How Brooklyn changed the neighbourhood restaurant

Giving a newly sophisticated dining class what it’s asking for — and more


On a recent Tuesday evening, Mettã, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood, was just starting to come to life. It was 7pm.

“We’ve observed that the room usually fills up around 7:30pm,” says Peter Dowling, a partner in the restaurant. Mettã’s location — a hike from the Q train or a 25-minute car ride from down- town Manhattan — means “you’re waiting for people to get out of work and commute back”, he says.

Once the tables filled up, though, they stayed that way until the 11pm closing.

Inside Mettã’s glassy corner storefront, diners can watch chef Norberto Piattoni cooking over fire, skills he honed in the kitchens of South American grilling master Francis Mallmann. Crispy lamb neck (US$16 or RM65.44) was on the menu one night, as was a whole redfish served on top of preserved tomatoes, listed as market price and costing US$26.

“We’re not trying to bring Manhattan back to you,” Dowling says. “If anything, we wanted to offer food that is interesting and ambitious but also affordable.” (At least, affordable by New York standards.)

In short, Mettã, which opened last year, personifies the new neighbourhood restaurant. It’s a transformation that’s gaining traction not only among New York’s five boroughs, but also across the US. Thanks to diners’ increasingly sophisticated palates and acceptance of experimental cooking, neighbourhood restaurants — broadly taken to be reliable joints with unadventurous menus — are raising their game to previously unconsidered heights.

Value Versus Quality

Fort Greene was gentrified more than a decade ago, and today it’s not uncommon for the town houses that surround Mettã to sell for more than US$3 million (RM12.3 million). Its clientele, roughly 80% of whom live in South Brooklyn (and 60% of whom are from Fort Greene specifically, according to the restaurant’s owners), have the money and means to eat anywhere in the city.

Dowling’s partners include Henry Rich, owner of Rucola in Boerum Hill, another notably gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood, and food writer Tarajia Morrell. When they conceived of the restaurant, they “wanted to give people a reason to eat close to home”, says Dowling.

“Brooklyn deserves enormous credit for the reinstitution of the neighbourhood restaurant,” says Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group includes neighbourhood-building places such as Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern. “If you lived nearby, you would feel like the value of your apartment was enhanced, or the value of your office was enhanced.”

Yet today’s diners, he says, don’t just want value — they want quality.

Mettã sample dishes

“People really care about food,” Meyer says. “Not just Brooklyn, but all over the country.” Indeed, you can find examples of more ambitious neighbourhood restaurants, like Café Marie- Jeanne in Chicago’s Humboldt Park or, in Los Angeles — Barbette in West Hollywood and the Moroccan-accented Mizlala in Sherman Oaks.

10 Different Answers

What qualifies as a neighbourhood restaurant? Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers, but it’s easy enough to say what it isn’t: It’s not a destination for those who live beyond the neighbourhood’s borders.

Roberta’s, for instance, made famous for its pizzas, might have started as a neighbourhood restaurant but quickly became a destination. Same goes for Gjelina in Los Angeles, Bar Tartine in San Francisco, and, of course, Meyer’s original Union Square Café. Each of these destinations, however, spawned many other institutions that mirror the original’s adventurous cuisine but, for whatever reason, remained a local hangout.

“When one neighbourhood restaurant does well, others follow suit,” Meyer says. “It becomes the catalyst for the entire community.”
By the time Dowling began to conceive of a restaurant in Fort Greene, the neighbourhood’s culinary bona fides had already been established. There’s Roman’s, the Italian spot owned by Andrew Tarlow, who’s been instrumental in cementing Brooklyn’s reputation as a modern dining destination with Diner, which he opened in Williamsburg in 1999. Another restaurant that helped make the borough a culinary name brand was Frankies 457 Spuntino in Carroll Gardens.

“It was a question of building a neighbourhood restaurant with a slightly more ambitious plan,” Dowling says. “We wanted to walk a fine line between turning people’s heads and giving them a place that they’d want to check in on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.”

That strategy helps define the new neighbourhood restaurant. In the past it was defined by basics such as a roast chicken or burger; it didn’t have a notable chef or surprising ingredients.

You still probably won’t know the name of the chef, but you will find a point of view that distinguishes these restaurants from the place down the street. At Mettã, it’s the live-fire cooking. (Which is not without controversy: Neighbours have complained that the smoke from the grill is damaging their property.)

At Fairfax, a year-old restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, the quirky day-and-night menu highlights the seasons with dishes such as pole beans with tomato and squash blossoms (US$16), as well as soft polenta with corn and Parmigiano (US$21).

“The ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ has evolved over the years, in the sense that it has gotten more refined and more sophisticated in its design, cooking, and service,” says Fairfax owner Gabriel Stulman. “It used to be a casual spot with humble cooking and a lower budget buildout that wasn’t trying too hard.”

Stulman notes that recently it’s become difficult to tell the difference between a place that was designed to serve a neighbourhood and one with loftier aspirations that happens to be set on a neighbourhood side street.

“As such, it blurs the lines for diners, and it makes more humble restaurants have to step up in order to stay competitive,” he says.

Bye-Bye, Burger

If there’s a point of contention among the new neighbourhood menu, it’s whether it should — or could — include a burger, which has arguably become a cliché. Fairfax has one with pimento cheese (US$11). Meyer has a patty melt on the menu at his tiny coffee shop Daily Provisions, which he conceived of as a neighbourhood spot in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.

Mettã notably doesn’t serve a burger, but “I’d never say never”, says Dowling. “Neighbourhood spots should give people a reason to return and don’t always need to aggressively challenge diners with their menu offerings.”

He points to the crowd-pleasing brunch options Mettã has introduced for locals who are on their way home from the Fort Greene farmers market: buckwheat pancakes, raw oatmeal with pecans, and steak with chimichurri and a fried egg.

“Brunch is a nice way to circle back,” says Dowling. “We want to be crazy and amazing and get chefs to love us, too, but we also want to be easygoing.” — Bloomberg