The Godfather of Brooklyn’s Dining Renaissance on Discovering Smith Street, Outer-Borough Economics, & Creative Restlessness
Back in 1997, Alan Harding, who first garnered attention at Nosmo King in Tribeca, stunned New York diners when he crossed the East River and opened Patois on a desolate stretch of Smith Street in Brooklyn. The space that housed Patois is now home to red-hot Battersby and Smith is, of course, one of the premiere thoroughfares of the modern Brooklyn dining scene. Harding and his Patois partners Jim Mamary and Mamary’s brother Paul, collectively and individually, would go on to have a hand, if not necessarily a stake, in more than a dozen Brooklyn restaurants including Uncle Pho, Schnäck, and Pacifico.
Though widely acknowledged as Brooklyn’s culinary Pied Piper, Harding is no longer associated with past projects other than the Gowanus Yacht Club, a seasonal, open-air MASH unit of a watering hole in Carroll Gardens. But he’s still very much a factor out here in Kings County, currently as the chef (though not a partner) at Littleneck, a fish house on Third Avenue, between President and Carroll.
Last spring, while pondering a possible book about Brooklyn, I sat down with Harding in the open air of the Gowanus Yacht Club, which happens to be Toqueland’s favorite place to knock off early in the summer, and as he puffed on a stogie (a habit he’s since quit), discussed his pioneering of Smith Street and what’s transpired in these parts since those days. The book never happened, but I recently came across the dialogue and, with Harding’s consent, decided to share it here.
TOQUELAND: Let’s contextualize: I remember, when I lived in Park Slope twenty years ago, if we made plans with people in Manhattan, there wasn’t even a discussion about venue; the assumption was that the Brooklyn people came into “the city.”
TOQUELAND: And now, Manhattan people might come to Brooklyn.
HARDING: Well, you know, we decided to do a project in Brooklyn because we all lived in Brooklyn and because the city at that time was hard. It’s always been hard.
TOQUELAND: You don’t just mean financially?
HARDING: Financially and logistically and entrepreneurially and bureaucratically. For a long time, Brooklyn was off the radar as a place that the city could generate revenue from the entrepreneurship. The Board of Health never came to Brooklyn because they were so busy doing places in Manhattan. For a long time it was like this like secret little place that had people that enjoyed good food that were sick of going to Manhattan.
At Patois, there was a line out the door and they had to wait in the backyard in a tent where there was a wood-burning stove. Nowadays, if someone said, “There’s a tent in the back with a wood burning stove,” probably the first five calls would be to 311.