With Eugene & Co.,Tara Oxley Prizes Honesty Above All
Eugene & Co. owner Tara Oxley
Photo Paola + Murray
When you visit Eugene & Co.'s website, you'll find: "An honest and organic restaurant & bar in Bed-Stuy." That’s a big promise from first-time restaurant owner Tara Oxley.
"I feel like today there’s a gross overuse of 'it’s green' and 'everything’s organic.' I think that should just be how places run,” Oxley tells the Voice. "More than anything, I want the family and community I’m building here to trust that we believe in what we’re doing, that we believe in our farmers and the quality of our food. We believe less means more, we use fewer but better ingredients. That’s what honesty means to me — that people can trust us."
That mantra of trust has been a centering ideal for Oxley.
Oxley moved to Bed-Stuy in 2010 and quickly recognized that the area had an opening for a restaurant serving healthy, thoughtful food. She also realized that beloved businesses that had been open for decades thrived because of support from the surrounding community.
So Oxley invested in becoming a member of that community. She lives a less-than-three-minute walk from her restaurant. She’s a board member of the local YMCA. She might not leave her area for weeks on end. "I’m not just coming in and dropping a business and not being a part of the community," she says. "I want to be kneaded in, like egg into bread dough." In a restaurant, of course, that starts with the food you serve.
Photo Paola + Murray
Oxley opened Eugene & Co. (397 Tompkins Ave, Brooklyn; 718-443-2223) with chef Savannah Jordan helming the kitchen, whom Oxley says is "so talented and came from a pedigreed background." Their approach was "plug and play" — presenting a menu of comfort foods that are just outside-the-box enough to tantalize new diners without alienating longtime locals.
Recently, Jordan moved on to develop her own space and chef Jeff Shields took the reins. "Jeff’s a magic maker," Oxley boasts. "He’s an artist whose medium is food. He comes up with all these ideas and really pushes the envelope." That attitude translates into serving only peak-in-season ingredients — no matter how much guests may have loved sliced tomatoes on a sandwich or a side of roasted asparagus. If it's not in season, it's not on the plate.
Oxley and Shields understand that guests appreciate consistency and that neighborhood restaurants succeed thanks to regulars who return often for their favorite dishes. The duo make sure that the reasons behind alterations of a customer-favorite dish – say, the meatloaf sandwich – are clearly conveyed to their guests. When Eugene & Co. first opened, the meatloaf sandwich came on a brioche bun with pickled vegetables and spicy aioli. Now it’s served on ciabatta (from nearby Saraghina Bakery) with smoky tomato chutney, bacon, and dehydrated onions.
"We keep the foundation, but change it," Oxley says. If a patron doesn’t like one variation as much as the last, the kitchen assures them to try the dish again a few months down the line when — no doubt — it will have changed again. So far, there haven’t been overarching complaints about the shifting menu, but if comments come in consistently, Oxley addresses them, especially if ingredients are questioned.
"We had a tuna tartare on the menu everyone loved, but we refuse to have tuna on the menu right now because tuna is so overfished," Oxley explains. "There’s a story behind that reasoning, and we thrive on stories. It’s one of my favorite fish, but we’re choosing not to have it right now so that when the population is healthy again, we can bring it back with confidence."
Again, it’s a matter of trust.
Eugene & Co. in Bed-Stuy
Photo Paola + Murray
That idea of trust also influenced the design concept at Eugene & Co. Although Oxley is a first-time restaurateur, she's no novice to the industry. Oxley comes from a creative background. Her mother is an artist who works with ceramic, oils, and gouache, and used her artistic skills to create a warm feeling wherever their military family moved. Oxley studied architecture and design at Parsons and FIT, later heading up the design team at BR Guest Hospitality while the brand expanded from New York to Los Angeles. Because of Oxley's background in design, she went about designing the space thoughtfully.
"In this neighborhood," she says, "you have these beautiful places built in 1899 next to new places that are completely modern and don’t fit the local aesthetic. Not every one is Frank Gehry; these places are eyesores. So, I wanted to make sure that this restaurant was true to the long history of the neighborhood. Something made well that will still look like it fits in twenty years from now."
To that end, her decor is meant to invoke plushness and comfort. It has some signs of current design trends, like exposed brick, warm earth tones, and reclaimed bar stools. She believes the popularity of "old is new" arose because the younger generation is so saturated with technology that it finds comfort in the past. But the majority of her interior is not reclaimed; the hand-painted walls took days to texture, the artwork might change when her friend Julian brings something new in, and flowers change weekly to flow with the seasons. "I’m always changing things, but you don’t want to change too much. You don’t want changes to be jarring," she says.
That philosophy seems to be her overall approach to the restaurant: Create a home that is comfortable and familiar, but never stagnant, a place where neighbors can pop in to say hello, and maybe have a bite of something just-new-enough. After a little more than a year, her approach is working.
"My favorite thing is seeing people who came in with babies, and now their toddlers are just starting to recognize me," she says. "Or the people who have lived here forever whose kids come and help me in the garden. Or the people who have been in the neighborhood for fifty years, who come in here and tell me old stories. Coming into the fold with what’s around me will hopefully help me become a part of the community as we continue to grow and continue to learn."
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