Yesterday, just before dinner service began at Chez Oskar—the French bistro opened by artist-turned-restauranteur, Charlotta Janssen, 18 years ago in Fort Greene—we stopped in to say hello. Only we were not in Fort Greene; we were in Bed-Stuy.
Since news broke several months ago that Chez Oskar would close its original location due to increased rents, its long-devoted clientele got very sad at the prospect of losing their favorite lamb burger, and dollar oysters, and family-friendly, comfortable dining space. Then they were told not to worry: Chez Oskar would live on, just a little further down the A/C subway line, to a neighborhood where many of the original Chez Oskar patrons had already moved when they, too, had been priced out of their Fort Greene homes.
Finally, Chez Oskar’s “fresh start,” as Janssen and long-time general manager Angelique Calmet referred to it, arrived on the Fourth of July, a day most businesses were closed. But they were celebrating an independence of their own—from a neighborhood they could no longer afford, and that no longer resembled the Fort Greene they opened their doors to at the end of the 90s.
So yesterday, while the late afternoon sun blazed strong, we walked down Malcolm X Boulevard to see if Janssen and Calmet had pulled off the impossible: re-opening Chez Oskar not only in name, but, more importantly, in spirit.
We stepped onto Janssen’s new black and white bistro tiles, anchored at one end by a hexagonal star that she designed and installed on her own. In important aesthetic ways, we found, yes: this was the same place, the relaxed and welcoming community-anchor that Chez Oskar had become. But in other ways that also mattered, it was brand new.
“The AC works better here than it ever did in Oskar,” Janssen tells me, referring to her original space, which is now completely disassembled. Still, for the most part, Janssen affirms this is the same old Oskar in a new location. “I think a good aesthetic vision is one that happens between people,” she said, as we stood amidst Oskar’s familiar colors of reddish-maroons and aquamarines, a lived-in look with exposed brick walls, refurbished doors and wooden elements everywhere, many of which came from the old restaurant, including all of their tables and chairs. “I’ve worked with Octavio (head Chef) since ’99, and Angelique since 2002. We had our closing party on June 27, packed up the 28, and opened up on the 4th, kit and caboodle,” Janssen explained of their move in. “Everybody was really, really dedicated.”
And it shows. Janssen is dressed in construction clothes and jeans covered in paint, and brims with an energy that reads total relief, and raw excitement for a new chapter. “It feels like we turned back the clock of time, it feels like what Fort Greene felt like 18 years ago,” she says, leaning against her newly-installed breakfast bar. “When it was a community,” she continues, “and people were excited to go out there; it’s a really excited communal feeling here.”
Throughout construction, whenever anybody stopped at the new address, curious about what would be there next, Janssen would invite them in. “I would say, you wanna have a look? Because kids would ask, what’s this gonna be? And I would say, you ask me questions, and I’ll let you have a look. I think it’s really good to encourage kids to ask questions.”
In addition to welcoming new neighbors, old ones have already come around. “Oh, tons of Fort Greene customers, a lot of old friends came by,” says Janssen. “‘We did open!'” she would tell them. “A lot of people didn’t believe us. It was a huge thing. We killed ourselves,” she said, to make sure that it happened, and that all of her old employees kept their jobs.
Angelique Calmet, General Manager for 14 years, was on site prepping for dinner—and helping construction workers, still finishing the second room where Oskar’s long original bar will be re-installed, to clear rubble from the sidewalk outside. “We brought all the classic staples,” Calmet explained of their dinner menu, including that lamb burger, paté, and, eventually, the all you can eat muscles on Tuesdays.
But, she added, “We’re going to pick it up a little bit.” That means adding “new ingredients and funky little things” that are still in development, but that will likely include more seasonal and local ingredients from nearby farms, and pastries and breads form local bakeries. Generally speaking, they will change the menu more frequently than they did in Fort Greene to reflect the seasons, and also to adapt to their new community. Right now they are open for dinner from 5pm until midnight; this weekend, they’ll begin brunch (eggs Benedict, pancakes, Mimosas and Bloody Mary, i.e., everything you want to eat). Eventually, when they are settled, Janssen says they’ll start breakfast and lunch, too.
Back outside, standing in front of the reproduced mural that Janssen first hand painted inside the dining room in Fort Greene, she explains how this Chez Oskar is both itself—”We wanna keep it Oskar, Oskar has gotta stay Oskar”—but is also eager to evolve and grow with its new community.
“As soon as I get a moment to breathe, I’m gonna paint a mural of Malcolm X’s family,” Janssen tells us, before we say goodbye. She will replace it with a large map of France, currently hung front and center in the dining room. Chez Oskar Bed-Stuy, after all, is on Malcolm X Boulevard. “You gotta respect, you know?” Janssen says plainly, “Especially now.”
Chez Oskar: 310 Malcolm X Blvd., Bed-Stuy
All photos by Jane Bruce