From the outside, Dekalb Restaurant looks like nothing special.
In fact, until the restaurant’s name was etched on the front window last week, you might have walked right by it. But Dekalb, which opened in January on its namesake street, in Bed-Stuy, is a hidden gem. A self-described “motley crew” of caterers, craftsmen, and community builders spent nine months transforming the raw former linen factory into a welcoming, idiosyncratic space, assembled with materials reclaimed from various sources throughout the city. Windows became walls, floors became tables, an old laundromat became a community hub.
To hear its three partners tell it, Dekalb was born of a synergy rare in the restaurant industry. The primary owner is Stefan Fahrer, whose father, Mark, acts as an advisor and consultant; Mark ran a food catering business in the 80s and 90s, which served a high-end clientele and employed cooks like Anthony Bourdain. The secondary owner is Ras Levi, a builder and community worker who came to Brooklyn from Jamaica’s Mocho Mountains more than twenty years ago. Levi started as a contractor, hired, with his construction crew, to help transform the “blank, horrible space,” according to Mark.
Levi and the Fahrers got along so well that Levi was made an operating partner. A longtime builder in the area, he’d previously guided construction on Chez Lola, General Greene, and Madiba, among other restaurants in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Bed-Stuy. A mutual friend introduced him to Mark and Stefan when it was obvious they could use his help. “After a few minutes, it was clear that we were the right fit,” Levi says. “Just from concept–they had the idea, but didn’t know how to implement it, but that is exactly what I do.”
Once you step inside Dekalb, the unassuming exterior opens up into a beautiful, enveloping space, that feels like an eccentric’s fever dream of an Upper East Side ballroom. The parquet floors in the front bar area came from a mansion on 72nd and Park Avenue; the railing of the bar itself is a nineteenth-century fire escape rail. The dining room floor came from a doctor’s office; the seats are upcycled pews from a synagogue, and the tables are made from old wood flooring. Most striking are the walls and ceiling in the dining area, which are semi-translucent windows harvested from the old Pilgrim State Mental Hospital, on Long Island. Even the glasses are originally from a Knights of Columbus outlet in Yonkers.
All of it came to Dekalb from Evan Blum, a Fahrer family friend and the owner of Demolition Depot and Irreplaceable Artifacts, a reclaimed materials emporium with a sprawling campus in Connecticut (Ras calls it “Oz”) and a warehouse in East Harlem.
“Mark called me up and asked me to help him out with a restaurant he and his son were doing,” Blum says. “When I visited the raw space, it was immediately obvious that it had to be transformed. It was depressing, dark, and dingy.”
“I specialize in old construction, so for me, it’s a dream to work with all these materials,” Levi says. The construction crew he assembled years ago is fittingly diverse for a man whose outlook is positive and life-affirming; it includes builders from England, the Caribbean, and Nepal, amongst other locals. Levi often says things like “good energy finds good energy,” and he makes an effort to greet every diner who stops in. His background is one of community-building. Back in Jamaica, his grandfather instructed the Skatalites in ska, Jamaica’s folk music, which became the engine for the country’s independence. Levi himself has toured with the Wailers as their spiritual guide. He’s in charge of curating music for Dekalb’s front room.
A sense of community, of disparate parts joining into a greater whole, has informed the entire project, from construction through the menu, which features high quality ingredients sourced from as local a radius as possible, with a heavy emphasis on vegetables. Last year, during construction, the Dekalb team built a garden in an adjacent lot and hosted farmer’s markets in order to meet the neighborhood. As the weather warms, they hope to grow most of their food in the backyard. The chef is Alexander Skarlinski, a recent arrival from Baltimore, where he worked as a sous chef in one of Charm City’s fancier eateries. Fittingly, Levi met him at a job site.
Dekalb’s menu is ever-evolving, but lately it’s featured a usual winter array of root vegetables and stalwart greens, with creative twists. It is largely vegetarian, although meat eaters will find plenty to enjoy, from ham with banana polenta fries to braised lamb shanks served with spatzle, spring onions, and a rutabaga puree. The crispy fried brussels sprouts are amazing when dipped in the mushroom vin accompanying them, and the ricotta potato gnocchi is delightfully chewy and hearty. Over two trips, I also tried the kohlrabi kimchi melt, served on a baguette with cheese and cured egg yolk mayo; the sour cream steam buns, drizzled with baked beans and salty peanuts; and the veggie burger, topped with kale, grilled leek, and a green onion jam. All of it was delicious.
“This place is very much about food culture: where we get our food, and how responsible we are as restauranteurs in choosing the purveyors of food,” Levi says. For Dekalb’s owners, the restaurant is a platform to introduce a healthier, more sustainable-sourced menu to a neighborhood that traditionally hasn’t offered many options like that. As Stefan says, “People in this area normally haven’t had access to this quality,” although, as Bed-Stuy gentrifies, that’s starting to change. It’s important to Dekalb’s owners, as longtime Brooklyn residents, to participate in that change, so as to help guide it.
“Having helped open many business in the area in the last twenty years, one of the things that’s become very important to me is the recognition that there can be aspects of social justice within the parameters of gentrification,” Levi says. “I love my community too much to feel powerless in the change.” The staff is largely comprised of guys Levi knows from the neighborhood, guys who grew up in Bed-Stuy and might soon be priced out.
Stefan and Levi are completely simpatico–they’ve shared the same vision from the very beginning. Stefan grew up working parties in his dad’s catering company, and then spent years in other industries before finding his way back to food. He’s an intense guy, with a hard-won individualism. “I’ve been getting kicked out of anything that’s worthwhile, all my life,” he says. When he came upon the decrepit linen factory, he saw an opportunity “to do something my way. There are opportunities everywhere, but this is the one I thought I could do.”
The early results are good, and the group’s vision is materializing before their eyes. “We have more repeat customers than I ever expected,” Mark says. “Remembering names and faces is tough. But the best restaurant is the one where you’re known.”
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.