A chef at Metta restaurant in Brooklyn. (Source: Metta’s website)

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

(Bloomberg) -- On a recent Tuesday evening, Mettā, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, was just starting to come to life. It was 7 p.m.

“We’ve observed that the room usually fills up around 7:30,” says Peter Dowling, a partner in the restaurant. Mettā’s location—a hike from the Q train or a 25-minute car ride from downtown 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 11 p.m. closing.

Inside Mettā’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 ($16) was on the menu one night, as was a whole redfish served on top of preserved tomatoes, listed as market price and costing $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 neighborhood restaurant. It’s a transformation that’s gaining traction not only among New York’s five boroughs but also across the U.S. Thanks to diners’ increasingly sophisticated palates and acceptance of experimental cooking, neighborhood restaurants—broadly taken to be reliable joints with unadventurous menus—are raising their game to previously unconsidered heights.

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

Value vs. Quality

Fort Greene was gentrified more than a decade ago, and today it’s not uncommon for the town houses that surround Mettā to sell for more than $3 million. Its clientele, roughly 80 percent of whom live in South Brooklyn (and 60 percent 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 neighborhood, 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.

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

“Brooklyn deserves enormous credit for the reinstitution of the neighborhood restaurant,” says Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group includes neighborhood-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.

“People really care about food,” Meyer says. “Not just Brooklyn, but all over the country.” Indeed, you can find examples of more ambitious neighborhood 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.

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

Ten Different Answers

What qualifies as a neighborhood 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 neighborhood’s borders.

Roberta’s, for instance, made famous for its pizzas, might have started as a neighborhood 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 neighborhood 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 neighborhood’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.

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

“It was a question of building a neighborhood 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 neighborhood 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 Mettā, it’s the live-fire cooking. (Which is not without controversy: Neighbors 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 ($16), as well as soft polenta with corn and Parmigiano ($21).

“The ‘neighborhood 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 neighborhood and one with loftier aspirations that happens to be set on a neighborhood 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.

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

Bye-Bye, Burger

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

Mettā notably doesn’t serve a burger, but “I’d never say never,” says Dowling. “Neighborhood 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 Mettā 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.”

How Brooklyn Changed the Neighborhood Restaurant

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