The New Ipanema Embraces Change, But Doesn’t Forget Its Past
Chances are, if you went to see a Broadway show, wandered around near Times Square, or simply got a bit lost in Little Brazil on West 46th Street in the ’80s and ’90s, you probably walked past — or stepped into — a lively Brazilian restaurant called Ipanema.
The Midtown staple was known for its vibrant atmosphere, warm hospitality, and traditional Brazilian dishes. The intimate spot managed to stand the test of time, lasting more than 40 years until the pandemic rolled in and lockdown forced it to shutter (along with so many other beloved restaurants).
Portuguese immigrant Alfredo Pedro first opened the restaurant in 1979 under the name Brazilian Coffee, before it became Ipanema in 1988. It moved addresses on 46th Street a couple of times (each time increasing its footprint), before settling into its last location in 2015, where it stayed until 2021.
By then, Alfredo’s sons Carlos Pedro and Victor Pedro were heavily involved with the restaurant, as their parents spent part of the year in Portugal running a hotel and restaurant (their mother was born in Brazil and they have roots in both countries). When lockdown struck, they quickly realized Midtown would be hard hit and were able to get out of their lease.
Victor actually relocated Ipanema to South Norwalk, CT, near where he lives, after the Manhattan location shut down. But when the brothers began work on the new Manhattan location, they closed the Connecticut restaurant in December 2021, and recently reopened it as Boteco, with more of a gastropub-style menu.
The newly resurrected Ipanema opened in May, just 10 blocks south from the original.
“The plan was always to bide our time. New York is our home and we obviously didn’t want to let our storybook close in New York,” says Victor. “We were biding our time until we could find a new home here.”
But running a longtime restaurant often comes with certain responsibilities — longtime customers have certain expectations. Make too many changes and you risk alienating your supporters.
“My dad created a very solid space when he opened in the ’70s, and we built on that,” says Victor. “We had a ton of people that my dad became part of their lives; he served families whose kids grew up and then brought their kids to the restaurant. We felt like it was something that we couldn’t just let go.”
Still, the brothers knew certain aspects needed updating. “We don’t want to completely divorce ourselves from our past and we want to bring along our heritage, but we definitely want to continue improving,” adds Carlos. So while paying homage to their father and his original concept was top of mind, they also needed to bring Ipanema into the modern era.
“We have taken the homestyle place that we had and really fine-tuned everything into a well-oiled machine, with a new chef that’s pushing things to new heights.”
Ipanema Through the Years
The new chef is executive chef Giancarlo Junyent, who was born and raised in Brazil, and named best young chef in Rio de Janeiro by local newspapers before he moved to New York City and worked under chefs like Tom Colicchio. Junyent was tasked with evolving certain classic, must-be-on-the-menu dishes, in addition to adding new ones.
“After being in the city for so long and building such a loyal fan base, and having very popular dishes that people are used to seeing, and now trying to tweak those dishes — you need to make them something that people recognize when they taste it. We need to teach them a new way to experience what they’ve always loved,” explains Victor.
“For example, the Bitoque dish (a New York strip with an egg and steak Diane sauce) was our most popular dish for 35 years,” says Carlos. “The way it’s cooked now, you can look at it and see that it’s the same dish. But when you try it, you’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think it could be improved upon.’”
The new menu is a mix of updated traditional Brazilian dishes like feijoada, arroz de pato (which now features a 90-day-aged duck prosciutto), and piri piri chicken, alongside newer creations like a trio of oysters, one with acerola (a Brazilian tropical fruit), one with hearts of palm, and one with a cucumber relish, and a near-perfect dish of cured mackerel with smoked aioli, citrus wedges, ponzu, and large bonito flakes.
And while dessert and cocktails had previously been more of an afterthought, this time the brothers sought out Brazilian mixologist Marcio Silva, who has received accolades for his bar Guilhotina in Brazil from Tales of the Cocktail and World’s 50 Best Bars, and pastry chef Alejandra Nicolon, who has worked in top kitchens throughout the city, including Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, and most recently, Per Se. The Pedros even opened a small adjoining daytime café and bakery, called Bica, which features Nicolon’s pastries alongside sandwiches and salads.
“We’ve never had the privilege of having a pastry chef before, especially one as decorated as Alejandra, so we can just let her do her thing,” says Carlos. “There’s one link back to the family, which is the chocolate salami, which our grandmother used to make for every holiday and family event.”
In addition to the Salame de Chocolate, Nicolon is making her own ice cream and sorbet in flavors like acerola and crème fraiche as well as a lemon ginger cake under a cloud of orange blossom cream and fig jam and a guava pastry roll flecked with gold leaf.
The wine list has been given a major upgrade, and the drinks menu features cocktails that mix traditional Portuguese and Brazilian drinks with innovative new techniques and ingredients. Tipples like the Tall and Tan are made with house spiced rum, lime, ginger, masala spice, turbinado sugar, and soda water. There’s the Yemangin, made with flower-infused gin, Italicus, passion fruit, and sparkling wine; and also the Coado Cocktail, their version of an espresso martini, made with vodka, Amaro Lucano, cold brew liqueur, coffee, and chocolate bitters.
The bi-level spot also got a major design upgrade from Bolt Design Group. The entrance features a long hallway lined with solid oak wood planters filled with green plants that reference the rainforest, a hand-cut stone floor installation that mirrors the boardwalks of Ipanema, and on the ceiling is two miles of neutral-colored ropes entwined into an eye-catching pattern. Upstairs is an intimate cocktail lounge with a warm, red oak bar. All in all, the new restaurant is swanky, modern, and inviting, with subtle references to Brazil and Portugal, versus the original spot, which was a bit more, shall we say, obvious.
“The original restaurant was really comfortable, but kind of kitschy — it had murals of panthers in the rainforest painted on the wall — it was that kind of restaurant,” says Carlos.
For those yearning for a little history and missing the original Ipanema, the 20-seat private dining room features walls lined with photos from the restaurant’s original location and shelves filled with a collection of books from the Pedro family. Although Ipanema’s menu and design have been updated, the brothers continue to honor the restaurant’s past, and their father’s legacy.
“We hope and we really believe that a lot of our old-timers will come back to us and enjoy the changes we’ve made,” says Carlos. “But there were also people who maybe wouldn’t try it, they didn’t give us a chance, and now we’re getting these dishes in front of new people.”
Ipanema is open Tuesday to Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Devorah Lev-Tov is a food, beverage, and travel journalist with bylines in The New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Eater, Vogue, and more. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two children, and senior shih-tzu. Follow her dining adventures on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.