“Until we opened, the only late-night dining option other than fried chicken was a shitty burger. Justin summed it up nicely once — he said we kind of want to be culture smugglers.” -Luke Jackson
When long-time Bed-Stuy locals Justin Warner, Luke Jackson and George McNeese got sick and tired of trekking to Williamsburg for decent late-night eats, they decided to do something about it.
Inspired by how Roberta’s managed to impact the Brooklyn food scene from the wilds of Bushwick with an enthusiastic DIY approach to everything from the building to the food, the trio of front-of-house vets from The Modern teamed up with artist and drinking buddy Perry Gargano to bring their freewheeling take on ‘drunk food’ to Bed-Stuy.
Do or Dine has only been open for a few weeks, and although their cuisine brashly defies easy categorization, they’re already packing the house. Perry describes the approach as ‘Fine Diving.’ Restaurant reviewer Greg Rodbard recently suggested ‘Sous vide for stoners,’ and ‘Haute-munchie.’ Intrigued? We were.
We stopped by on a hot, sunny afternoon to chat with the Do or Die crew in the restaurant’s spacious back yard.
So guys, congrats on the opening. The place looks great. What led to all this?
Luke: We just wanted to do our own restaurant. We were at Roberta’s in Bushwick one day back in August. We love that place. We love how they’re introducing things like sweetbreads and foie gras to Brooklyn dining in this totally unassuming way. We had heard their story and the whole DIY approach they took to the place. They didn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars you’re supposed to need to open a restaurant — they just did it all themselves. And we thought – if these guys could do it, we can do it.
Perry: And Bed-Stuy just needed a place like that. These guys live here. I live in Williamsburg. They were working at The Modern – the restaurant at MoMA. They’d have to stumble through my part of town to eat after work and stumble back here to go to bed.
Luke: Yeah, we were sick of having to go to Williamsburg to eat all the time. So we decided that day at Roberta’s – we said, screw it. We’ll do it. So we started looking for places around here and we found this spot right away. It had been vacant for five years, which was unbelievable.
It was just a perfect kind of confluence of elements. It was the right team, right time, right place, right price…right everything. If any one of those elements was not in place we probably wouldn’t have done this.
The stars were aligned?
Luke: Yeah, totally. At that time Justin had just been on a Food Network show called 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, so he’d basically had a crash course in what it takes to open a restaurant. Around the same time Perry did an opening at his jewelry store in East Williamsburg, and he had Justin make pancakes out on the street. People totally loved it. It just seemed like everything was coming together in terms of opening a place.
Tell me a little more about the neighborhood. Aside from not wanting to trek to Williamsburg for some good food, what made you think it would work here in Bed-Stuy?
Luke: I’ve lived here for six years now. There’s a pretty big young, creative crowd here. A lot of people who work in the food industry live here.
Justin: In my old building, every single apartment had someone who worked in food. Four different people on our block were working at The Modern. Fifteen people I know personally in the neighborhood worked in food. So at first we through maybe it was just some weird anomaly on our block, but we realized it was a pretty accurate sampling of the neighborhood.
All these people work late and want a place to get something good to eat and hang out. There was nothing here. There’s no gastro hub for all these people.
Luke: Until we opened, the only late-night dining option other than fried chicken was a shitty burger. Justin summed it up nicely once: he said we kind of want to be culture smugglers. We want to bring aspects of the high end dining that we knew from The Modern down to an unpretentious but really good twenty dollar meal. We wanted to open the kind of place we thought it would be cool to eat and hang out at.
There’s no reason why we can’t do some of those molecular-type techniques or sous-vide for next-to-nothing.
Perry: We call it ‘fine diving.’
Justin: No reason I can’t have PBR and some baller champagne like Bruno Paillard on the same menu. I like both of those equally. Why can’t we have both?
So who does the food?
Justin: George and I.
Were you guys cooking at The Modern?
Justin: No, no. We’d never cooked professionally in our lives before this. George and I have been cooking at home – making all kinds of crazy shit when we’re drunk or whatever – for as long as we’ve known each other. About six years. We’ve never cooked in a pro kitchen until now.
The cooking show was the first time I ever had to write a menu, cost it, direct it, cook it…I had to figure it all out. On the show they didn’t give us any help. They just gave us ‘yes men.’ Thankfully here we have a yes man that answers questions. His name is Christian and he knows the answers to all kinds of things like, “Why is this turning brown?” He can generally tell us the answer for things like that. If I say, “I understand it’s supposed to be green, but I want it brown,” he’ll say, “Yes man. No problem.”
So with the lack of formal kitchen experience, how do you figure it all out?
Justin: We just make what we want to make and figure out how to make it really good.
The other day I cooked some octopus. I didn’t know how to cook octopus. So I looked on the internet and found six different recipes that sounded good, and drew a kind of venn diagram of those approaches and came up with my way to make octopus. And it works. It doesn’t always work the first time, but we keep at it until we get something great that we can put on the menu.
After making the octopus, I had all this purple ink left over, and I was trying to think of something to do with it. I remembered being at the Modern during some lineup where they said they used an egg white raft to clarify their consommé. I’d never made an egg white raft before, but I know how to beat eggs. So I just made an egg white raft and the next thing you know we had clarified octopus consommé. And it was awesome.
Luke: It was great. Tasted like chicken soup of the sea.
Justin: And we just like to do stuff like that. George invented these things we call Halalipops. We take Halal chicken and we french the bone and trim the meat so that it’s like a big lollipop. You pick it up by the bone and go at it.
We just did it because we heard that people were frenching bones with drumettes – the little wing pieces. We said screw that – let’s do it with a full-on big ‘ol drumstick. And you end up with this real savage, Conan the Barbarian type thing going on.
Ha ha ha. Like high-end barbarian food.
Justin: Tell him about the Ranch dip you came up with for that, George.
George: I make it with Greek goat yogurt with roasted red pepper. I do it that way because I hate mayonnaise.
Uh oh – mayo hater in the kitchen?
Justin: Yeah, we’ve almost come to blows a bunch of times over that. I love mayo. I’m thinking of getting the Sriracha cock tattooed right here [rooster logo from a bottle of Sriracha], and the Kewpie mayonnaise baby right here. Bring them together – spicy mayonnaise. That’s my style.
George also doesn’t like fruit with proteins.
Luke: George, you’re one of those people? I’m gonna have to side with Justin on that one.
Justin: Hey – to each his own!
Perry: These guys have put together a really clever menu. They’re doing some really good food.
Justin: So far we’ve only had one plate sent back and that was because the Steak Tartar wasn’t cooked.
Tell me about some of the other dishes.
Justin: Our menu is filled with stupid puns and shit. We’ve got our ‘e666s’ – deviled eggs that we do with bacon and shiso. We fry them up tempura-style to give them a nice crunch.
We call our Cesar salad ‘Et Tu Brute?’ We plate it on a plank and stab the romaine right through the back with a steak knife – stick it right into the plank. Seemed appropriate.
We have a salad called the Beet Box. I make beet juice and turn it into a gel with agar-agar. I pass it through the fry cutter, then put it in a terrine and pipe in goat cheese. When you cut it it looks like a checkerboard. Tastes really good too. I love using that agar-agar stuff – people are like, “Wow, these beets have such a great texture!” I tell them, “That’s because they’re not beets!”
We do our ‘Nippon Nachos,’ which are potsticker dumplings with nacho toppings – cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream…Asian drunk food meets Mexican drunk food – why not?
Luke: Then all those puns are kind of counterpointed by the little simple dishes that are just incredible. Like the lamb breast – it’s just this fatty cumin-roasted lamb breast with lime juice.
Or ‘A Fish and Some Chips’ – George fries a whole sea bass – head, tail and everything, so it comes out grinning at you with these little teeth.
Justin: We just wanted to make awesome drunk food – stuff you’d go crazy for after drinking all night. But food that’s really good.
I get a lot of weird shit from my Japanese guy. Cool shit. Tonight we’re doing grilled shishito peppers with ‘quatre sel.’ There’s this classic thing in French cooking called ‘quatre epices,’ which means four spices. Quatre sel means four salts. So we’re serving the peppers with four different flavored Japanese salts. So you have a little homage to that classic French idea of four spices, but we’re doing shishito peppers and four Japanese salts.
Another cool dish we do is called the Heart Attack. A friend of ours came up with this dish at a sushi restaurant one time. He scraped out a jalapeno, stuffed it with spicy tuna, a little cream cheese, wrapped it in nori, battered, fried, sliced it and served it with eel sauce, and Sriracha. I said to George, we can’t just rip that off, but we’ve got to do something like that.
We do ours with salmon and a little goat cheese – it’s real fresh tasting. We didn’t want to smear it with sweet soy or gill sauce. So George and I came up with idea of a beet tempura batter. We use beet juice instead of water in the batter and it comes out like this bloody red tempura with a real nice sweetness. It looks like a piece of heart.
I think our lack of formal training makes it easier for us to be creative. We don’t have rules, and we don’t say it should be this way or that way…we‘re not really limited by tradition. And sometimes I think that if a dish is novel, people will be more open to it. If there’s some kind of fun or funny twist to it, even better.
Luke: Our clientele here is the exact opposite of the clientele at The Modern. People here want to be adventurous with their food and they want to have fun.
Justin: One thing though is that we have backgrounds in restaurants with outstanding service. That’s in our programming and that’s part of who we are. George can come out of the kitchen smelling like fish and chips and he can decant a baller wine perfectly. If someone drops a napkin or a fork, we’re on it. We replace it.
The other day we got a guy in here who was the closest thing we’ve had to an Upper East sider. He said, “I hear you don’t have desserts.”
I’m like, “Bro, we have desserts. They’re economy, but they’re good. It’s a Snickers ice cream bar. They put millions and millions of dollars into research and development for those things!”
He said, “I don’t want a Snickers for dessert. I want ice cream and cake.”
Hey, the guy wants ice cream and cake, so I got the guy ice cream and cake. I ran over to the bodega and got two slices of pound cake for a dollar, ran back here, threw them on the grill for a minute, added a giant dollop of ice cream and threw it down in front of the guy.
He’s like, “You’re magic!”
I was like, “No, I’m not magic. I went to the bodega!”
You just have to do whatever you can to make it work for your customers. Having that approach ingrained in us allows us to take something that’s kind of special and put it over the top.
There also hasn’t been a day since we opened that the menu’s been the same.
Luke: We want to keep going that way because we never want to get to the point where we’re bored. Even if it’s harder, even if it means more stress.
The space inside and out here in the yard looks great. How long have you been working on it?
Luke: Since Thanksgiving. We’ve been busting ass on it. Perry and our friend Greg have been here every day working on the space while the rest of us were still at The Modern.
Perry: We just went a little over on time and budget, so it was cool that it pretty much went the way we thought it would. But it’s been kind of intense.
We’re still working on the yard, but it’s been filling up with people every night anyway. They don’t care.
Justin: We’d like to put some bleachers out here. We’re not going to have TVs in the dining room, but we thought it would be rad to show football outdoors back here and serve hot dogs and stuff. So you can be as much of a ruffian as you want and enjoy it outside like a real fan.
That does sound fun. The art on the walls out here is awesome. Who did it?
Luke: This is the 907 Crew. It’s a crew of street artists. There’s a thing called PANTHEON – it’s two artists – Joyce and Daniel – who represent about thirty street artists. The vision for the back yard art is that it’ll rotate, change and evolve. Every couple of months we’ll have a different crew come in. Maybe I’ll learn how to spray paint myself.
Justin: The cool thing is that we just hung out with them. Ate. Drank beers. And said, “OK. Go at it.”
We didn’t say we wanted fish bones on the wall, even though we serve our whole fried fish to like every third table and we’ve got fish skeletons taking up half our trash. I don’t think they were thinking about watermelon as being seasonally appropriate. I think they just thought it would be colorful.
Luke: They just really got it.
Tell me about the interior.
Perry: It was a West Indian restaurant before it was vacant for five years. There’s no real trace of the old place here. We gutted it, exposed the brick, put in all the tile work ourselves. As we started doing the build out, we were a little worried that the space might be too small, but it worked out really well. There were some tense moments though. I had to push these guys a little bit to dive in.
Luke: When we taped everything out we were really kind of going at each other. Everything looked tiny. The kitchen looked tiny, the bar looked tiny. But Perry pushed for us to make it work and it came together really great.
Justin: Even the kitchen – George and I had never designed a kitchen before. And there’s only one minor flaw – we had to change the placement of the fryer. We’ve had a bunch of chefs come in, check it out, and go, “Pro.”
We’re like, “Really!? Sweet!”
George: Yeah, it’s a nice feeling.
Seems like you’ve all approached this without over-strategizing things.
Luke: Ha ha – definitely no strategizing! It’s literally do or die. Every single element of this has been entirely on the fly. And that’s by design.
Justin: We’ve got a great dynamic. We all scream and yell at each other all the time. The second somebody cracks a beer we’re all hunky dory.
Luke: In any given moment or with any given aspect of Do or Dine, one of us thinks the other three are total idiots. But it all balances out perfectly.
Justin: Yeah. We get into it. But in the big picture we’re all pretty enamored with it. It’s tight. The space is tight. The food is tight. We like it and everyone who comes in seems to like it.
Perry: My analogy with the restaurant is it’s like having a baby. You don’t really know what’s going to come out, or what the baby will be like. You just hope it’s got ten fingers and toes. And this came out stellar.
Justin: Fucking stellar.
You’ve only been open for a few weeks. Any regulars yet?
Luke: There’s one girl who came in three times in the first week and brought fifteen different people in. She gets free beers.
Justin: We have another two girls who keep coming in who have a little crush on George. I don’t know how he does it. He doesn’t say much. He’s just nice I guess. So they come in and just bring us glass after glass of wine while we’re working in the kitchen. They’re awesome.
Any particularly memorable stories so far?
Luke: Every day it was something new. We got robbed.
Justin: After that happened I just said, “You know, if people are stealing it means people are hungry. You know what we need? Hungry people. So no problem.”
Luke: That curved tile wall actually represents one and a half tile walls. George and Greg did a bunch of it but Perry made them do it over.
Perry: Ha ha. Yeah. I tore it down. It was a little bit of a tricky job getting the curved tile wall to look right. We had to custom cut every tile to get it right. And we did get it right. It’s beautiful. It’s a centerpiece. And it represents what we’re doing.
Luke: For me, if you want a story that kind of defines our experience in this place, it’s the benches in the dining room.
Justin: Ha ha. Son of a bitch! My only bright idea!
Luke: All the wood for the slats in the benches came from a roof about forty yards away that was destroyed when the tornado hit last summer. It’s like hundred-year-old wood. We stripped down each piece, having hundred year old nails flung at our foreheads every few minutes…It was a load of work. We did it all by hand. Right at the end when we painted them we realized the gaps were way too deep. We realized they’d just fill up with crumbs and stuff like that. So we had to fix it.
Perry: We must have spent six or seven hundred dollars on quarter round wood pieces to fill the gaps. After making all that benching ourselves by hand, and fixing the gaps, I was down in the basement and I picked up a piece of pre-fab wainscoating that I bought at Home Depot for our bathrooms. I took a piece upstairs and held it up next to the bench, and they were totally identical. We could have gotten that stuff for ten bucks a sheet at Home Depot!
But we built it from scratch. We unintentionally recreated this cheap pre-fab look entirely from scratch!
Luke: It’s like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. He made this groundbreaking piece of art by making an indistinguishable copy of a pre-fab urinal from scratch!
Justin: It’s funny because when we were just getting started we were sitting around one night getting drunk and we said we wanted to do a sort of Dadaesque restaurant, and one day it just happened out of nowhere. Totally accidentally! It’s cool to see little things like that just happen.
So what’s that crutch doing up on the roof of that old shed over there at the back of the yard?
Justin: We got in a bar fight one night and I ended up twisting my ankle afterwards and needed a crutch. We’re gonna throw all our bar fight crutches up there.
If you’re craving some of Do or Dine’s ‘fine diving,’ head over to 1108 Bedford Avenue (between Lexington St. and Quincy St. in Bed-Stuy).