In Williamsburg, chefs bet on beers with a soul-food chaser

Inside the Commodore. ()
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Stephen Tanner, a former partner of Williamsburg’s original under-the-bridge soul-food joint Pies ‘n’ Thighs and former fried-chicken master of the neighborhood’s locavore hangout Egg, was sitting in one of the white vinyl chairs at his new bar The Commodore on Bedford Ave. on a recent muggy Tuesday night dressed in a bright green T-shirt, drumming out the beat to the classic rock song playing on the stereo with his fingers on the bar.

He’d played bass guitar in an Athens, Ga. noise outfit called Harvey Milk in the '90s before coming here to bring his Southern cooking to Brooklyn diners.

“Is this Dust?” he asked the bar’s co-owner, Chris Young, who was sitting next to him. Young wasn’t sure.

By twilight, Tanner’s kitschy, beachside-themed dive at Metropolitan and Havemeyer will have lured a crush of slim girls in cotton dresses and guys with pomade-slicked hair and sleeve tattoos. They’ll have slipped beyond the tattered black awning leading to a front door with no doorknob and squished into vinyl booths in the front dining area, where floral wallpaper that would seem appropriate in a grandmother’s living room dresses the walls and a vintage video game is tucked in the corner. They’ll have hunched over his signature soul-food plates: thighs of fried chicken and biscuits, “hot breast” sandwiches with house-made hot sauce and green chili hominy.

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Around the corner from the half-dozen booths, there is a modest bar space with more vintage-style, burgundy seating nestled along the wood-paneling and and a brick wall painted in Oscar the Grouch-green.

But it was still quiet in the early evening. Tanner asked the barback for a burger with no bun and a plate of fries.

Before opening The Commodore, his kitschy soul food outpost on Metropolitan Avenue, Tanner was working the kitchen at Egg and New York Magazine reviewers observed him “rather testily bemoaning the fried-chicken frenzy engulfing his neighborhood.” He told them he was looking forward to opening a place with a no-frills, stool-level menu. “Like Applebee’s, but better,” he told New York magazine. In May, he opened exactly what he promised: a dive bar where he felt at home, but with bar food elevated to cuisine status.

Young was a bartender before opening The Commodore, his first restaurant, with recording engineer Taylor Dow.

“Anybody can go out and get some kind of greasy Chinese food or burger down the block,” Young said. “And you don’t want a formal dining experience either... That can also get very expensive [for the restaurant]. Even if you have an amazing menu, you have to keep it on a level that is affordable.”

So Tanner and co. banged around in the kitchen to find a medium between a neighborhood “Applebee’s” fare and white-clothed dining.

WILLIAMSBURG IS CONTESTED TERRITORY. WHERE ONCE mid-level ambitious Manhattanites rehabbed their own loft-spaces to be greeted with stickers on their doors that read “DIE YUPPIE SCUM,” the punks who put them there eyed suspiciously by the Boriqueño that preceded them, the food chain has added a new top layer of condo-buying drop-ins only now starting to be served by expensive restaurants untouchable to the recent college grads and artist-types who still manage to thrive in the neighborhood. And as always, everyone has rubbed off on everyone else more than they might care to admit. The neighborhood that arguably brought Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can back into vogue (after a brief late-'90s flirtation with Miller High Life in clear glass bottles) now expects a $10 to $15 dollar meal with seals of approval from the food-blogosphere, or even the Times or New York, to be available within stumbling-home distance. 

The problem is that those economics don’t quite line up with running a restaurant. So the bars have for some time been morphing into playgrounds for local young restaurateurs.

The Commodore is the next logical step: make a restaurant but dress it up as a bar, and people will come to drink and eat, but mostly drink, which pays the rent. It's pretty ambitious. There’s competition from street food carts lining up on Bedford Avenue and the taco trucks parked in the yards of scenester bars like The Woods, Union Pool and East River Bar. Across the street from The Commodore, Fette Sau and Spuyten Duyvil owner Joe Carroll recently opened a “haute snack bar” called St. Anselm, offering fried “Newark hot dogs” for $11, along with other meats finagled into street-food-inspired dishes.

Even The Charleston, one of Williamsburg’s diviest dives and one of the last of the neighborhood's old-school punk bars, is stepping up its bar fare to try to appeal to this newish market.

The Charleston sits on the edge of Williamsburg’s busiest corner, a kind of mini-campus-quad formed by the intersection of North 7th Street and Bedford Avenue, where the first L stop in Brooklyn lets out.

Sandwiched between a Salvation Army and a Vietnamese bahn mi shop, The Charleston is guarded by the beefy guys in white tees and army shorts who sit on the few chairs out front drinking beers, keeping one eye on their pit bulls and another on the parade of young things prancing by.

In its dingy basement, the Bedford Avenue mainstay hosts rock shows on most nights of the week, giving the patrons upstairs a foot massage from the noise beneath them.

The time-tested gimmick of a free small pizza with each drink had been the Charleston’s claim to fame.

But the free pizza had turned out to be a problem for the Charleston. The free-food crowd “low-balled” on tips and sometimes would come for the pizza, then bail without buying more drinks, according to Dorian De La Mater, The Charleston’s long-time bartender and manager for the past two years.

“We somehow got the reputation as a shitty metal bar,” he said, which affected them financially. There were also three other bars within walking distance that had some kind of “free food with your beer” deal.

“It was either lose the pizza or lose the bands,” he said. “We chose the bands, which we feel is more of a commitment to the community.”

So the pizza was abandoned in favor of an outfit conceived by Jesse Martinez and Josh Martin, two members of the punk band Ex Humans, and ‘wichcraft alum and The Weight band member Jameson Proctor. They operate a food outfit called Honeychiles’ in The Charleston’s kitchen, offering deep fried Cajun po-boys, jambalaya, cornbread and Black Eyed peas.

The Charleston has all the trappings of your typical dive bar: tattooed bartenders, and that smell, the one that was supposed to go away a little while after the smoking ban but that seems, in some bars, baked into the walls.

There are band stickers on the garnish organizer on the bar, and broken beer bottles serve as lamps hanging low over small, uncomfortable booths along a wall padded with burgandy vinyl and peppered with metal pieces attached by screws. There’s black rubber on the floor for easy clean-up, and there are always pools of questionable water leaking from the bathroom and out into a back room.

Honeychiles’ is parked beyond the entrance to the bar, walk-up kitchen is no bigger than what you’d find in a food truck.

Martinez worked on the menu with his girlfriend, Karen Vasquez, who he plays with in a band called Foster Care. Zasquez worked at Don Pedros, an East Williamsburg dive bar that had a kitchen that was essentially abandoned. During late nights, they worked on a Cajun-inspired menu, the same seafood Crawford grew up on in Jacksonville, Florida. At first, he wanted to start a street cart or maybe drive around a gumbo truck. But getting a street food license was too complicated. About four months ago, his roommate and band mate Martin told him The Charleston was ending the free pizza. They refinished the small space, with some money from their friend and bandmate Proctor, and opened two months ago.

On Tuesday afternoon this week, Martinez was scraping meat from a stovetop griddle, dressed in gray stone-washed skinny jeans and a navy blue T-shirt with James Brown Production printed across the front. He has cropped brown hair and brown eyes, and a salt-and-pepper-shaker set tattoed on his right forearm.

“I think we’re really filling a void that needed to be filled,” Martinez said in his charming Floridian twang. He did not need a prompt to talk about Tanner’s Charleston enterprise. “Tanner, you know, at Pies n Thighs, he’s doing his thing,” he said. “But I wanted to bring some real Cajun cooking to the neighborhood.”

A blonde woman from Arkansas interrupted to ask for a to-go container for her fried shrimp special po'boy. “I’m from the South and it’s just as good as it is down there,” she said.

Honeychiles uses seasonal ingredients and local meats and produce in their seafood po'boys, which are about the size of a small baby. There’s also jambalaya (a menu favorite, according to Crawford), hush puppies, cornbread, and black-eyed peas. The Village Voice recently called it “some of the best bar food in Brooklyn.”

But not all of The Charleston’s clientele are happy about the change.

“It’s hard to replace something that’s free,” Martinez admitted. “People would walk up here and were like, ‘No, but it was the best pizza!’ No it wasn’t! Maybe at 3:45 in the morning when you’re wasted and can’t make it across the street.” (Anna Maria Pizzeria faces The Charleston on the other side of Bedford Avenue and sells slices for $2.50).

The Charleston’s foot traffic took a hit since Honeychiles moved in. But now their numbers are “just below” normal, according to De La Mater.

Once Dorian De La Mater makes a bit more money, he says he plans on remodeling “the cave” in the back of the club, setting up a more pleasant seating area so Honeychiles can host family-style dinners and brunches.

“There might be some people who were upset at first. But rowdy rock ‘n’ roll and Cajun food goes hand in hand,” Martinez said. He convinced The Charleston to add Louisiana beers and a bourbon to their bar menu. They are working on some kind of "buy a po'boy get half off a beer" special. Classic rock with a country flavor trickled from the stereo on recent weekday nights.

“They brought in this vibe, just as really nice, Southern people, and that changes who comes in here,” De La Mater said. “It’s just a better atmosphere, and there’s less bullshit.”

He was at the bar, dressed in a Buzzcocks T-shirt and finishing up a po’boy from Honeychiles, his bet on the bar’s future.