A Tour of Alvin Clayton’s “Whimsically Casual” Digs
At home with the New Rochelle restaurateur and former fashion model.
In New Rochelle, the Southern/Caribbean restaurant known as Alvin & Friends has a lot of things going for it: Crisp, white linens top tables; beautiful chandeliers hang from the ceiling; extraordinary paintings brighten walls as though they were stark canvases. And, of course, delicious, inventive dishes—crab chowder, oxtail stew, juicy fried chicken—stream from the kitchen all night long.
But there’s something that outshines even the outstanding food and ambience: the hospitality. No one serves up a warm welcome like restaurant owner Alvin Clayton. His trademark gleaming wide grin, which, by the way, has graced the pages of countless magazines thanks to his former career as a fashion model, always seems to say with such heartfelt sincerity, “I’m so glad you came” or “Thanks for being here” or “So happy to see you.” It makes going to the restaurant feel more you're attending a relaxed, friend-filled dinner party.
If Clayton’s charm can put you at ease among a hundred or so strangers at a big-city restaurant, you should see what he does in his own home. Here, in his 3,900-square-foot, five-bedroom, 1918 Dutch Colonial, his mantra is, in fact, very much the same as it is at the restaurant: “Everyone is welcome. Everyone feel comfortable. Everyone enjoy.”
So it comes as no surprise that Clayton’s design style is whimsically casual and extraordinarily personal. “Home is that place where you feel most comfortable, where you surround yourself with family and friends and things that make you feel comfortable, whether it’s a painting that you have on your wall or books that you enjoy reading,” he says.
Unlike many Westchester residents who renovate for sport, Clayton hasn’t done a single home spruce-up since he moved in with his wife, Gwen, and three kids 13 years ago. “It was in move-in condition,” he says about his house.
Back when he and his wife first decided to move to Westchester from Los Angeles, they fell in love with this New Rochelle neighborhood. This wasn’t the house that initially won their hearts, however. The Claytons first bid on a home up the block, but the deal fell through. Perhaps it was fate, because, soon after, Clayton’s realtor phoned him in LA about this house, which would be on the market for exactly one weekend. The owner would make a quick decision. Coincidentally, at the same time, Clayton’s agent booked him for a last-minute modeling gig in New York. He flew East for the job, saw the house, and Gwen bid on it without ever laying eyes on the place.
These days, Clayton is in charge of the interior design, though you won’t find a planned decorating scheme here. The Trinidad native is an artist in every sense of the word, and he places pieces and paintings—all Clayton originals—sporadically in every room. “My style is simple elegance,” he says. “I don’t like ostentatious things. I like quality. ”
There’s no better example of this than the living room, just off the entrance. The spacious room is blessed with great natural light, French doors, and a beautiful fieldstone fireplace. When the Claytons first moved in, the fireplace was painted white. When Clayton saw a hint of the original stone, he wanted to expose it. “It took me a week to strip it down to the original,” he says.
While the fireplace is the true focal point, there are other noteworthy pieces here as well. A big sink-in sofa and chair are draped in turquoise and lime-green slipcovers respectively. “We got them from a place called Floppy something in Los Angeles. That’s what I like about them, they’re floppy and comfortable,” he laughs. A leather recliner in a deep shade of blue sits opposite an oversized rectangular coffee table. “The table is made with reclaimed wood from Peru. They didn’t cut down any trees to make it,” he says. His entertainment cabinet, wedged in a corner of the room, was made from a reclaimed oak church door in Mexico. It possesses a raw beauty full of knots, scars, and grain.
Eco-friendly pieces play into Clayton’s artistic sensibility. “As an artist, there’s something about the environment and being natural that attracts me,” he says. “Nature is the most beautiful thing.”
In fact, Clayton has become so comfortable finding old things and giving them new life that, at one point, his wife had taken to calling him Fred Sanford, referencing the old junk collector in the ’70s TV sitcom, Sanford and Son. For example, the screen in his dining room, once used to hide his baby’s high chair, was junk when Clayton stumbled upon it. “I took it home, painted it red with vibrant flower pots, and now people say, ‘I love this. Where’d you get that?’” he laughs.
Clayton’s mark as an artist may be his use of color. “Coming from the Caribbean, color is a big part of my art,” he says. His paintings are full of bold reds, deep browns, and sea-like blues. His home is full of color, too: The dining room is painted a striking brick red; the living room, a soothing pale green; and the kitchen is blanketed in a golden yellow that almost clones the sun.
Downstairs in the unfinished basement, he’s carved out his own space—where he creates his masterpieces. With exposed pipes and a concrete floor, his “studio” is hardly glamorous, but it boasts everything an artist needs: blank walls to test paints, space big enough to hang huge canvases, and wooden slots, made up of boards, in which paintings are stored. Most important, though, there’s the creative freedom that comes with a basement locale. In other words, you’d never worry about getting paint on the floor in here.
Not that Clayton would anyway. “I’m not attached to things. Everything here is to be enjoyed. This is not a museum. People are welcome to experience everything in my home.”
It’s that kind of come-and-enjoy mentality that makes Clayton’s guests—in his home and his restaurant—so relaxed and eager to revel in a night out.
And, of course, his smile doesn’t hurt either.