The chalkboard sitting outside the door of Bar Velo says “vegetarian bistro” in fine print. As you go over the menu with the waitress, though, there’s nary a stick of butter or block of parmesan to be found: This is a vegan restaurant, but you can keep your judgment to yourself, thank you very much.
It makes sense, both from a business standpoint and a culinary one, to play offerings like the mac ‘n’ cheese close to the vest, coated as this particular entry is in root vegetable sauce rather than local, grass-fed cheddar. But that doesn’t make it any less satisfying, and the people behind the operation seem to know exactly what they’re doing.
Bar Velo occupies a sliver of space in South Williamsburg where Broadway meets Division Avenue, right under the J train tracks (the building charmingly shudders when one passes by). The triangular restaurant feels tucked away, almost secret. For fourteen years, it was Café Moto, serving mussels, free-range chicken breast, and slow-cooked short ribs. The transformation into the bicycle-focused Bar Velo began in the summer of 2016 and was completed in the fall, retaining the Thirties vibe of the former business while trading the external combustion engine for pedal-power. There are vintage cycling posters on the walls, an unyielding commitment to old-timey music evident over the speakers, and the overwhelming sense that you’ve stepped into a sepia-tone photograph. There always seem to be a few toddlers running around.
This is all the work of designer and restaurateur John McCormick, architect of the Depression-chic on view at Maison Premiere, Five Leaves, and his other restaurant, St. Mazie Bar & Supper Club. Despite the overt dedication to a theme, he knows that’s no substitute for warmth, and you can really melt into Bar Velo’s atmosphere and stay awhile.
The food and drink aid in the effort. A small list of cocktails provides enough variety to keep everyone happy: The hot toddy (No. 4), with ginger, cloves, and candied clementine, acts as a spicy, sweet, and citrusy salve on a cold night. If you like a smoke, the mezcal-forward, negroni-esque No. 5 with Montenegro, Carpano, and mole bitters could work year-round. Each goes for a neighborhood standard $12.
When hunger hits, the options are simple, homey, and done remarkably well. They’re also priced to encourage excessive ordering and sharing, with no item going for more than the cost of a cocktail. Try the grilled artichoke, served with a thick, super-garlicky aioli (vegan, naturally), a bowl of warm olives covered in herbs and mustard seeds, and a plate of nut cheeses from the nearby Dr. Cow, served with baguette.
If you want a bigger bite, the portobello black bean burger on a pretzel bun is a worthy variation on the form, but the barbecued eggplant on baguette is the real achievement. Sweet and smoky eggplant, more of that garlic aioli, a smattering of pickles, and crispy, perfect bread make it a dish you’ll crave. Similarly, a flatbread piled high with vinegary radicchio and carrot slaw, marinated tempeh, and hummus is a simple idea executed flawlessly. For dessert, try the coconut milk panna cotta, drizzled with a reduced balsamic vinegar; it bursts with vanilla flavor and offers a mellow, grown-up level of sweetness.
That grown-up element really makes Bar Velo work, and (along with the accessible pricing) explains why it’s an anomaly among vegan restaurants. There’s no goth pretense or high-flown overtures about healthy eating; it just is. Could quietly removing the meat from menus rather than yelling about how your tempeh reuben is saving the planet be the future of vegan dining? In Bar Velo, we’ve got a compelling case study.
394 Broadway, Brooklyn