Since Alan Harding opened Patois in the late ’90s, Smith Street has become known for its restaurants — and shuttered storefronts: For every Clover Club or Ugly Baby that perseveres, dozens of bistros, brasseries, and bars disappear soon after they arrive. Blame steep rents, few tourists, a lack of population density (no high-rises), and unfavorable comparisons to Court Street just one block away. “The other night, I was walking home on Smith, passing a space that’s been abandoned for two years,” says Amy Honigman, a real-estate agent who lives and works in the neighborhood. “Next to it was an empty pit with a work permit that lists its ‘anticipated completion’ as summer 2019.”
But where some see empty pits, entrepreneurs see opportunity, and several easygoing spots have recently moved in to try their luck along this notoriously inhospitable stretch — the latest mini-boom on a street that has seen more than a few since the Grocery topped Zagat’s ratings 19 years ago. As East Wind Snack Shop owner Chris Cheung — a relative veteran of the area, having opened his spot in 2019 — points out, the new competition is very welcome. “We definitely need more exciting restaurants, and it has started,” he says. “That cycle is coming back.”
“It was packed,” says general manager Leo Tan of this narrow dim sum shop’s opening day in July. “We had a full house all day.” The weekend crowds have stuck around, partly out of curiosity about a roving robot-cat server that patrols the dining room (really!) but also, Tan suggests, because there was a conspicuous gap in the market for table-service dim sum in the area. “I have never had so many people come in to my work,” he recalls, “to say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood!’ ”
196 Smith St., nr. Baltic St.
In 2019, chef Marc St. Jacques chose Smith for his first project, the tidy, French-leaning Bar Bête, because he liked its informal energy. For this more relaxed follow-up one block north, St. Jacques worked out some burger and salad recipes and added a kids’ menu with homemade chicken nuggets, signaling quite clearly that parents are as welcome as partygoers. “Cool is one of those funny words,” he says. “It depends on whose definition you’re using — hopefully you just find like-minded people here.”
241 Smith St., at Douglass St.
Taj Singh opened this boutique grocer and wine bar in August — a block south of a polished new Sichuan place named Shan and a gleaming, glass-fronted mini Whole Foods lookalike called Dumbo Market — and sales have grown every week since. In the space that used to be Stinky Bklyn, Singh is hedging his bets somewhat: selling artisanal pasta and gourmet Maraschino cherries in a provisions area up front with wine, beer, coffee, and charcuterie boards in a separate café area. “My cheese vendor,” Singh reports, “is very happy.”
215 Smith St., nr. Baltic St.
Across from Ruthie’s, Big Tiny co-owners Benjamin Tretout and Dominique Drevet have obscured the corner with plywood while their natural-wine bar expands from 22 to 50 seats and prepare to reopen this month. They are, quite literally, doubling down. Will it be too much? Neighbors, anyway, point to the West Village as a model for Smith Street’s future. But while that neighborhood does possess a collection of long-tenured, high-quality restaurants, it does not, as of now, offer the services of a single robot-cat waiter.