New Williamsburg bar taps into luxury condo market

Spirits of the ordinary kind

On a near-desolate street in north Williamsburg, a noncultural renaissance has begun. Till recently, the signs of gentrification on this block consisted of a cheese shop, a hookah bar, and a Mexican fast food restaurant opposite graffitied trailers and abandoned lots. But when Oulu (170 North 4th Street, Brooklyn) opened a month ago, hipsters finally entered their promised land and became old school. The lounge, named for the northern Finnish city, introduces us to what the owners call "Williamsburg 2.0," a neighborhood of creative professionals, dwellers of the future luxury condos sprouting up along North 4th Street. The crumbling landscape may once have been dangerous for some, charming for others; to the new kids on the block, it's their Manifest Destiny.

Oulu's name and elements of its design were inspired by the sixth largest city in Finland—a place the owners, married couple Ande Bordages and Anthony Pace, have never been. Pace dreamed of honeymooning off the beaten path and discovered Oulu in his research. But he and Bordages used their trip money to open their own version in Brooklyn instead. The West Village–based couple describes Williamsburg 2.0 in terms of pioneers and settlers. "Pioneers get shot," said Pace, "but settlers get land."

Based on Pace's idea of a "super-modern river cottage," the airy lounge gets its woodsiness from smooth, tree-trunk-length benches and curved wall-mounted tables, and its greenery from the delightful "vertical garden" of succulents mounted upon the façade. A blown-up photograph of a serene forest lake and cabin adorns the wall nearest the bar, transporting patrons—graphic designers, architects, and other well-off freelancers—to peaceful, far-away environs with nary a wireless connection. The deeply considered natural elements complement the bare, dim bulbs, concrete floor, and the massive glass garage door that gives insiders a view of the remains of 4th Street's wilderness.

The relationship to the city of Oulu ends with the physical space. The owners are adamant their inspiration not be a theme that can become mired in kitsch (in contrast to those hipsters who came to Williamsburg 1.0 embracing kitsch). There is just one Finnish beer (Sinebrychoff, $6), and while some cocktails have Nordic names, they are local creations by the thoughtful bar staff. At $9 each, standouts include the Victorian Cocktail, a concoction of gin, Earl Grey tea, and apple juice, and the Frostbite, a curious combination of pineapple juice and mint in a vodka martini. Wines ($7 a glass) and domestic beers (from $5) round out the menu. Plans for a "Sunday Bloody Mary Sunday" liquid brunch are in the works.

On a midweek night, the crowd at Oulu was thin, the indie rock and lounge music low enough to let the patrons talk about design or art or $500,000 studios over a drink. Saturdays feature DJs playing rock, indie, and "esoterica," drawing growing numbers of the new locals—those brave, intrepid colonists who have come to tame wild, wild Williamsburg.

 
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