Jesse Levitt has been a part of the Bushwick bar and restaurant scene since before the recent spate of openings, and he’s seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood. “In 2006, there were a lot of buildings still empty and a lot fewer people living here,” he recalls. “In terms of stores and restaurants and places to go out, there were very, very few options.”
But then the artists moved in, and the neighborhood boomed, and Levitt saw a newly created unfilled niche in the market: Residents wanted nicer places to eat. And so he put together plans for 1 Knickerbocker, a restaurant he’s housing at 1 Knickerbocker Avenue. “People are looking for creative food, creative space, and ambiance,” he says. “I wanted to bring a little bit of elegance with a classier kind of feel.”
The space, says Levitt, has a storied past. “It was built sometime in the 1890s as a grocery for the German immigrant population working at the breweries in the area,” he explains. “It later became a saloon, speakeasy, and, we think, some kind of a brothel a few decades later. We found old flyers for all-girl revues during demo. It was shut down for awhile, and during World War II, it reopened as a textile factory making army tents and uniforms. After the war, it was operated as a civilian factory for awhile, and then it was abandoned in the ’80s when the neighborhood went through hard times.”
The restaurateur will try to channel that history with his build-out, restoring what he can of the space and recreating original details as possible. “There’s some tin and boards off the walls that we’re reusing, and we found old industrial machines, which we’re using to build some of the furniture here,” he explains.
He brought on chef Steven Hubbell, who is creating a menu drawn from dishes popular in classic New York restaurants around the turn of the 20th century on into the 1920s. “You think about what’s going on then, and it’s restaurants using amazing produce that’s domestic at a quality that a lot of places in Europe didn’t have access to,” Levitt explains. “American restaurants on the higher end were coming up with new ways to integrate local stuff they were getting from farms with classic European techniques. That’s not that different from things that are going on now. Current restaurant trends enforce using local produce and older techniques when it comes to food and drink.”
Hubbell’s menu, he says, will include a mock turtle soup, pork cheek, and baked beans, updated with contemporary flavors to appeal to today’s palate. The board pairs to a full bar, which includes a concentrated wine list built on some esoteric varietals, cocktails made from housemade tinctures and bitters, and local and regional craft brews plus rare international beers in bottle. Helping manage the front of the house, says Levitt, is Aimee Arciuolo–who also manages Kings County Bar.
1 Knickerbocker will open with dinner service seven nights a week, but Levitt says it will eventually add brunch and late-night eats as well.
The restaurant is shooting to debut sometime around the second week of November.