In an ever-evolving city like New York, it is often dangerous to get too attached to the history around you. The struggling century old pub that still serves $3 bottles will inevitably become your neighborhood’s third Dunkin Donuts. The pre-war walkup that just priced its residents out will be razed and replaced by some sky scraping architectural marvel. Even the brand new salad spot down the street will be swapped for a brand newer salad spot in a matter of months. That’s just New York.
Occasionally, however, something else happens. Defying all odds, small bits of our city’s history get preserved. Rarer still, they get preserved in such a way that the public can still experience them. Ever since we first caught wind of The Knitting Factory’s plans to restore and convert a 20th century carriage house on Metropolitan into a restaurant extension of the venue, we’ve been waiting anxiously for the reveal. Last week, we finally got the chance to stop by and drink in the space. Brooklyn, meet The Federal Bar.
Carriage houses are, by definition, compact and unassuming. As the name suggests, these buildings were once used to shelter carriages (and their horses) owned by wealthy property holders in New York City. As such, the Federal Bar is almost too easy to miss on a stroll down Metropolitan. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the bright, old-timey lampposts bookending a thick wooden door.
But the real magic is on the inside (queue emotional Disney score). Walking into The Federal Bar feels like a step back in time, and we really mean that. A regal metal staircase highlights the bar area, while a large vintage globe illuminates the restaurant floor. It’s a careful and intentional cocktail of metal, wood, and brick.
Even The Federal Bar’s seating and wallpaper look and feel as though they were plucked out of a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (we remain unconvinced that they weren’t). Nearly everything in the restaurant has been meticulously curated to bring the building’s history to life, and it pays off. The space feels at once like an art exhibit and like home.
A great space like this demands (and expects) great food and drink to match. The restaurant’s menu and beer list are both curated by Executive Chef Brendon Doyle, formerly of Pork Slope. Local is king here. Nearly everything (including 12 of its 14 beers) on the menu is built from locally sourced ingredients.
Chef Doyle’s dishes look classic and traditional at a first glance. Upon closer inspection of the ingredients, however, they suddenly begin to look foreign and exotic. His philosophy is simple: bring old food back in newer, more interesting, and more flavorful ways. His poutine, for example, is topped with tender beef heart. The roasted turkey leg sits in a bed of wok fried rice and collard greens. Roasted cauliflower (one of the highlights of the night) is tossed in Chef David Chang’s spicy hozon sauce. Across the menu, flavor abounds.
Poutine with Demi Glace, Curds, and Beef Heart ($15)
Roasted Cauliflower with Chef David Chang’s Spicy Hozon Sauce ($16)
Chef Doyle admits that The Federal Bar is a concept that probably wouldn’t work in Manhattan. “Williamsburg has taken the stance of, F*** you, Manhattan dining! Do whatever you want with your tablecloths and French service. We’re just going to cook great food,” he quipped. While the restaurant certainly feels distinctly ‘Williamsburg,’ Doyle noted that his biggest inspiration has been Metropolitan Avenue. “When you’re surrounded by such great restaurants and bars, you can’t rest on your laurels.”
In between sips of carefully crafted cocktails and bites of delicate dry-aged beef (an early contender for the best burger in Brooklyn), Chef Doyle spilled the secret to the space. “I say this in the kitchen all the time. What we do is very serious, but we don’t take it very seriously.” In the background, almost on command, the beginning notes of Father John Misty’s Hollywood Forever Cemetry Sings rang out across the restaurant. We ordered another round of cocktails.
Next, check out 9 Remaining Mews of NYC’s Horse Drawn Carriage Past and NYC’s Top 10 Hidden Restaurants.