When husband-and-wife team John McCormick and Vannesa Shanks announced that Williamsburg stalwart Café Moto was closing, its regulars were understandably upset. After all, Moto had been a neighborhood staple since 2002, when it opened under the J/M/Z. At the time, it was one of the few places in the neighborhood where you could go for a good meal, an inviting atmosphere, and live music. In fact, that’s how McCormick and Shanks met. “I used to live two blocks down the street when I moved here in 2008, and this was my local, and look what happened!” Shanks exclaims, glowing, as she cradles their one-year-old daughter in her arms. And though the neighborhood has changed immensely in the past fifteen years, the little flatiron building with the bike hanging outside is still one of the first places you see when you get off the subway at Hewes Street.
Though he keeps a low profile, McCormick has become a well-respected pillar of the dining community. He’s had a hand in designing many of Brooklyn’s most beloved bars and restaurants, including Maison Premiere, Five Leaves, and Brasserie Witlof, as well as his own spots, St. Mazie and Bar Velo, the new incarnation of Café Moto. Despite the outcry from longtime patrons, the decision to transform Moto into Velo wasn’t terribly difficult. Cycling is McCormick’s lifelong passion. As a kid he bought his first bike using money he won in an art contest by drawing himself on a bike racing a car. Later, he worked as a bike messenger, and even traveled across Europe on two wheels. For quite a while, he and Shanks had been toying with the idea of opening a cycling-themed bar. So when it came time to renegotiate their lease, they decided to start fresh with a new concept.
The space remained closed for three months while they lightened up the interiors and developed a new vegetarian menu and cocktail list. The ceiling went from black to off-white, the walls from mahogany to pale green, the tables from square to round, and the windows from opaque to transparent. They hung black-and-white photos from the 1910s, racing posters and magazines from the 20s and 30s, and other vintage cycling memorabilia that McCormick has been collecting for over twenty years. They put plants in the window and hung a new, lighter bike outside. The place still has a distinct Prohibition-era vibe, but it’s now “greener and cleaner,” as Shanks put it. They plan to put a bike rack and air pump on the sidewalk in front of Velo, and add a to-go window for coffee, juices, and smoothies. They will also sell vintage jerseys with the Velo logo, bike gear, and musette bags. “We want it to be a real neighborhood go-to spot for whatever you need to nourish yourself and get your bike fixed,” Shanks explains.
As longtime vegetarians, they were especially excited to retool the menu. Now, instead of roast chicken and short ribs, you’ll find a black bean Portobello burger with garlic aioli and avocado on a pretzel bun, lentil paté served with cornichons and truffle toast, and fettuccini with slow-roasted tomato sauce, basil oil, and breadcrumbs. “After eating the food, you feel like you wouldn’t miss meat if you could have access to this kind of food all the time,” Shanks says as I take a bite of toast with lentil paté. “What surprises people is that it tastes so good.” Indeed, this isn’t the kind of raw, tasteless vegan food in vogue in the early aughts—it’s comfort food that just happens to be meatless, organic, and healthier than the food you typically eat at restaurants. There are interesting flavors, like a hint of miso in the lentil paté and the vegan nut cheeses made using the same fermentation process employed to make real cheese, but the dishes aren’t overwrought.
“We wanted to do something that reflected where we’re going and how we’ve changed,” Shanks says when I ask how they balance the desire for things to stay the same with the need to innovate. “It’s about creating a future now that we have a kid as well. You think about how the future can be—how can you lessen your impact, how can you be healthier, how can you counteract GMOs, and how can you create an environment where you feel good bringing your child to eat.” Their ultimate goal is to make you feel euphoric when you walk out. Even the cocktails were developed using herbs with medicinal properties. Earlier, when I asked McCormick about the building’s history, he told me that it was a pharmacy in the 1920s. Now as Shanks is telling me about the healing properties of the cocktails, I point out the irony and she agrees: “A hundred years later it’s going back to its roots.” ♦
Photos by Chris Trigaux