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.
TOQUELAND: Was there a break point where you said, “Screw this, I’m going to take my act to Brooklyn?”
HARDING: I was living in a loft on Broadway in Tribeca and the owner sold it for, like, half a million dollars, and I had to leave. And I was: “Where am I going to go and find rent for $800 a month? Brooklyn.” I drove my car to Brooklyn and I discovered Fort Greene and Fort Greene Park and all those beautiful brownstones, and I realized that it was seven minutes away. And I’m, like, “I’m done. This is it. I like it here. There’s trees. You can fucking park your car in front of your house every day.” I mean . .. you don’t realize what that does to your general well being.
TOQUELAND: Where in Fort Greene were you?
HARDING: I lived in a loft at the Navy Yard. It was a 1,500 square-foot loft. It was $800 a month.
TOQUELAND: Were you neighbors with [Tom] Valenti back then?
HARDING: Valenti lived on Carlton and it was our little secret. And then I got turned on to Smith Street by someone who was looking at some spaces on Court Street. Court Street at that point was a no-man’s land as well, but the rents were always higher on Court Street. And this was like a little secret street that was parallel to Court that went to Atlantic Avenue where all the stores were shuttered and there were people living in the stores. Because in 1996, the city decided to dig up the whole street and then kind of lost interest, so it was in ruins.
TOQUELAND: How did Patois come about?
HARDING: Patois came from many dinners at a somewhat seminal French bistro on Sullivan Street in the early 1990s called Jean Claude. First simple French paradigm bistro with entrees all under $15 in Manhattan.
TOQUELAND: This was the place you used to hang?
HARDING: That was the place that I stole to open in Brooklyn. I was, like, “This is great. Everything’s under $15. All the wines were $15.” You know, wines were $5 a glass, $4 a glass. It was cheap. It was bonhomie in the air. It was a great place to eat. And that was the business model that we riffed on to create Patois. And that was good.
TOQUELAND: When you decided to come and do that here, what was the reaction?
HARDING: I remember being at Blue Ribbon with Mario [Batali] and Bobby [Flay] and telling them that I was looking at places in Brooklyn and they’re, like . .. I remember probably 50 percent of the comments were, “Yeah, good luck with that,” or “Make sure you have your gun.” On the other hand, [some people said], “Yeah, Brooklyn’s wide open. Why not?”
After it was successful and we started getting some press and business really took off, that’s when people in the industry really notice what you’re doing because they’re looking at revenue that they could be possibly garnering. We were open six months and Peter Hoffman and Charlie Kiley show up for dinner and then, six months after that, Charlie signs the lease on the Grocery to do his thing.
It was a good place to open a place for $40,000.
TOQUELAND: When you say $40K, that was all it took to get in the place?
HARDING: That’s all it took to open it up.
TOQUELAND: Sign the lease, do whatever you had to do there?
HARDING: The rent was $900 a month, and the furniture was all picked out of the garbage.
TOQUELAND: What do you mean “picked out of the garbage?”
HARDING: It was all trash picked. The banquettes from Patois came from David Page’s renovation of the 9 Jones space, which became Drovers. He was throwing those away; I took them. I got the chairs for Patois from Joe Bastianich who was getting new chairs at Becco. And Mario made me bring all of the chairs that I got at Becco and bring them to Po and then he took all the good ones and he said, “You can have the rest.” And I put them in my truck and I brought them to Patois. You know, Mario is a pretty big influence on a small guy in the kitchen doing everything, low cost, DIY kind of restaurant.
TOQUELAND: You mean at Po?
HARDING: Yeah, he was a big inspiration.
TOQUELAND: Was Smith Street, or something close to it, on the route of the purveyors you needed at that time?
HARDING: A lot of purveyors were happy to come to Brooklyn because there was no traffic. We never had any problem getting any food.
TOQUELAND: Did you do anything deliberately different here than you would have done in Manhattan?
HARDING: Cash only.
TOQUELAND: But what did that have to do with being here? That you could get away with it?
HARDING: Yeah, we could get away it. And we also didn’t have to give the credit card company three points. That and no reservations. We didn’t take reservations for the longest time. It was, like, come in and wait, put your name on the list. We were the only game in town. It was kind of cool.
We had a deck and it was 20 seats when we first opened. And pretty soon, on Wednesdays when you’re full, you’re looking at an hour and a half to turn a table. Where are they going to go? They’re not going to go to [current Smith Street bars] Angry Wade’s or the Zombie Hut. There was no Zombie Hut or Angry Wade’s. They’d have to go home. And then how do you get them back? So we built the deck and then we put a tent on the deck, and then people were waiting in the tent and it was freezing, so we bought a wood burning stove, vented it through the tent and just —
TOQUELAND: Just a wood stove like someone would have in their cabin?
HARDING: In their camp, yeah. And we would burn logs and people would drink wine and wait for the table and huddle together.
TOQUELAND: That’s the kind of thing that today —
HARDING: Wouldn’t fly.
TOQUELAND: Did you have any hesitation to do something like that here, or you just knew it’d be no harm, no foul?
HARDING: I’ve always, and I believe it to this day, although it sometimes bites me in the ass, that it’s usually better to ask forgiveness than permission. And nobody ever said anything. Nobody cared. Every backyard on the whole strip had people barbecuing and their pools and stuff and nobody ever said anything. It was a much kinder, gentler atmosphere back then. But you know, if a guy did it tomorrow: 311.
TOQUELAND: What was the reception like right off the bat? Did it take a while?
HARDING: It took about a month and then it just exploded, and then it was full every day. And, you know, we were up to, like, $22,000 a week with an overhead of less than five percent. I bought a house. We opened Uncle Pho. We just did very well. In the beginning, the first three years, we were closing down for two weeks in the summer so everyone would go on vacation at once. I always thought that was a very European way of doing business.
TOQUELAND: At that time, did you have any idea what was going to happen here, or what might happen here?
HARDING: No. I had no idea this street was going to turn into …
TOQUELAND: You were just a guy trying to open a successful restaurant?
HARDING: Yeah, pretty much. I was like, wow, I found my neighborhood. I found my thing. And every time a restaurant opened I was, like, “Oh, great, there’ll be more people coming into the neighborhood.” It wasn’t “Oh, that guy’s going to get a part of my pie.”
TOQUELAND: So you didn’t think of yourself as the Moe Greene of Brooklyn?
HARDING: No. I was happy that it was wide open.
TOQUELAND: Did you know Charles Kiley and Sharon Pachter before Charles came in that time, then opened the Grocery?
HARDING: I worked for Charlie. In between jobs, Charlie was the chef at the Knickerbocker. You remember that place?
TOQUELAND: On Ninth Street in Manhattan.
HARDING: Yeah. After 9 Jones closed, or after I left, I needed work and I saw Charlie. Charlie had worked for me at Nosmo King. In between jobs, we’d always stay friendly. He called me up and said, “Do you want to be the pastry chef at the Knickerbocker?” Sure. $600 a week, you know? So I went in there and I worked three months.
And then [Peter] Kaminsky got me in touch with Neil at Bouillabaisse. You remember Neil [Ganic] at Bouillabaisse? Bouillabaisse was probably the first somewhat Manhattan-ified restaurant in Brooklyn as far as I’m concerned. He was opening up Petite Crevette next to Heights Chateau, who needed a chef. I went there and I was working in a fish market making crabcakes and stuff but also doing dinners. And people were really digging the food.
And then Jimmy [Mamary] came into Petite Crevette to eat with his wife and he said, “My chef just quit, do you want to come be the chef at 131 Duane Street until I sell it?” And he said, “I’ll give you $1,500 a week.” And I said, “That sounds good. It was double the money I was making.” So I gave Neil notice, and I went over there. And I said, “I’ll do this, but once this place is sold, you’ve got to promise to come back to Brooklyn with me because I’m looking to do . ..” I told him about Jean Claude, and he had been there as well and he knew that it was a good idea.
HARDING: So I sort of proved my worth to him at 131 Duane. And then we came back to Brooklyn and we found this spot. And I borrowed $10,000 from my mother, Jimmy put in the rest of the money, and we made it all back in six months.
TOQUELAND: What about the tone of the restaurant? The people who came in?
TOQUELAND: Did you feel different? Like you were in a different place from where you’d worked before in Manhattan?
HARDING: It was all people that just happened to live in Brooklyn and were tired of taking the train or a cab into the city to find someplace good to eat. We were pretty much welcomed with open arms.
TOQUELAND: What other influences do you think made it possible to succeed here?
HARDING: I think that Spike Lee branded Brooklyn. I think that people that lived in Brooklyn at that time suddenly realized that they’re living in a place that has cachet, you know?
TOQUELAND: You think Spike Lee made it okay to be from Brooklyn?
HARDING: Yeah, I think he really did. When I think of Tribeca, I immediately think of Drew Nieporent. When I think of Union Square, I think of Danny Meyer. When I think of Brooklyn, I don’t know, I don’t think of me. I think of it like a neighborhood that has finally realized that it is a great place to live and not a place where you would go out to your car and find broken glass and your car stereo missing.
TOQUELAND: Or that you don’t have to have a complex that you’re not in Manhattan.
TOQUELAND: When I moved back here three years ago, I was surprised at how empty some supposedly hot restaurants could be, even on a Saturday night. Then one night, I panned up and realized the obvious: There aren’t high-rises on every block; it’s mostly two- and three-story buildings. There’s just not as big a population to draw on.
TOQUELAND: The metrics are drastically different than they are in the city. Do you think restaurateurs jump in out here without realizing that?
HARDING: Yes, I think they do. I mean, the turnover is massive.
TOQUELAND: Even Smith Street still.
HARDING: I mean, when we vacated Patois three years ago [Editor’s Note: now 4 years.] . .. that store sat vacant for almost a year because they were looking for $5,000 a month. That’s what the going rent is for a spot on this street. Which is a lot of money to spend. And if you rent, you don’t even really have any rights to seat people in your backyard anymore. I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother fucking coffee table book. The whole public assembly and certificate of occupancy debacle of rear yards on commercial establishments. C of Os are for buildings, not for outdoor space. Any first-year law student that knows how to work 311 and the DOB can get any yard on this street shut down.
That’s a very interesting sort of conundrum that comes with revenue and commerce and entrepreneurship and neighbors. The neighbors were all very happy that, when grandpa died and they wanted to sell his house, they could list it for a million two and say that it was steps away from trendy Smith Street. But then when they sold it to the commodities broker who wanted to get out of Manhattan and come to Brooklyn, he was incensed that there was someone two doors away having people eating in his backyard.
TOQUELAND: When these other restaurants started opening along here, was there any kind of, I don’t want to be clichéd, but camaraderie or relationships. Did you guys hook up after service, that kind of thing?
HARDING: When you’re in the business, it is a very lonely, somewhat solitary existence because you work so hard and you try to keep as much money as you can, which means you have to do as much of the work as you can. And there wasn’t really much time to hang out. There was no businessman’s association. I mean, the only somewhat integral person between us all was the lady from the South Brooklyn Local Development Corp. Her name is Betty. She’s the one who basically got all of the store owners to kick out their ground-floor tenants that were living in stores and make the street more commercially viable.
TOQUELAND: This was really a rampant thing, people living in stores?
HARDING: Yeah, there’s still people.
TOQUELAND: As a newcomer at the time did you ever encounter any tension with neighborhood veterans?
HARDING: I can’t think of anyone offhand. I mean, with the influx of the businesses, you know, you go to the hardware store, you’re not just buying a light-switch cover: You’re buying four wrenches, rope, chain, bolt screws. It’s like we built five restaurants on this street with Tony’s Hardware Store. You know what I mean? I think everyone has enjoyed the largesse that the restaurants bring.
TOQUELAND: Then you started to expand and do all these different concepts. Did that just start to happen organically or —
HARDING: Well, I like to build things and I like to create things. I’ve never been like an Andre Soltner kind of guy, going in every day and making rabbit terrine.
TOQUELAND: As things have evolved out here, do you feel like you’re part of something?
HARDING: What would something be?
TOQUELAND: Do you feel like a part of this thing that’s going on here?
HARDING: A community scene?
TOQUELAND: I don’t know what. I’m just asking. Do you ever feel a part of something larger, or do you just feel like you’re going about your business?
HARDING: This is the only place on the street that I have an interest in anymore. It’s the only one that I’m really interested in. It’s the only thing that I think is kind of cool.
TOQUELAND: Does it depress you?
HARDING: It’s not depressing. It’s a sign of the times. And it’s a sign that I have to try to figure out what the next thing is going to be, you know? And I still haven’t found that out. I need something else. I need something new.