On a recent Tuesday evening, Mettā, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood in New York, 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.
Inside Mettā’s glassy corner storefront, diners can watch chef Noberto Piattoni cooking over fire, skills honed in the kitchens of South American grilling master Francis Mallmann.
Crispy lamb neck (US$16) 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, Mettā, which opened last year, personifies the new neighbourhood restaurant. It is a transformation that is gaining traction not only among New York’s five boroughs but also across the United States.
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 is not uncommon for the town houses that surround Mettā to sell for more than US$3 million.
Its clientele, roughly 80 per cent of whom live in South Brooklyn (and 60 per cent 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”, Dowling says.
“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, do not only want value – they want quality.
“People really care about food,” Meyer says. “Not just [in] Brooklyn, but all over the country.”
Indeed, you can find examples of more ambitious neighbourhood restaurants in the US at places such as Café Marie-Jeanne in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, Barbette in West Hollywood, and the Moroccan-accented Mizlala in Sherman Oaks, California.
So what makes a neighbourhood restaurant?
What qualifies as a neighbourhood restaurant?
Ask 10 people and you will get 10 different answers, but it is easy enough to say what it is not: It is 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. The 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 their adventurous cuisine but, for whatever reason, remained a local hang-out.
“When one neighbourhood restaurant does well, others follow suit,” Meyer says.
“It becomes the catalyst for the entire community.
By the time that Dowling began to conceive opening a restaurant in Fort Greene, the neighbourhood’s culinary bona fides had already been established.
There is Roman’s, the Italian restaurant owned by Andrew Tarlow, who has 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 Frankie’s 457 Spuntino in Carroll Gardens.
“It was a question of building a neighbourhood restaurant with a slightly more ambitious plan,” says Dowling. “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 and burger; it did not have a notable chef or surprising ingredients.
You still probably will not 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 Mettā, it is the live fire cooking. (Which is not without its controversies: Neighbours have complained that the smoke from the grill is damaging their property.)
This joint literally cooks everything on an open and it opened three houses from my old apartment #badtiming • #WilloughbyAve #brooklyn #fortgreene #woodfire #woodfirecooking #cookingwithfire #smokedfish #searedmeat #charredveggies @myrtleavebklyn @fortgreenepark
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At Fairfax, the 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), and soft polenta with corn and Parmigiano (US$21).
“The ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ has evolved over the years, in the sense that it has [grown] more refined and more sophisticated in its design, cooking and service,” says Fairfax’s owner Gabriel Stulman.
“It used to be a casual spot with humble cooking and a lower budget buildout, that wasn’t ‘trying too hard.’”
Facing fears bluff... @fairfaxnyc - today no rain but plenty of brunch options - Fairfax best daytime bar / restaurant/ hangout space in the world (yes the world) ____________________________ #wildwestvillage #westvillage #fairfaxnyc #nycnightlife
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The ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ has evolved over the years, in the sense that it has [grown] more refined and more sophisticated in its design, cooking and service,” Fairfax’s owner Gabriel Stulman says
“It used to be a casual spot with humble cooking and a lower budget buildout, that wasn’t ‘trying too hard.
Stulman says that it has recently 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 to stay competitive,” he says.
Bye Bye Burger
If there is a point of contention among the new neighbourhood menu it is whether it should, or could include a burger, which has arguably become a cliché.
Fairfax has one with pimento cheese (US$11). Meyer has put a patty melt [hamburger sandwich] on the menu at his tiny coffee shop Daily Provisions, which he conceived of as a neighbourhood spot.
Mettā notably does not serve a burger. But “I’d never say never,” Dowling says.
“Neighbourhood spots should give people a reason to return and don’t always need to aggressively challenge diners with their menu offerings.”
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He points to the crowd-pleasing brunch options they have introduced for locals who are on their way home from the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market: buckwheat pancakes, raw oatmeal with pecans, and steak with chimichurri (an uncooked sauce for meat that includes finely chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and red pepper flakes) and a fried egg.
“Brunch is a nice way to circle back,” Dowling says.
“We want to be crazy and amazing and get chefs to love us, too,” he adds, “but we also want to be easy-going.”