How Andrew Tarlow Defined the Brooklyn Food Scene

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There isn’t much that makes Andrew Tarlow sweat. Case in point: it’s just before dinner at Marlow & Sons, one of his trailblazing restaurants in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, and the green sidewalk tables are already hopping when the boiler stops boiling. Tarlow sits at a dark wood table just around the crook of the dining room’s entrance. He runs his finger around the rim of his espresso. He texts. He laughs at the German tourists who keep taking wrong turns into the kitchen when trying to find the bathroom. One look at him and you’d never guess he was the accidental mastermind behind Brooklyn Food As You Know It—or that there’s no hot water when the restaurant is expecting their annual “surprise” visit from the health inspector. He shakes off the timing with a shrug and a slight smile. Unflappable. Unruffled. The important thing to Tarlow is not necessarily the plight at hand—it’s the big picture, and if you eat in Brooklyn, he’s shaped your world, even if you’ve never heard his name.

For those who have a hard time fathoming a Williamsburg without housemade mayo, in-house butchery and European tourists waiting in line for a two-top, it’s time for a history lesson. In ye olde days of the 1990s, the bulbs shined bright and “local cheese” meant plastic-wrapped squares from the bodega. Andrew Tarlow changed all that. His rule-breaking restaurants redefined the BK food scene many times over—first with Williamsburg icon Diner, then its adjacent outpost Marlow & Sons, then the groundbreaking ingredient boutique Marlow & Daughters, then Fort Greene’s Italian destination Roman’s, last year’s uber-chic Reynard in the Wythe Hotel and, just this spring, a cocktail bar called Achilles Heel on the Greenpoint waterfront.

He’s changed the course of New York dining time and again, but 19 years ago when Tarlow decided to take a chance on Williamsburg, he didn’t start out with a game plan, let alone visions of an epicurean empire. He was just some kid from Long Island, a painter making a buck as a bartender at the Odeon who’d moved to Williamsburg in search of cheap rent.

Like other young artists drawn to north Brooklyn by quasi-legal warehouse spaces that always came with abundant natural light but sometimes lacked kitchens, Tarlow lived in a massive, under-furnished, 6,000-square-foot improvised Williamsburg loft. Despite the community of artists moving in after being priced out of Soho, Chelsea, and the near end of the L train, there were few places to hang out, like the ornate bar Teddy’s on Berry Street or Small Little Things or the Alt Café. Destination cocktail bars mixing up housemade bitters with rare Czechoslovakian liqueur or coffeehouses offering single-origin macchiato and latte-art smackdowns were as common as lions in McCarren Park. On Wiliamsburg’s south side there were no gathering places where artists and musicians could come together for a coffee, steak or slice of cake. Instead there were forbidding walks under the Williamsburg bridge and long, dark blocks bereft of commerce. Tarlow just wanted a neighborhood clubhouse.

He traces his interest in hospitality to a life-changing yearlong adventure in Africa. After studying painting at the University of Arizona, he spent 11 months traveling, solo, from Egypt south along the spine of Africa to more than a dozen countries, where strangers offered him food, lodging and friendship. “I lived off the kindness of others,” he says.

He never forgot it, and in 1994 the idea of fostering community in the wilds of WIlliamsburg propelled him and an Odeon co-worker named Mark Firth to dream up a scrappy spot named Diner—a little restaurant that would soon see lines out the door and become the Brooklyn dining archetype.

Diner, or rather the space that would become Diner, was a ramshackle shell of an actual dining car that first kicked off at the tail shimmy of the ’20s, then opened for a hot second as Stacey’s in the mid-1990s. Tarlow and Firth put about $80,000 into Diner (“probably the same amount that I put into my [current] computer system,” Tarlow observed recently), did all of the carpentry and renovating themselves and opened on New Year’s Eve 1998.

Ironically, Tarlow admits that his original concept was simply a place, with the food almost an afterthought—in the beginning, mashed potatoes or fries came with every dish. But as luck had it, the head cook he hired—a young woman named Caroline Fidanza who lived in the neighborhood and agreed that the artist types in South Williamsburg needed a place to meet and eat—happened to hail from SoHo’s longtime locavore temple, Savoy, and baked farm-driven sensibilities into the conceptual cake.

That December 31st they opened with no heat and no gas, but Fidanza carried cassoulet for 25 from blocks away. Tarlow still cites it as one of the best nights and meals of his life.

Fidanza’s localist ethos became the key component of Diner’s menu, even if Tarlow and Firth hadn’t planned it that way. Sometimes Fidanza didn’t map it all out either: busy Friday nights sometimes found the cupboards bare on Saturday morning, necessitating an urgent run to McCarren Park’s Saturday Greenmarket and yielding an ever-changing menu filled with a bumper crop of market-driven specials. Tarlow and Firth could have insisted on simpler sourcing and inexpensive ingredients but they let the forward-thinking Fidanza have her way, and she geeked out big time when it came to buying directly from small farmers.

Sure, in 1998 other chefs were shopping at the Greenmarket. But unlike Union Square Café, Jean Georges or even Fidanza’s alma mater, Savoy, Diner’s crew obsessed over ingredients and then served them without any trappings of fine dining. Indeed Diner felt very much like a diner. The short menu listed pedestrian fare like burgers and fries, a green salad, chocolate cake. Tattooed servers brought it all out on plain plates and slapped it down on your paper-covered table, all to a cranked-up punk-rock soundtrack. The approach even applied to water: back when tap was for second-class citizens, each table at Diner proudly bore bottles of New York’s finest.

While locavore restaurants over in Manhattan had to meet high rent and haute expectations, Tarlow, Fidanza and staff threw out the rulebook and did as they pleased, never knowing they were writing a new rulebook, one that scores of restaurants in Brooklyn—and quite a few in Manhattan—would be turning to a decade later.

“It was fun and chaotic. No, not chaotic. Exciting,” says Fidanza, who cooked at Diner for more than a decade before leaving in 2009 to sell sandwiches and barely-sweet sweets at the tiny shop Saltie on Metropolitan (she still contributes to Tarlow’s print quarterly, Diner Journal). “None of us had any sense that people would come to the restaurant,” recalls Fidanza. Tarlow and Firth “were two guys who lived down the street. They were just serving their friends and neighbors dinner.”

But Diner was liberating—eating there felt like you were participating in something bigger than just dinner. The buzz and hum were palpable. Even Manhattanites soon crossed the river for a seat at the upstart eatery. “It’s hard to imagine being so naïve,” admits Tarlow. “But we never thought the New York Times would come. None of that even existed.”

Though they all thought they would just work and hang out at Diner, much to their surprise, the restaurant became a success, and quite a big one at that. “It turned out that the neighborhood was ready. People just jumped all over it,” says Fidanza. And it wasn’t only the neighborhood—it was the city at large that took notice of the coupling of lusty, conscience-driven food with an indie attitude.

The rest would have been history, but for Tarlow and Firth, it was just the beginning. In 2004, the young men went west—that is, about 20 feet west—to add a annex an adjacent spinoff called Marlow & Sons. The new venue basically began as a waiting room where eaters could shop for Fidanza’s favorite ingredients until their booth opened up at Diner, but the place—named for an amalgam of Firth’s first name, Tarlow’s last, and the fact that they had each had newborn sons—soon got tables too, all with little regard for convention.

It became a restaurant—a dinner-after-dark hangout deservedly famous for sparkling oysters and a signature chicken cooked under a foil-wrapped brick—but its foyer remained a tiny, tightly curated market, long before that was a thing. Unbothered by being bipolar, Marlow’s entryway offered an enlightened update on the general store, selling pickles, local milk, small-batch chocolates, food-art quarterlies and turnips by the bunch. But its biggest contribution to the culinary canon came after Tarlow placed an online ad.

“I was working at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village and just looking for something new to do. And like so many adventures in New York City, [mine began] with an ad on Craigslist,” recalls Tom Mylan, now Brooklyn’s celebrity butcher and co-owner of the Meat Hook. Tarlow, who has a unique knack for spotting good eggs (of the human kind), hired 28-year-old Mylan in 2005 to be the specialty food buyer and manager at Marlow & Sons.

That meant getting the goods for both the kitchen and the front shop—like foraged ramps, farmstead cheese, bottles of kombucha and early-edition Liddabit confections. But when Mylan was coolhunting at the inaugural New Amsterdam Market in lower Manhattan in 2007, a chance encounter would set him on a different path: He met Jessica and Joshua Applestone, two ex-vegetarians-turned-ethical-butchers who had recently founded Fleisher’s in the Hudson Valley and sought city customers for local, pastured meats.

At the time, Diner alone was going through about 300 pounds of ground beef a week to make their signature burger; the restaurant was rare in its appetite for grassfed ground. Chefs shelling out big bucks for grassfed typically wanted prime cuts like tenderloins and chops, which left hundreds of pounds of meat per carcass that was bound for ground and couldn’t fetch much of a price per pound.

But for Mylan, buying good ground was just the beginning. As he got to know the Applestones, he quickly saw that good butchery combined craft, sustainability, economy and badassery, and soon committed to buying not cuts, like every other restaurant in America, but whole sides of beef, which he would have to learn to carve up himself, in-house. This was a revolutionary concept. Mylan went upstate to apprentice under the Applestones, sleeping on their couch for a month, and soon devised the business’s cutting-edge butchery program.

Going whole hog, Mylan didn’t just displace rock stars as Brooklyn’s most macho icons and inspire scores of city restaurants to butcher in-house, he also blazed a trail to Tarlow’s next business, again just a stone’s throw from Diner: Marlow & Daughters, New York’s first shop to not only offer solely sustainably raised meats and game but to butcher it all on premise and in full sight of the shopper. Perhaps the only thing in greater demand than the meat itself was a slot as a cleaver-wielding apprentice.

Mylan’s carnivorous career path reveals a key to Tarlow’s success: willingness to let his staff experiment. By supporting, or at least allowing, their down-the-rabbit-hole quests, he fosters innovation and ultimately capitalizes on their inspiration.

“He might be stubborn at times,” says Mylan, “but [Tarlow] actually understands that while a single vision can be great, without creative people and their input, [you’ll] always be less than the sum of the parts.”

Fidanza adds that Tarlow is capable of recognizing not only talented people, but those who truly want to be part of the organization. And if the fit isn’t right in their current position, Tarlow will find a way to give that person what he or she needs to be successful. “There is a lot of trust there,” she says.

The model was magic, as became evident in 2009 when Saveur magazine printed a seminal issue entitled “Twelve restaurants that matter.” Marlow didn’t just make the cut, alongside national tastemakers like Manresa in California and Joel Robuchon in Vegas—the little BK restaurant landed on the cover.

Sure, not everything Tarlow and Firth touch turned to gold. Their two Mexican concepts, both called Bonita, trailed behind the other restaurants, but in 2009, when the lease to the Williamsburg branch was lost, Tarlow transformed the Fort Greene Bonita into Roman’s, where a chef who’d come up under Fidanza helmed the stoves. Today the daily changing menu still draws crowds for fresh fare like ricotta-botarga crostini, lasagna alla bolognese, chicken al diavolo and pine nut ice cream, washed down with a daily bitter cocktail.

While their menus famously offered farm fare with urban sensibilities, Firth was drawn to a rural experience. He bought a place up in Western Mass and in 2010 moved there full time, trading his farm-to-table restaurants in Brooklyn for one in Great Barrington: Bell & Anchor. He raises the meats himself.

Back in Brooklyn, Tarlow is still burning the candle at both ends. To a new acquaintance, he can come across as aloof, disengaged. He is quiet. But the impression is belied by his close involvement with his managers and chefs, bartenders and waitstaff. Tarlow is not afraid of collaborating and he is not afraid to let go.

He talks a lot about negotiating work and family life. (“Do I answer 20 e-mails, or ride my bike home? I ride my bike home,” Tarlow says.) Tarlow’s four kids range from age one to 12, and his wife, Kate Huling, designs leather goods made from the hides of the steers and pigs whose meat is commandeered for the restaurants; her grocery-friendly totes and spare evening clutches are showcased at Marlow and she is working on shearling coats made from sheep hides for next winter. They live in a Fort Greene brownstone with a serious wood-fired oven out back, but Tarlow’s still very much a man of Williamsburg.

His true religion isn’t only about local lettuce and lamb. It’s always been about believing in Brooklyn and building something new in a place people said it would never work. It was true of Diner and true of both Marlows. But even more than those, it was true of Reynard, the restaurant he opened last year at the Wythe Hotel a block from the waterfront. If Diner came to represent New Brooklyn, the Wythe defines the new, new Brooklyn.

It’s a destination that’s been 15 years in the making. And though Diner drew people from beyond the neighborhood (and a 2007 commercial for the Edge SUV featured Marlow & Daughters as the hip driver’s destination), the Wythe attracts eaters from across the Atlantic. For while the kitchen is cut from the same cloth as his other, farm-driven concepts, the scene here is a world away.

Masterminded by Australian hotelier Peter Lawrence and DUMBO developer Jed Walentas, the 70-room, $32 million Wythe Hotel juts out from Wythe Avenue like a middle finger pointed at “the city.” A line of pretty people await their turn on the rooftop bar. Posh rooms OD on Etsy charm, from artisan shampoo and craft wallpaper to locally batched bottles of booze in the minibar. And down in the dining room, the tony in-house restaurant gives guests a reason to never even cross the river. The refined plates–beef carpacio with tarragon, rabbit with fennel and almonds–are the work of Sean Rembold, the chef who became Tarlow’s top toque after Fidanza’s departure in 2009 for Saltie. Compared to those dizzy days of debuting Diner, Tarlow’s brand has come a long way indeed.

With the Wythe, Tarlow’s vision of creating a community clubhouse for the Williamsburg arts scene has come true (although the prices cater more to art dealers than to undiscovered makers, who are more likely to be reciting the specials). “I liked the idea of inviting people to a house,” says Tarlow. “It was something I had been thinking about for a long time—to extend this idea of hospitality.”

But it isn’t all hospitality: you could say he is the epitome of the old axiom not to put your eggs in one basket. This man has always carried lots of baskets, all half-full. He says that he likes his concepts to happen organically, depending on what opportunities present themselves. And he’s still as obsessed with making stuff as he is with making spaces.

Having spawned the butchery revolution, Tarlow’s latest in-house obsession is another staple: baking real bread. What began as an experiment in the wood-fired oven at Roman’s quickly outgrew its incubator, so Tarlow took over the old Hot Bread Kitchen space in Long Island City and has a full-time baker making all of the bread for all of his properties, using grains from Farmer Ground Flour, and turning out serious loaves like rye sourdough the size of an August watermelon. Tarlow says a permanent wood hearth for baking is next on his list; for now, his baker does an untraditional day bake (much like the venerable Tartine in San Francisco), so his restaurants have “fresh bread for dinner, and make toast for breakfast.”

An organic thinker, Tarlow’s ideas have always evolved in response to unexpected opportunity. So when his search for a location to open a bakery instead turned up a Greenpoint waterfront space perfectly suited for a bar, he changed course completely and set to ordering highballs instead of flour scales. His 12-year-old son, a devotee of Greek myths, proposed its name: Achilles Heel.

He built it. And if it turns out anything like his other places, we’ll all come. See you there.

Photo credit: Mel Barlow and Vicky Wasik

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