Dining out should be one of life’s great pleasures. But for wheelchair users, finding a restaurant that is truly accessible can instead be one of life’s great frustrations.
Too often, wheelchair users arrive at a dining establishment that advertises itself as ADA compliant and/or wheelchair accessible and find that it’s anything but.
Contento, which opened in New York City in June 2021, is a welcome exception.
Located in East Harlem, Contento bills itself as a “casual place with food that has a Peruvian flair.” The restaurant was started by sommelier Yannick Benjamin and business partners George Gallego, Oscar Lorenzzi, Mara Rudzinski, and Lorenz Skeeter. Benjamin and Gallego are both wheelchair users and they’ve designed the restaurant with wheelchair users—and excellent food and wine—in mind.
Guests approaching Contento will find a wide smooth ramp up to the front door. Upon entering the restaurant through the (weather permitting) open front door, they will see the restaurant’s accessible bar—one half is typical bar height (40-42 inches) while the other half is wheelchair accessible height (34 inches max).
In designing the restaurant, Contento’s owners prioritized accessibility at the expense of being able to accommodate bigger crowds.
“We sacrificed a lot of tables and chairs so people in wheelchairs can come in comfortably, and myself and George can work there comfortably,” said Benjamin in an interview with RESY. “We could easily have three or four more tables, and that’s a lot of money to throw away. But I think in the long run, there’s definitely been a return on investment. I would say on a daily basis, five to 10% of our clientele has some kind of disability.”
In addition to being placed far apart, Contento’s tables are somewhat higher than typical dining tables in order to accommodate most wheelchairs. The restaurant’s large bathroom is outfitted with grab bars and a touchless sink, has an enormous but easy to maneuver sliding door, and it’s located on the same level as the bar and dining room. Adaptive flatware is available upon request.
Contento’s owners and staff are also attuned to the needs of guests with disabilities that may not require the use of a wheelchair such as “those with intellectual disabilities, invisible disabilities, those who are part of the low-vision and blind community, or the hard-of-hearing and deaf community,” Benjamin told RESY. “Part of that is simple verbiage. It could be, ‘Do you need me to talk louder?” or, “Do you need me to lower the music?’ We have a QR code on the menu for people in the low-vision community that they can scan to hear the menu read.”
While it’s highly unusual to find a restaurant geared toward the needs of the disability community, there is more to Contento’s success than that. Contento, which means happy in Spanish and Italian “is above all, a very enjoyable place to have dinner and a few glasses of wine,” writes New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells.
Here’s hoping that restaurants around the country will follow Contento’s example.