on toasts and pastries, lingering over newspapers and tablets in the neutral, easygoing confines. By 5 pm, the lively cafe playlist is swapped for soft jazz. The main coffee table takes its second shift as a chef’s counter, serving oysters, jamón ibérico, and croquetas. To tie both concepts together, coffee cocktails make appearances on the dinnertime menu. 

Memory lane

Dishes such as red snapper crudo with cucumber and serrano pepper are inspired by chef Ruben Rodriguez’s grandmother’s cooking. | Credit: Kathryn Sheldon

EMILIA’s exemplifies the flow of the home kitchen that Rodriguez remembers as a child.

For Rodriguez, the restaurant couldn’t function any other way. “Everything that we cook, everything that we do here, is based on memory,” he says. 

In the morning, as an homage to the fruit-and-cheese breakfasts he devoured as a child, EMILIA by Nai serves up a charred peach and ricotta toast, garnished with Thai basil. A northern Spanish essential, scrambled egg with Iberico ham and tumaca bread (a Spanish sourdough), also features on the morning menu.

In the evenings, the offerings become more refined, though they still take cues from Emilia. Decadent monkfish liver mousse recalls Rodriguez’s grandmother using every part of the fish, even if the Kalamata marmalade and pickled daikon garnish may be unfamiliar to her. Plates categorized by garden, sea, and land are meant to be shared, just like they were at Rodriguez’s home; standouts include suckling pig confit with green apple and celery root. Though a full coffee, espresso, and tea menu is available any time of day, Spanish wines, sherries, vermouth, and cava are poured exclusively at night.

“This space isn’t made from something I saw or think is trendy,” Rodriguez says of what just might be his most personal project yet. “I just wanted to recreate the way I grew up.”

Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in Brooklyn, where she lives with her wife and rescue dog. You can follow her on Instagram @melissabethk and Twitter @melissabethk