Smith Street Pioneers: Talking with Sharon Pachter and Charles Kiely of The Grocery

Photo via The Grocery's website

Sharon Pachter and Charles Kiely opened The Grocery in 1999, when Smith Street was home to little more than a handful of bodegas. But even as the neighborhood and clientele have significantly changed—welcoming a steady influx of shiny new restaurants and super cool bars—The Grocery has somehow continued to grow and thrive.

So what keeps the restaurant going strong after all these years? A strong marriage certainly doesn’t hurt, as well as an overriding passion for what they do that simply leaves no room for failure. It’s Pachter and Kiely’s love for each other and their food that makes The Grocery so great, and will continue to provide a protective shield, of sorts, as Smith Street (and Brooklyn’s food scene at large) continues to expand and evolve.

What made you decide to open The Grocery in Carroll Gardens 16 years ago?
Sharon Pachter: We were young, and didn’t really know what we were doing, although we knew what we wanted to cook. We were actually looking for a place to buy and to live, so even if the restaurant failed, we could continue to live there. And we found that place on Smith Street.

How has the neighborhood changed in the last decade?
SP: When we first took over our space, I would say there were probably two new restaurants in the neighborhood. I lived in the area in the ‘80’s, and back then, my landlady would tell me not to walk on Smith Street late at night. It went from a place that was desolate to this booming restaurant strip in a period of about five years.

How have the changes in the neighborhood been challenging for you?
Charles Kiely: Real estate has gotten very expensive. I think people are staying home and enjoying their renovated kitchens more and more. We’ve turned into a special occasion restaurant when originally we wanted to be a neighborhood place.

How have your own tastes changed over time?
CK: Our tastes have changed only that we are more vegetable-centric than we ever were. We just try to cut back on the animal protein, and I think our customers go along with that.

SP: Our menu reflects the way we like to eat. Offering small plates was freeing for us, because big entrees became really cumbersome. Small plates also make it easier to respond to changes in the market. You can feature one ingredient and make it shine.

What ingredients are you most looking forward to using this summer?
SP: This is the hardest time of year. There’s nothing in the market yet. Right now it’s really just the alliums. We’re waiting for ramps. We’re desperate for something green and local.

CK: I try not to look too far in the future. We want peas, fava beans… but we’re not thinking about zucchini and eggplant and tomatoes because you really can’t get them until July. You might think about tomatoes and corn when you think about local and seasonal. But for us, that’s still so far away.

What’s one of the greatest challenges of working with your spouse?
SP: We’re both always right and we’re both really stubborn, so everything is a negotiation. It’s very hard emotionally to always have to negotiate. But I think the end result is (hopefully), that we always get a better product by having that constant conversation, about what we’re cooking/how we’re plating/what it tastes like. It gets heated!

CK: Actually, I never get to say anything! Seriously though, Sharon and I are so on the same page aesthetically, as well as what our goals are, so the big picture stuff never comes up. It’s not all that hard a relationship, because we’re just talking about food, really. We’re not saving lives. Our restaurant is never going to grow up and work a pole.

When do you have time off, what do you do?
SP: We cook, eat, get in the car hungry, go somewhere. For true downtime, we try to get out of town, away from the neighborhood, eat something delicious or shop somewhere inspirational. We like to go to San Francisco and go to the green market or go to wine country.

CK: Our hobbies are food. We don’t go to the movies. We do go to shows at BAM. We do it to change our point of view.

When you’re home, what do you cook together?
SP: Eggs, matzo brei. We have chickens in the backyard, so we always have eggs. We steam asparagus; roast chicken with rice.

CK: Over the course of our 22-year relationship, the meal we go back to is really just salad. We get really good lettuce with jarred Italian tuna, avocado and soft boiled eggs. Sometimes the salad gets feta; sometimes it gets green beans. That’s a salad we always come back to.

Where are your favorite places to go out to eat?
SP: ABC Kitchen. Everything is very simple, very ingredient-driven. It always tastes like someone is tasting every bite. Dishes are well-balanced with good heat and good acid.

CK: Lulu and Po in Fort Greene is one of our favorites. And Sushi Katsuei in Park Slope. The chef is amazing. You can just sit there and let him do what he wants to do.

What’s in store for the future?
SP: We’re just thinking about how to evolve. That’s the discussion—what’s next. What’s phase two. We’re getting older and we want to get more life back.

CK: Sharon nailed it.

The Grocery: 288 Smith Street, Carroll Gardens

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