Sit long enough at the bar at The Grand, a three-month-old joint on Grand Street in Williamsburg, and you’ll begin to notice that owners Eric “The Red” Austin and Jason Kleinmann know just about everyone coming through the door. And it’s not just the cursory, hey-you-look-kind-of-familiar nod that they’re giving people. They’re engaging in deeply involved conversations about families, livelihoods, and neighborhood happenings.
It helps that the native New Yorkers have operated in this neighborhood for awhile now–the guys also own the Second Chance, a bar where you can knock back beers and shots and play pool just a couple of doors away. Through that venture, they’ve amassed a local following. And their motivation behind opening that place speaks to their overall philosophy: “There weren’t spots in the neighborhood that we wanted to hang out in,” says Austin. “I had some money saved, and I wanted a new career.” Kleinmann was in the same boat, and so both guys left their jobs as bike messengers and went to work. “We’ve really enjoyed the community that sprung up in the place,” says Austin. “We met a lot of new friends and regulars.”
Austin got more practice running a neighborhood joint over in Bushwick, where he teamed up with Denis Bramley and Bill Dozer to open the Acheron, a DIY punk rock venue that fused with Carmen Mello, and Addie Dowd’s Anchored Inn, to which it was connected by a door, shortly after it opened.
But the Second Chance also helped Kleinmann and Austin identify another neighborhood need last year: “We wished that there was something in the neighborhood for wings and burgers and things like that,” Austin explains. “There wasn’t really anything around here at all that was a more traditional, less divey place. We thought we could do that, too. We’d create a place we’d like to go to.”
They signed a lease on a former day spa and got to work refurbishing the place, mimicking the style of joints that have been around since the late 1800s, which are places Austin says he has a fascination with since they’re relics of the past in a city that undergoes constant change. The partners laid scaffolding boards as floors, facade, and wooden paneling on the walls, and they outfitted the yet-to-open back dining room with plush round booths and long tables. Their centerpiece, though, is an old 19th century bar that they found on eBay. The dark wood monstrosity sat in a guy’s garage upstate for years after it was ripped out of bar in the Bronx; the guys reassembled it here and had the inlaid mirrors cleaned of nicotine, which revealed old paintings of the Hudson Valley done by an artist who left a Queens address next to his signature. With the bar purchase came some old fire extinguishers, too, which the guys cut down and turned into wine taps, which dispense a half-dozen varietals by the glass and carafe.
Space nearly complete, they debuted, serving a menu of bar food from chef Wes Davis that includes wings and a burger in addition to pierogies, mac and cheese, big platters of clams and oysters, and chicken liver on toast. Craft beer pours on draft, and a handful of classic cocktails rounds out the beverage options. And the neighbors came, sometimes bouncing between Second Chance and The Grand several times in one night.
Though the doors have been open since May, Austin says the restaurant is still a work in progress–the guys will complete the back dining room sometime this fall, and they’ll roll out brunch just after Labor Day. “We like to let things happen organically,” he says.
And while they put the finishing touches on this spot, the guys will also get to work on a new venture, this one at 69th Avenue and Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, where Kleinmann now lives with his family. “He ended up hanging out at this local bar on the corner called Caskey’s,” explains Austin. “After a year, the owner, Joe, decided he wanted to retire from running the bar, and he told us that he thought we should take over. So we worked out a deal. Why not? The place is cool. We went there for beers and shuffleboard anyway. It seemed like a no-brainer.” It also had the history element Austin craves–the bar is the original tenant of the building, and it’s been open continuously since 1928.
In that spot, the guys will do just minimal renovations, and they’ll get the defunct old kitchen up and get it running. They hope to re-open within a month. But what they don’t have yet, at least not definitively, is a name: “We have to spend some time, do a little work, a little drinking, and that will kind of determine what name is the best,” says Austin. Without question, though, the Ridgewood bar will continue on as a neighborhood bar, which the partners hope will capture its own group of regulars composed of both old area inhabitants and the new generation of people moving in.
Hit the next page for photos of The Grand.