A shiny new Apple Store on Bedford is probably one of the more on-the-nose examples of Williamsburg’s decade-long evolution—its slick edifice starkly constrasting the rough-and-ready warehouse sheltering the veteran Roebling Tea Room. Yet the disparate establishments share a landlord—the cash-flushed RedSky Capital—which is why while the former has a bright future in $700 iPhones, the latter will serve its last $12 plate of chicken tinga nachos this Memorial Day.
In honor of the woman behind the restaurant that set North Brooklyn’s extraordinary renaissance in motion (for better or for worse) we’re re-running an interview we held last year with the inimitable Syd Silver.
With her cropped shock of platinum blonde (or, sometimes, electric blue) hair, it’s easy to pluck owner Syd Silver from the crowd at the Roebling Tea Room. Especially since, when she’s not running interference in the dining room and kitchen, you’ll reliably find her in a corner booth with her daughters, sharing an after-school repast of Whopper-sauced french fries.
And while it may seem an incongruous tableau of the former musician—who played bass for the punk rock band the Lunachicks, under the pseudonym Squid—it turns out that her own riot girls were the driving force behind her decision to open Roebling eleven years ago, which, with its industrial chic décor and freewheeling menu, created a veritable blueprint for Brooklyn restaurants as we largely know them today.
“Even with all of my wild, young behavior, I always knew that I wanted to be a mom. And the whole thing about starting this business was the wanting to have kids, the not wanting to be on tour anymore, the wanting to be awake during the day and not the night,” Silver said. “I was actually pregnant in the first year of opening. I mothered a store and a human side by side. Because at some point, you’re ready for it to be about someone else for a while; how long can you really think about yourself before you decide you’re cooked? You’re done? And when you’re touring and on the road, you don’t get the experience of building on something or planting seeds for something permanent; something that can grow into something else.”
We reminisced with Silver about the bygone days of braising meat behind the bar, why the spot has become a neighborhood gathering place, and why she actually can’t be bothered with the restaurant’s revolving playlist.
So can you set the stage for me eleven years ago, when you were a musician turned tattoo artist living in a very different Williamsburg? What made you decide to open a restaurant of all things?
I moved to the southside of Williamsburg in the 90s, because it was a pain to travel to the tattoo parlor on the G train, which arrived about once every two hours back then. I think it’s a little better now. Anyway, I lived two blocks from Diner, where my music friend Stephen Tanner (who was an incredible bass player before he became the celebrated king of fried chicken) was working, as well as dating the chef, Caroline Fidanza. And I hung out there all the time because it was basically the only place to eat; you couldn’t even buy an apple on the south side back then.
So as part of the grand plan to settle down and stop touring and figure out what I was going to do with my life, I thought that maybe I could open a little lunch place; or at least a coffee shop that had food. I eventually found this crazy space with a landlord and in a building that everyone warned me against. It was this huge box with nothing in it; not even a toilet. But I got captured by the big, round factory windows and the arches, and I had a dreamweaver moment that I could actually do this.
Obviously you’re still standing all these years later. So how did all of the pieces begin to fall into place?
The luckiest thing was that Stephen had just quit his job at Diner and was bored because he had nothing to do. He marched over here and said “Hey, do you want me to cook for you?” I said sure, of course, and he took over. We had nothing in here, not even servers. We’d be like, “Dave, your pulled pork sandwich is ready!” just yelling into the room. It was pretty punk rock.
But despite the fact that we didn’t even have a real kitchen, Stephen was making the sickest food, like, braising meat behind the bar somehow. Word got out, and Roebling instantly turned into a dinner and brunch spot, and basically that set the tone. As the restaurant organically evolved I did too; learning everything that I needed to learn on my feet. But without a doubt, our success all comes down to the fact that I was lucky enough to be surrounded by incredible people.
How have you seen what you created in Roebling imprint itself, not just on the restaurant scene, but on Williamsburg as a whole?
I feel stupid telling this story, but since I was in a band for a while I was used to people recognizing me from that. And I was on the train one day and this girl came up to me and was like “Excuse me” and I’m like, okay, here we go, and then she asked “Are you the owner of the Roebling Tea Room?” I thought it was so funny I almost died.
But my point is, it goes to show what a neighborhood staple the restaurant has become. Everyone has stories about the building we’re in, like the fact that they got laid upstairs or that they dropped acid at some party. And now Roebling is part of the community fabric too. We’re a natural gathering spot.
I would imagine that music remains a passion of yours. Do you take an active role in putting together the Roebling Tea Room playlists?
You know what, I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t. In fact, I feel so overwhelmed by the very idea of it. I kind of wish that I had the time to work on it instead of getting consumed by boring back of house stuff. I like to hire creative people with great taste; a lot of people that work here are musicians. But sure, I’ll be in the car sometimes, wondering if anyone’s playing the Cult at work. And they really should be playing the English Beat’s “Tears for a Clown” because that is a fucking great cover. But I’m kind of painfully stuck in the past, listening to my old music. Nowadays, it’s more about “Uh uh, you better turn that off. Look at me, do you really think that’s what I want to hear right now?” I like to give the kids some breathing space, but I will absolutely put my foot down. ♦