Speaking with restaurateur Alan Harding
about his new ventures is like taking the pulse of the changing
neighborhoods he serves, and the economy that drives those changes.
In an interview with GO Brooklyn, he illustrated the mix of chef,
entrepreneur, style-maker and family man that makes up his personality.
Harding is a founding father of Smith Street’s restaurant row. He gained recognition in 1997, as co-owner of Patois, and last summer he brought us dirt-cheap hotdogs, burgers and beer at the campy, backyard-like Gowanus Yacht Club. Harding is currently developing two new projects, both on Union Street. Schnack, an American diner, is set to open in Red Hook on March 1. The other, at Union and Smith streets, has yet to be named.
"Have you heard the story about the mouse who eats the same cheese everyday?" he asked. "He gets very comfortable eating the cheese and he gets very fat. And then all of a sudden the cheese runs out, and he doesn’t really want to move, to go look for other cheese, so he starves."
Harding has taken this dark entrepreneurial tale to heart, offering it as an explanation of his recent sale of Uncle Pho, the restaurant he opened in 1999.
"Instead of just standing there, waiting for there to be no cheese left, then starving, we decided to sell while there’s a big chunk of cheese, and what we’re doing right now is moving on to look for newer cheese."
The characters in this story are men, not mice: Harding and his partner, Jim Mamary. The cheese, in this case, is found among the still relatively low rents on Smith Street, it’s accessibility to some of Brooklyn’s most cuisine-savvy residential neighborhoods, and it’s proximity to the Carroll Street and Bergen Street F train stops.
When Harding and Mamary opened Patois, the cozy bistro at 255 Smith, it was an instant "Eureka!" Brooklyn’s commuting professionals would rather dine well in a comfortable environment close to home. And if the cassoulet cost several bucks less thanks to Brooklyn rents, then hip, hungry Manhattanites would make the reverse commute.
Other Smith Street restaurants proliferated. In 1999, Harding and Mamary added a trendy, Asian-inflected eatery to the scene with Uncle Pho. The time and the place were such that style went a very long way, and the idea appealed to other would-be restaurateurs as much as it did diners.
By last summer, when he spoke about his down-market move to hotdogs and $1 Pabst Blue Ribbons, Harding wasn’t feeling flattered by imitators.
"There are five restaurants on the block using Asian ingredients," he pointed out, "so what’s so special about my pad Thai? It’s not cool anymore."
After 9-11, diners were no longer packing the space that occupied 261 and 263 Smith. With typical practicality and flexibility, Harding scaled the restaurant back to 263 Smith, re-conceiving the space next door as a tiki fantasy called the Zombie Hut.
The downsized Uncle Pho was holding its own, and was not for sale last December, when Mamary ran into his friend Rakesh Agarwal at the bank. Agarwal, owner of 14 Baluchi’s Indian restaurants in Manhattan and Queens, told Mamari he wanted to purchase a corner restaurant on Smith Street. Mamary went straight from the bank to Harding.
The partners decided they could part with the place - for the right price. Harding implied they may have priced it a little high, perhaps out of love for pad Thai? Perhaps, but that didn’t phase Agarwal, who gladly tendered their initial request and opened his 15th Baluchi’s on Jan. 25.
Instead of sitting around like fat mice, Harding and Mamary scampered off to newer venues. Harding is about to start testing menu items for Schnack, which promises to tempt with recession-proof offerings like beer, milkshakes, burgers and pastrami sandwiches. Across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway from Carroll Gardens, at 122 Union Street between Columbia and Hicks streets, Schnack will have the challenge of lasting in a space that has changed faces frequently, appearing as a bakery the first time you drive by, then a Caribbean restaurant on your next trek to Red Hook.
Meanwhile, back on Smith, the space currently known as the "Union Street project" will be owned by Angela Geridano and managed by her brother, Harding’s Yacht Club partner, James Geridano. (The Geridanos own Bagels on the Park, which shares its outside wall with the Yacht Club.) Currently a vintage clothing and furniture shop, the spot housed a German beer hall in the late-19th century. The corner isn’t landmarked, but "fortunately for the neighborhood," as Harding put it, he and Mamary are renovating it as though it were, complete with light fixtures circa 1870 and stained glass. Harding has been commissioned to design the space, concept and menu of Geridano’s "project."
This "project" sits spatially and ideologically between Patois, which is still going strong, and the Gowanus Yacht Club, which will recommence its warm weather revelry on Memorial Day. While the folks supping at Patois may be simultaneously paying a babysitter, and the merry tipplers at the Gowanus Yacht Club are mainly childless, the "Union Street project" will offer "value-priced" meals (no entree above $15) in an environment that Harding hopes to see "packed with kids."
In addition to lunch and dinner, the restaurant will serve ice cream from its garden window during the warmer months. This gelateria concept promises to fill a need heretofore only met by circling ice cream trucks. No matter how the restaurant’s American menu is received by diners, kids will bring their parents here as surely as hot days will bring drops of chocolate ice cream onto their shirts.
Designing the restaurant is essentially a commission for Harding, and it remains to be seen how involved he will be once it opens. Will it prove to be a big cheese for its owner?
"I have no idea," Harding says. "Whenever we do a restaurant, we think we come up with a good idea, and we try to get a low rent, a long lease, and a nice store, but I have no idea who’s going to come in. It’s always the roll of the dice."
Judging from his track record, his intimate knowledge of the past, present and future of Smith Street, and his keenly pragmatic ability to provide people with a place where they want to spend money, the odds are in Harding’s favor.
Food writer Zoe Singer is a Brooklyn native.