By Audrey Khalifa
With the arrival over the last five years of several French restaurants,
Smith Street between Bergen and Carroll Streets, situated in an
up-and-coming neighborhood of Brooklyn, is already being called
The names of the restaurants give away their French origins: "Bar
Tabac", "Le Patois", "Café Luluc"
. . . its enough to make a French expatriate feel right at
home, even if the buildings themselves are more reminiscent of certain
In any case, the strip has an unmistakably European charm. The
owners of its businesses, which are predominantly restaurants, know
each other well and call each other by their first names: Jean-Pierre,
Bernard . . .
It was an American, however, by the name of Alan Harding, who opened
the areas first French restaurant, "Le Patois",
in 1997. Since it was targeted to a trendy clientele, the challenge
of being the first of its kind was that much more difficult. But
the gamble paid off, and Harding soon followed "Le Patois"
with "Uncle Pho", a French-Vietnamese restaurant down
In the wake of these ventures, the street has continued to add
French restaurants, some within the space of a few blocks.
"Banania Café" opened in 1999 and "Café
Luluc" soon after. These two cafés, both owned
by the same three owners, only one of whom is French, offer retro-Parisian
decor and bistro-style cuisine such as grilled steak with copious
servings of French-fried potatoes.
Not all of the areas restaurant owners attempt to recreate
as typical of an experience, though. Bernard, the owner of "Robin
de Bois" (also known as "Sherwood Café) has no
qualms mixing French and American cuisine. Frequented by an "artsy"
crowd (the owners own appellation), Bernard has indulged his
penchant for antique collecting by displaying an astonishingly diverse
bric-a-brac of antiques for sale.
Sébastien Ayache, owner of "Salon de Quartier",
a hair salon, is, at twenty-six, the youngest of the owners of French
businesses on Smith Street. Hes now planning on opening a
salon in Manhattan, a move that much more satisfying because, two
and a half years ago, he found Manhattan rents too high and came
to Brooklyn to look for a better deal. When he was offered a space
to rent on Smith Street for next-to-nothing, he jumped at the chance.
"We have it all here," Ayache said of the neighborhood.
"Its calm, but its alive enough to be able to party
whenever you feel like it. And were not far from the beach:
Brighton Beach is next door."
Indeed, the potential of the neighborhood is just now being reflected
in its prices: rents have boomed, in some instances tripling. "A
lot of French people in Brooklyn have started coming back here,"
Ayache said. "The French community is more stable than in Manhattan.
Its a small family, but an authentic one."
Calmer than its neighboring borough though only three metro stops
away, the surrounding neighborhood attracts a relatively well-off
population, though not well-off enough to live in Tribeca or the
Upper West Side. A young expatriate like Ayache can really feel
at home here. "I stand out because, unlike the others, Im
not a restaurant owner," he said.
In fact, the density of restaurants on the street is a source of
concern for Bette Stoltz, the president of the South Brooklyn Local
Development Corporation. Stoltz believes it is in everyones
interest to leave place for small businesses.
Jean-Pierre Marquet, who arrived fourteen years ago and later founded
the "Marquet Pâtisserie", said hes observed
the "arrival of the Yuppies."
"Its a little like Soho, which has become a museum,"
Who could have foreseen this evolution? Certainly not the developers,
who, only a few years ago, wouldnt have bet a dime on Smith
Symbolic of its new status, Smith Street celebrated the French
National Holiday, July 14, in the presence of Brooklyns mayor,
Marty Markowitz. All the members of the French restaurant community
participated to make it a special event, as if to remind everyone
that the street hadnt lost its provincial charm. Stoltz dreams
of making area into a trendy, livable neighborhood patterned after
the Parisian neighborhood Canal Saint Martin. If it hasnt
Banania Café241 Smith Street, telephone: (718)237-9100
Bar Tabac128 Smith Street, telephone: (718) 923-0918
Café Luluc214 Smith Street, telephone: (718)625-3815
Le Patois255 Smith Street, telephone (718)855-1535
Uncle Pho263 Smith Street, telephone (718)855-8737
Translated by Brian and Christelle Beard