Sister Act

sisterMost Brooklyn business owners set out with a PowerPoint presentation, a pack of investors and a plan. But for Jane Virga and her sister Cathy—who are opening Tandem, a Bushwick bar and kitchen—that wasn’t the case. Instead, the business model found them.

An artist with many mediums, Jane had bought an old mechanic’s shop at 236 Troutman Street with her sister, a financial analyst, and the idea that it could be a massive studio space. But as the cost of maintaining the building—it’s wedged in between a row of apartment houses just off Knickerbocker Avenue—became clear, they realized they couldn’t afford to keep it unless it brought in some revenue. And thus the idea for a bar in the semi-industrial neighborhood, one with a little bit of food, an artsy aesthetic and maybe some dancing, was born.

The makeover has taken a year—tandem is a Latin term for “at length,” Jane explains; “It means doing things in progression, taking your time”—but the sisters pulled together their passions in the process. “This is everything I’m all about,” she says. “This kind of magically happened.”

For starters, there’s the food. Jane is a caterer and a constant thrower of dinner parties, while Cathy spent years working in restaurants in their hometown of DC. The menu, at least at first, will be just a few of their “super simple” favorite things to eat, says Jane: A great local cheese plate, market-driven salads, a vegetarian butternut squash lasagne, made with crushed amaretti cookies and béchamel sauce, a meatier option like lamb kofti balls with wheatberry salad and fresh herbs. (Later Jane hopes to have guest chefs, too.)

There’s also the rustic-yet-modern space itself, which includes Jane’s handiwork—handmade stools and tables; custom-made clay beer mugs; blown-glass sconces; huge, brilliant blue, green and orange tiles along the main wall—and supplies from Build It Green!, the city organization that saves materials from building tear-downs for construction.

“There are so many exciting salvage stories here,” says Jane, including a mahogany bar rescued from the old Elk’s Club in Elmhurst, Queens, where Ella Fitzgerald used to hang, and pink and yellow fluorescent glass panes in the front windows, from a Frank Gehry building on 24th Street in Manhattan. Eventually the sisters hope to further expand with a “cozy” room with church pews and a dance floor in the big back room for parties.

“I want people from the neighborhood to feel like they can come over every night,” says Jane. Chances are, they will.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.