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Justin Israelson, of Sycamore Flower Shop & Bar in Ditmas Park

Sycamore Flower Shop & Bar in Ditmas Park is like an oasis in a dream.  Stumbling into Ditmas after passing through the surrounding city’s dense canyons of brownstone, brick and concrete leaves many first time visitors awestruck, as they’re greeted by block after block of big Victorian houses, sprawling lawns, wraparound porches and quiet tree-lined streets – it’s as if they’ve been mysteriously transported to a small town many miles from the heart of Brooklyn.

The only real drawback to living in idyllic Ditmas until recently was that the neighborhood suffered from a serious lack of dining and drinking options. But that began to change when Gary Jonas and  Allison McDowell opened The Farm on Adderly in 2006. As soon as they opened their doors, the neighborhood flooded in. And as the ‘hood was clearly starved for good food and drink, it only made sense to open a bar down the street. They lured Gary’s lifelong friend Justin Israelson from Manhattan out to Ditmas, hatched a plan, and Sycamore was born.

We stopped by Sycamore on a recent afternoon to chat with Justin.

So Justin, what’s the story? How did Sycamore happen?

I grew up with Gary Jonas, who opened The Farm on Adderly – a restaurant just down the street – about five years ago with his wife Allison.

I’ve known Gary literally for my whole life. Our families are South African. Both of our families moved to Texas when we were babies. We grew up together.

Gary and Allison moved to the neighborhood about six years ago, and at that time there were really no  good food options in Ditmas Park. They got tired of going to Park Slope and Williamsburg whenever they wanted to eat, so they decided to open The Farm.

Originally they planned on just having it be a bar with some food and snacks, but as soon as they opened this mad rush of people came flooding in and filled the place every night, and they wanted food! So they gave the people what they wanted. They turned it into a full-blown restaurant. The neighborhood was just so ready for a place to eat and hang out.

At first, when they converted The Farm to a full-service restaurant, the kept the bar section in place. But within a matter of weeks, they realized they couldn’t close up at night because people wanted to hang out at the bar until 2am. They were working these crazy hours in the restaurant, but couldn’t get home to sleep because everyone loved the bar!

That’s when they called me and said, “Look, we can’t close The Farm at night. People won’t leave the bar. We’re tired. We should do something. Let’s find a spot in the neighborhood and open a bar.”

I said, “Sure. Why not?”

Were you living in the neighborhood at that point?

No. I was living in the East Village, but I was out here a lot – helping Gary and Allison get The Farm going, and just coming out to hang out.  So by the time we opened Sycamore I had been coming out here for three years and I had learned to really love the neighborhood.

When I first started coming out, I thought, wow – it’s really far away. But it actually isn’t. It’s only a 25 minute subway ride on the Q train into Manhattan. And I just loved it here. It’s quiet, and it’s a real  neighborhood – people know each other and talk to each other.

Ditmas is like this mythical place in the middle of Brooklyn. Big houses with lawns and porches…

All these beautiful houses here are insane. They’re like eight bedroom homes! It’s kind of unbelievable that this kind of place exists in the middle of Brooklyn.

Gary’s sister married a guy whose brother and sister had bought a house out here. That was about eight years ago. When we all came out for the first time we were blown away. I think we knew right away that we all wanted to end up out here.  Gary’s sister and her husband at the time ended up buying a house. It was three stories. They rented one floor out to Gary and Allison, one floor to someone else, and lived on one floor themselves. When I’d come out here back in the day, we’d just have dinners and hang out at the house because there wasn’t really anywhere else to go.

And that’s why they opened The Farm a few years later, and why we opened Sycamore a year and a half after that. After we opened Sycamore a flood of great places opened up. The neighborhood has really come to life. There’s a great wine bar, there’s Mimi’s Hummus, a great sushi place. It’s been exploding. But the great thing is that all the new places are interwoven with all kinds of mom-n-pop ethnic restaurants too.

There’s a Tibetan place, a couple of Mexican food shops on Cortelyou and Coney Island Ave. There’s everything from Turkish to Russian to…you name it – all on Coney Island Avenue. The neighborhood is like a microcosm of everything that is Brooklyn. It’s great. And the people who live here love it here.

So did you guys have previous experience working in restaurants and bars?

This is a story full of firsts. The restaurant was a first for Gary and Allison and the bar was a first for all of us. With Sycamore, we just wanted to make a neighborhood bar that we would enjoy going to, and that would carry the things we’d like to drink. That was the approach Gary and Allison took with The Farm, and that’s what we did here, and it’s worked out great.

Before we opened Sycamore, I was working in Manhattan, jumping around from job to job, working in everything from engineering to graphic design.

So one of the things Sycamore is known for is the flower shop out front. How did that come to happen?

We liked the idea of combining two businesses in one place. We loved how Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg has a great little grocery shop up front and this amazing dining space in the back. People have been doing that sort of thing for a long time, and we really liked the idea.

Allison really came up with the flower shop idea. She just fell in love with this flower shop in Red Hook called Saipua. She had this vision of connecting the ivy-covered garden out back with a flower shop in front. At first it was just a whimsical idea, but it took on a life of its own, and now it’s a full-blown flower shop.

We load up the front with flowers and plants and it’s like a miniature jungle. There are people who walk by here every day who don’t realize it’s a bar. From the street, your eyes are just drawn to the whole colorful jungle and it’s easy not to realize there’s a bar beyond all the plants.

When people come by, for ten bucks they can buy a beer and a bouquet to take home.

And our garden out back is amazing. It’s like an oasis. You’re just surrounded by green. It’s a great place to hang out. We really like having the bar tucked between those two lush jungle-like spaces. It gives it a great feel.

So what’s the focus with the bar? I see you’ve got a wall of whiskey over here…

Gary and I are big whiskey drinkers. We were really into Scotch at the time that we opened, but we wanted to break into American whiskies. There weren’t really any bars focusing on American whiskies at the time, so we went ahead and started a collection. We started with 80 American whiskies. We’ve got about 100 on the wall now. We’ve got some Scotch and some Irish but most of it is American.

Of course, we’re beer lovers too. We’ve got eight taps and we rotate them all the time. There are two or three new craft beers on draft every week.

Any favorite American whiskey finds?

As far as American whiskey goes, I’m a big Rye fan. But there’s a phenomenal Bourbon called Black Maple Hill that I always love drinking. Their Rye is superb too.

Where are they from? Kentucky?

Yes. The majority are, but these days there are distilleries opening up everywhere. They’ve changed the rules too, so now you can make a Bourbon anywhere. Before the rule change, only whiskey made in Kentucky could be called Bourbon. Now, you just can’t call it a Kentucky Straight whiskey if you’re distilling outside of Kentucky.

And I think that’s great. There are a lot of people making great whiskies all over the place now.

One of the greatest things about American whiskies is the value. You can go out and find a glass of truly great American whiskey for six or seven dollars that’s just as good or even better than a Scotch that costs three times as much.

Any other American whiskey recommendations?

There are so many. Buffalo Trace is fantastic. Bulleit is a great Bourbon. Rebel Reserve is fantastic. There are a few small-batch distilleries that I’m a big fan of – like Pure Kentucky and Kentucky Vintage. Russell Reserve’s Rye and Bourbon are both great. Even the throwbacks like Sazerac, Rittenhouse and Old Overholt are really well-made. Those are all great whiskies that are really inexpensive compared to similar Scotch or Irish varieties.

Whiskey distilling is like a religion for the Kentucky Bourbon guys. They’re just as crazy and serious about their distilling down there as they are in Scotland or Ireland. Maybe even more so.

What about beers?

I’m a big fan of all the local guys, like Kelso, Barrier and Sixpoint. They’re all doing great things.

Barrier Brewing is just two guys from Sixpoint that broke off and are working on a one-barrel system, which means they produce just two kegs off each brew. They’re creating fabulous beers and they’re both fantastic guys. They’re just like, “Let me know if there’s a certain style you want and we’ll whip something together!”

They’re this tiny brewery, and they’re already brewing something like seventy different styles of beer. And they’re all great.  It’s kind of unbelievably impressive.

Tell us a little about Brooklyn Wort. Didn’t you and Gary start that?

We came up with the idea.

It’s basically a homebrew competition. With most homebrew competitions you send a few bottles off to someplace far away and six months later you hear about the results. We thought it would be fun to do a competition where we’d have judges, but we’d also have all the brewers and the public come to one place to taste the beers and to talk to the people who made them – to find out how they made them and what inspired them. Everyone gets to vote. If a brewer wins both the judges choice and the people’s choice, they can win a thousand dollars.

The guy who won the first one, Greg Doroski, is now actually working at Greenpoint Harbor Brewery. He came back to judge the last one.

We homebrew ourselves for fun, but we’re not crazy homebrewers by any means. We just loved the idea, so we brought it up with Ben at Bierkraft in Park Slope, and he loved it. He introduced us to Ben and Danielle from Brooklyn Homebrew in Gowanus. They loved it too, so we all decided to get together and make it happen.

We’re going to be doing two a year. In the summer we do it here at Sycamore. We get the barbeque going out in the garden and it’s really fun. We did our first winter one this year, and we rented out a huge space for it. We had thirty brewers and three hundred people. It was amazing, but at the same time the smaller, more intimate summer version is really nice too.

We’re just really fortunate right now. There’s an underground homebrewing renaissance going on here in Brooklyn. It’s pretty amazing. People are taking it to another level – they’re getting into brewing and trying to turn it into a career.

What’s going on here has been going on on the West Coast for ten or fifteen years, but it’s really starting to catch fire here.

 

The scene at the first Brooklyn Wort, at Sycamore, August 2010

I know you guys do a lot of events out in the garden. What’s coming up?

On June 4th, we’re doing our annual Crawfish Boil. We do huge pots of crawfish and serve Abita beer (from Louisiana) all day. We also do a big party here for the Brooklyn Cyclones’ opening day. On July 3rd we’re doing a hot sauce competition and a barbeque out back with Brooklyn Brewery…Lots of stuff.

With all the fun stuff in the garden…do you get along with your neighbors?

We try to be well-behaved and the neighbors appreciate that. They guy who lives right over there in the house behind the back wall comes over and cooks whenever we barbeque. You could say he’s our chef.

Favorite things about living in Ditmas?

I just love walking through the quiet streets  and seeing all those amazing houses. After living in Austin for a few years, I feel like there’s a little taste of Texas here. It’s this little oasis that’s only 20 minutes from one of the biggest cities in the world. The houses give off this different vibe. Families live here.  It feels like a town.

When I first moved here I only knew a couple of people. Now I literally have more than fifty friends who all live within about a six block radius – artists, musicians, filmmakers, lawyers, businessmen – they’re all here.

There’s just an openness and friendliness for some reason in this neighborhood. We see it all the time in the bar – people will just start talking. I’ve never really seen that kind of thing anywhere else in the city.

Whether I end up being here for five years or twenty years, I’ll always recommend to my friends and someday to my kids that they should experience living in New York, living in Brooklyn at some point in their lives.

 


Sycamore Flower Shop & Bar is located at 1118 Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

 

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