When John McCormick opened his first restaurant, Café Moto, back in 2002, he was a pioneer in the Williamsburg scene. Since then, he has designed neighborhood favorites like Maison Premiere, Five Leaves, St. Mazie, and now Witlof. Here, he dishes on the design process and what Brooklyn style means to him.
You recently finished Witlof in Williamsburg. What was the process like, in terms of the design concept and the build process?
The concept was a traditional brasserie, in this instance more of a Belgian brasserie, so there’d be an angle on the cuisine. There’s a lot of cross-pollination between French and Belgian cuisine. It was the owner’s desire to have that kind of food and Belgian beer—there are 35 beers and they’re all Belgian. So I was trying to take the traditional brasserie aesthetic but make it unique, taking little elements from here and there and expanding on those.
There’s also kind of a backstory, which is really fun and the way I work. I always try and come up with a story, even though the customers won’t know about it, so even though it’s fictitious it gives me a format in terms of how to work. The backstory of that was the cycling theme because Belgium has a great cycling culture and history. It’s something I’m familiar with too because I used to be a bike messenger and race, and I have a big collection of cycling jerseys, medals, and bikes, so when Ivan the owner talked to me about it, I felt really comfortable with it thematically.
The building had a lot of natural European characteristics, not only on the inside, but also on the outside. Even the ironwork on the fire escapes pulled into the building, so there’s some kind of harmony there. I think that’s the last great building on Bedford Avenue in that section. I think a lot of people were hot to get it and were put off by what they were asking for the rent. I have to give Ivan credit. He’s very passionate about the project. It took a lot longer than any of us anticipated. It was over a year and a half, two years—I stopped thinking about it.
Were there specific challenges you had to face?
There was a lot of stuff stacked against us. I don’t know what to say exactly except problems with the building department that were out of our control. It was more to do with the building than what we were doing. There were stop work orders on the building even though we had no violation. It goes on for months. You have to get it overturned. No one can go in there with work clothes or a hammer.
Certain projects you might end up doing a lot of reconstruction on the building. The sidewalk was caving in outside so it had to be reinforced. The floor was crumbling inside so it had to be rebuilt.
It was abandoned for quite a while, right?
It was storage space for B&G hardware next door. I actually asked about that space years ago, when I was working on Maison Premiere. They were just using it for storing larger products, like insulation. It had some beautiful natural features, but was so far gone everything had to be pulled back. I think the only thing that we left was the terrazzo floor when you walk in and see the year the building was built.
Did you find inspiration in the history of the building?
Not like the story historically, but more about the natural architectural features that were there and the design of the space. The only history I know is that it was a storefront church at some point. It was a bank at the turn of the century. There was an incident or riot there because the owner of the bank made off with all his account holders’ money. I think he ended up changing his name.
You always manage to source some awesome vintage finds for your projects. Are there any special pieces in Witlof?
There are a couple of light fixtures. I would say more than three-fourths of the light fixtures in the room I made and there’s one over the oyster station that’s particularly beautiful and that’s from Belgium. The light fixture over the bar is really beautiful—brass chandelier-style. The one over the oyster station is bronze. There are some old exit signs. Almost everything in the room is new construction. We used some turn-of-the-century drafting table bases for about half the tables and got a truckload of original French-Belgian bistro chairs that were sent over from France. .
How do you think Witlof relates to the dining scene in Williamsburg?
I think on the cuisine and the space itself, the physical space, it’s elevated the scene quite a bit in Williamsburg. I can’t think of another place that’s quite like it. I think it’s more on the level of a Keith McNally-style project. Not necessarily that we were aiming for that, but it’s what the project asked for and the building itself.
Going to some of your other projects, like Maison Premiere, I can see the throughline.
I’m a classicist when it comes to restaurants and bars. My choice of materials stays in wood, glass, marble, textured glass, brass. I just don’t believe you can improve upon those materials for the restaurant to be comfortable and functional and have a warm feeling. As much as I like modern design, it doesn’t feel right to me to be sitting in a modern setting having food. I like to be around aged marble, wood, warm lighting. Those are the places that I go to and ever since I was a kid going into old, derelict buildings, it’s always really excited me and kept me going.
How have you noticed Williamsburg evolve?
It’s been really interesting to be a participant and I step back and can look at the whole scene and the movement from a different perspective as an observer, so it’s been really exciting. Back when we built Moto, that was the first major project, on Broadway and Hooper Street. We were really excited about revisiting the past, the history of New York and celebrating that and trying to create a place that had people wondering if it had been there. When we first opened, there were rumors going around that we had just dusted off the chairs and opened, and I love that. To me, that’s a success.
I have a lot of conversations lately about that. It wasn’t that long ago, but in terms of the Williamsburg scene, it seems like decades ago. Back when we opened Moto, there were only a handful of places that people would go to: Pete’s Candy Store, Union Pool, Zebulon, Diner. We as owners would always see each other at each other’s places. Then that aesthetic took off and people started asking me to work on projects. I think it spoke to what people wanted. We were always collecting salvaged pieces, antiques. Recently, Vannesa and I traveled to London and the influence it’s had is kind of a Brooklyn movement, and we heard it’s happening now in Paris. There’s some district they’re calling the little Brooklyn.
And you were really at the forefront of it.
Yeah, it’s weird to say that, but when you do it’s hard not to accept that fact. We were just doing what we wanted to do and a lot of people responded well to it. I learned quickly. I was approached by people at Ralph Lauren to do their signs. Three years after Moto, I had constant jobs. It’s been that way for ten years.
But in terms of Witlof, I’ve never worked on a project of this caliber. The craftsmen were amazing carpenters. I’ve never worked in such a beautiful, historic, and prestigious location. And also the design of Witlof took elevated elegance to the next level.
Do you think there is such a thing as a Brooklyn aesthetic?
Let’s see, a Brooklyn aesthetic. I guess there is a movement that has taken hold in Brooklyn and a lot of that was the cocktail culture. You know, Sasha Petraske from Milk & Honey—all of those things tied in. It was all happening at the same time—appreciation of New York history, trying to find these old places and reintroduce the aesthetic and the things that were kind of lost—great service, people smartly dressed working behind the bar, those old world cocktail recipes, no televisions in your bar. The music is a big component, especially in my places. And each owner of every place I’ve worked on brings their own contributions and their vision and you can really see the people that are super passionate about it and don’t just want to open a fabulous, trendy place. A great example of that is Judd and Kathy at Five Leaves. they found a great location, we built the space out, and they could have ridden on that, but they are constantly working on it.
Are they expanding?
They’re sitting on the space next door. They’ve asked me to help with that. I don’t think they’re going to expand anymore, but they’re going to use that space to do something new.
What are your favorite places in Williamsburg?
Do you want my honest answer? My wife and I are vegetarian and a lot of our outings are based on great food and our diet and I have to say that we go to Marlow & Sons probably three days a week. I think their food is amazing and I keep telling people that I don’t know why they don’t have a Michelin star. Their food is that good and they’re constantly changing the menu.
I go to Cafe Colette a lot. That’s my friend Zeb Stewart, co-owner of Hotel Delmano and Union Pool. We’d go to each other’s work sites a lot and give each other opinions of each other’s projects, how to improve them, even our own businesses. It’s pretty funny.
Witlof just opened and we’ve only been there mostly during the day and the brunch there is amazing. The chef is one of the partners in that project and he’s super passionate. He trained in Belgium for ten years. He’s very serious and I tasted a few of his dishes and then they opened the doors and I was blown away by the food that we were having. We eat at St. Mazie a lot. Five Leaves we go to every week or so. It’s a lot about the food and it’s a lot about the room too and the service. Maison Premiere for cocktails.
In terms of influences, there’s McSorley’s Ale House. I don’t get there often enough. The Old Town Bar, the Ear Inn, and there was that speakeasy on Bleeker Street—I think it got shut down—Chumleys.
Are there other designers—contemporary or historical—whose work you admire?
God, there are so many. I’ve always been interested in art. Not just designers, but painters, sculptors, writers, musicians. I’m inspired by and incorporate that into the design of places. You know, artists living in debt… A lot of my favorite musicians are people that play at my bars. We listen to them at home. I was into almost every art movement you can imagine—Bauhaus, surrealism, modern, and contemporary. I love Frank Lloyd Wright, furniture designers like Walter Gropius, and photographers. I may see a famous photographer take a picture of something and I’ll incorporate that into the design. I had the good fortune of working with Irving Penn freelance a lot time ago. He was a big influence. I would be introduced to a writer or an artist through Irving Penn’s work and then go on an exploratory mission reading their books or looking at their work. I had a great high school teacher that inspired me. My senior year of high school, I took all art classes.
A lot of your design projects are in Williamsburg. Are there other Brooklyn neighborhoods you love spending time in?
We live in DUMBO and we love living there. A lot of the reason is because it’s separate and apart from Williamsburg so when we go there, there’s pressure to stop in on our place. There’s something nice about going to our neighborhood where we live and checking out the restaurants in that area. I love Red Hook. I lived in Greenpoint years ago and I really love that area. There’s something about Red Hook I love because it feels so old New York—the waterfront and industrial spaces. That’s why I love DUMBO too. We have an excellent view of the river from our loft. I love those places that remind you that you’re in New York. I’m also a surfer, so I love going out to Long Island—Long Beach, Rockaway Beach. I think it’s amazing to live in such a metropolitan city and be able to go surfing. Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook is one of my favorite bars too.
When you’re working on a project like Witlof, what’s a typical day like?
Get up in the morning, have a coffee, work on some drawings. There are site visits, working with the builders, handing drawings off to them, running around sourcing materials, going to scrap yards finding different pieces. I still do hands-on work. I did a lot more on the Witlof project than I anticipated, so placing orders for steel, doing some welding. I worked mostly on the wall that surrounds the kitchen with those iron columns. That’s mainly what I did in the past with my design partners. We did a lot of hands-on building and construction. Now because time is so precious, I’m trying to do less of that, doing the design and working with the construction guys.
At the end of the day, would you stop off at St. Mazie or Moto?
Yeah, I’m active in the music aspect of Mazie and Moto and Vannesa is in charge of operations. I still book a lot of the bands. I never got to finish St. Mazie, so we’re constantly working on upgrading. We recently reformatted the music area. We took away the walls that created that little hallway and pushed the banquettes back. We were on the fence about it, but we think it was the right thing to do. The place has grown. It feels more like a music venue or a live jazz venue now. We’re really excited about it.
Any exciting new projects on the horizon?
Well, I’ve had meetings and they’re in such early stages that I don’t know if I want to… I’m very choosy about the jobs I take because I want to have fun and I want a good working relationship with the owners. So we’ll meet and they’ll pitch their project to me and I’ll go with the one that sounds fun or challenging. I don’t want to repeat myself. Some people say we want exactly a Smith and Mills, and I don’t do that. We’ve had calls about hotel projects outside of the city.
We’re looking to do something possibly outside of New York, looking around New Orleans. We’ve gone quite a few times and I love the history and the atmosphere there and the historic preservation. I’m really into that, in the French Quarter and around that area. I’m not into the French Quarter in particular, but I’m into the New Orleans history and culture. I never get tired of that place. So we’re looking for a project down there to get our asses out of New York every now and then, especially in winter. We were in Chile and entertaining doing something in Santiago. A little bit of talk about doing something in London. But nothing solid yet that I can really tell you about.
What’s your dream project?
Well, there are a couple. I would love to do an underground—literally a subterranean place or a smaller size hotel project, and I’m always interested in live music venues, but done in a way that I think a live music venue should be. I’m from Minneapolis and I grew up in the punk rock movement in the early 80s and all your favorite bands were standing right in front of you at your level, so I like when the barrier between the audience and musician is nonexistent and you’re right there. That’s why I love booking the music at St. Mazie—you have something as powerful as flamenco right in front of you. Once you experience that, or once you get to that level of performance and intimacy, you can’t go back. Like a few years ago, a friend invited me to see Neil Young at the Barclay’s Center and I had to use binoculars to see him! It was great, but I’d rather be at my place with the musicians right there. And people love it. You can really see the reactions of the people with the musicians, especially at Moto. We didn’t plan it to be a music venue, but that’s what people love about Moto, the awkwardness of having a musician play right at the front door. We’ve had some amazing musicians come and play. Every now and then I have to remind myself how amazing it was.