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founder of taste of the uws helps the nabe's restaurants

by megan finnegan

the upper west side has not always been the culinary destination it is today. the manhattan neighborhood once derided for its lack of food diversity and quality has become the home of some nationally recognized restaurants and a vibrant culinary scene, thanks in part to don evans.

evans, 64, began his career in law and politics, earning his law degree from nyu and then working for mayor john lindsay as his travel coordinator. he eventually became a lobbyist to the city council, and through his work he met chef michael o'keeffe and helped him open the river café in brooklyn. following that, they opened the water club in manhattan, and evans has been involved in restaurant direction ever since. his latest establishment is compass, a zagat-rated restaurant with a seafood focus on west 70th street, four blocks from lincoln center. since opening in 2002, compass has become a staple of the area's new guard in cuisine.

according to evans, running a restaurant is similar to running a political campaign: "i think if you're putting a campaign together or a government together, you need a lot of good men and women with a lot of energy that are really very devoted to a singular goal."

luckily, evans thrives on competition, and is thrilled to see the upper west side growing in culinary prestige. in 2007, noticing all the great spots popping up in the neighborhood, he decided to organize a festival called new tastes of the upper west side.

"i was pretty friendly with many of the owners and executive chefs," evans said, "and i thought it would be good to do a food event." he had no idea that it would grow so exponentially; the first event in may 2008 sold out its 750 tickets quickly, and over 4,000 people bought tickets for the public and private events of the 2010 festival. the festival features chef meet-and-greets, special menus, parties and receptions with food experts and celebrities, and, of course, food tastings. evans is already planning for 2011, and he expects it to grow bigger still.

the purpose of new tastes is to introduce new york city residents to the provisional fare of the neighborhood, but it's also evolved to champion slow and local food movements. two area restaurants, dovetail and telepan, were cited in a time magazine article this august that highlighted upscale chefs promoting the prominent use of vegetables in their menus.

"we're adding public policy," evans said about plans for this coming may. "the west side goes local. we're asking all the chefs, anything they use has to be within a 100-mile radius, focus on the food chain and using sustainable products, so they can work with the local farms."

the event also works with local schools, teaching cafeteria staffs about healthier meals and cooking methods. corporate sponsors will include whole foods and ford motor company in 2011, and evans continues to petition big businesses and local developers for their support. organizing new tastes has become a year-round endeavor.

"some people say i'm persistent," evans said. "but i don't think that's such a negative thing."

the restaurant business is a tough industry, especially in trying economic times, but evans is determined to keep the upper west side's tastebuds enthralled. "my friends in the restaurant business tried to talk me out of [opening compass]. 'that's a silly idea, the west side will not support a good restaurant, a serious restaurant,'" he said. "if my fault is persistence, i plead guilty."

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