No Vacancies Til Brooklyn: How Three Kings of Kings County Conquered Williamsburg, and Gentrification Itself

p1030244 No Vacancies Til Brooklyn: How Three Kings of Kings County Conquered Williamsburg, and Gentrification Itself

Mr. Tarlow, the taste maker. (Matt Chaban)

A few weeks later, on a quiet weekday afternoon, Andrew Tarlow, one of the masterminds behind the Wythe, was standing at the bar (that he designed) inside Reynards, the restaurant he runs just off the lobby. “We wanted to do something that was right for the neighborhood, a place where likeminded people can congregate, something that would be welcoming not only to the neighborhood but to their families, too.”

Mr. Tarlow is one of the godfathers of that neighborhood, having opened Diner a dozen years ago, on Williamsburg’s South Side. It was at the forefront of farm-to-table, nose-to-tail eating in the borough, certainly for anything outside the brownstone belt. The ethos spread with each new venture: the slightly more upscale but still shambolic Marlow & Sons next door; the butcher shop up the block, Marlow & Daughters, with its carefully sourced provisions lining the walls; the lavish and literary Diner Journal ($9, ad free); and Marlow Goods, where the hides from all those steaks, chops and roasts are turned into leather goods.

“I was really excited about the opportunity to take what we’ve been doing at a two-hour dinner and extending it out into a 24/7 experience,” Mr. Tarlow said.

It is almost too true. Upstairs and throughout, this place is infused with That Brooklyn Spirit, the artisanal, precious, local, exquisiteness that is at once suffocating and intoxicating, but most of all utterly desirable.

Remarkable as the food is, it is de rigueur for Mr. Tarlow and the foodie nation-state he helped created. What really sets the Wythe apart is that building, which really is the nicest thing ever built in Williasmburg. (Not a particularly high bar given that Williamsburg has probably seen the greatest concentration of terrible architecture visited upon the city during the recent real estate boom.)

That is the case thanks in large part to Jed Walentas, the partner in the project without whom it almost certainly could not have been realized.”Jed is a real visionary,” Peter Lawrence, the third partner in the project, said inside a booth of Reynards last week. Together with his father, David, Mr. Walentas almost singlehandedly transformed Dumbo from a grotty warehouse district into the most expensive neighborhood in all of Brooklyn—yes, pricier than the Heights, the Slope or the Burg. It gave him invaluable experience, and resources, to help see the hotel through.

It was in Dumbo that Mr. Walentas met Mr. Lawrence. An Australian expat, Mr. Lawrence’s youth was misspent rather successfully in Melbourne, where he worked in a number of five-star hotels before transitioning into nightclub and party promotion. “You could only do that for so long, and the only way out seemed to be to get out,” Mr. Lawrence said. In 1995, he arrived in New York and shortly thereafter opened Rice on Elizabeth Street in Nolita. A tapas joint, Ñ, followed three years later on Crosby Street, half a block south of Houston.

Not long after, Mr. Walentas was looking for some select restaurants to populate his burgeoning neighborhood—you could call it curation, except this was 1999, and you still might have been shot for saying such things in Brooklyn. He found himself at Ñ, not far from his Soho loft (despite appearances, Mr. Walentas does not live in Brooklyn) where he was thoroughly enjoying himself.

“He left a note on a napkin,” Mr. Lawrence explained, “which he probably thought would be thrown away. It said he’d like to have one of these in Dumbo. We had a look at the place and decided it looked good to us. Sometimes, drunken napkins work.” An outpost of Rice opened on Washington Street in 2000. From there, the two slowly became friends, and Mr. Lawrence even bought a loft there, built by Mr. Walentas’ company, of course.

Walking to dinner one night about five years ago, Mr. Walentas asked Mr. Lawrence what he wanted to do next. Mr. Lawrence confided that he had grown weary of the restaurant business, and, as Mr. Walentas probed, Mr. Lawrence revealed, only half seriously, that he had always wanted to have his own hotel. It was a conversation the Aussie considered inconsequential, but not his American friend. “A week later, we had a zoning map and a subway map, and we were out there looking for a good site,” Mr. Lawrence recalled, still sounding amazed by his good fortune.

“For me, everything in life is about people, and I’ve had the good fortune of almost exclusively working and doing business with my friends, and that was where this project came from,” Mr. Walentas said, sounding like a patron saint. “I was doing this for friendship more than money, though now it looks like we might not do too bad on that count, either.

Mr. Walentas explained that with the maps, the pair was looking for an industrial neighborhood, where zoning allows hotels, that was still accessible to popular parts of the borough—they were always looking explicitly in Brooklyn. After all, the vibe, the scene, the brand, really would not have worked anywhere else.