Behind the Scenes of The Grocery

Don’t you dare call it a Mom and Pop.

If there’s one thing you’ll always find at the Grocery—the hyperseasonal eatery that helped established Brooklyn as a dining destination and even as an ethos—it’s Sharon Pachter and Charlie Kiely themselves. The menu changes with the weather but the constant is that the couple, who co-created the acclaimed but understated eatery in 1999, are always on-premise.

Literally: Except for around-the-corner runs home for a bottle of wine (the cellar there is cooler), or morning market runs for shell beans and wild mushrooms, they’re there, tending to every last detail themselves. Without them, the 12-table space can’t open, since there’s nobody else to take their places on the tiny line. Or answer the phone, usually in Charlie’s back pocket, or add up the checks, which Sharon does by hand.

You’ll see them in the serene dining room, which has long delighted the brownstone set, its spare white walls and velvety banquettes gilded only by a single piece of produce, like a garlic scape in May, a quince come November. And you’ll even see them in the kitchen, since you have to walk through the galley-size space en route to the lovely candlelit back patio or the bathroom, at which point Charlie might instruct you not to leave the seat up, or send a hearty farewell (“bye, kids!”) as you head out into the night.

But then there’s a good chance he’s already met you, since this is the only white tablecloth restaurant in town where a chef-owner hand-delivers an amuse-bouche to every single customer—emerging from behind the kitchen’s velvet curtains during dinner service with a simple stainless steel platter holding a jigger of velvety sweet corn soup or a tiny plate cradling a few slender fingers of roasted carrots in multiple shades of orange.

That personal touch—performed dozens of times every night—wasn’t part of the original plan, admits Sharon. But then she and Charlie realized they didn’t want to delegate details to even the most trusted sous, a hands-on approach she laughingly admits has made them “exactly the type of Mom and Pop place we never wanted to be.”

Perhaps, but all those hours the pair put in have certainly paid off. In fact, back in 2003 the Grocery rocked the gravy boat when a small but dedicated group of Zagat Survey takers voted it to stardom, declaring it one of the seven best restaurants in all of New York. The pronouncement made the front page of the Times (“Zagat Listing Jolted by a Small Brooklyn Spot”), caused the company to adjust their algorithms, and kept foodies talking and tourists trekking the rest of the decade.

These days, of course, their names might not be the first to mind in the crowded field of homespun Brooklyn restaurants whose tiny kitchens produce farm-forward fare that’s both simple and stellar. But the Grocery helped blaze that trail and remains a serious special-occasion space, a restaurant where Friday-night newcomers still take a car service back to Manhattan and regulars request Table 11 in the corner for their anniversary, year after year. (New York magazine dubbed it “the makeout table.”)

As the name implies, these two chefs really know their produce: It’s a place where the roots and tubers still earn raves, where you don’t just savor the luscious Long Island duck or the succulent grilled lamb, but also the fresh chili kick of the sauce that bathes tender green beans and soft, salty feta, or the barely battered, lightly fried quarters of artichoke hearts, served over ribbons of blushing red escarole, the entire plate showered with Parmesan and lemon aioli. Here the highlight of a crispy farro cake isn’t the backyard-smoked bacon, but a warm, earthy blanket of roasted cauliflower, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and balsamic-braised onions charred to sweet perfection in a cast-iron skillet. The perfectly seared sea scallops are almost outdone by a slender wedge of fried hominy crispier than any French fry, and the sweet-and-sour tang of slow-cooked, vinegar-braised peppers and capers, a molten mix Charlie lovingly curates several mornings a week.

The closest thing Sharon and Charlie have to a signature dish, in fact, is simply named “roasted beets,” a killer app they’ve been serving since nearly the beginning: housemade goat cheese ravioli atop paper-thin shavings of the root crop, the whole mess drowned in browned butter and finished with toasted pine nuts and fried shallots. It might sound cliché, but if it retired, regulars would riot: “That dish,” says Charlie, who makes the silky pasta dough himself, “we can’t ever take off the menu.” (One hopes that the artichokes and lemon aioli will join it there in perpetuity.)

The Grocery’s simple yet flavorful approach can be traced in part to the fact that the chefs honed their love of ingredients (and for each other) cooking across the river at Savoy, Peter Hoffman’s long-standing ingredient-driven Mecca. Within weeks of meeting in 1992 they knew they wanted to open a restaurant together, says Charlie, a neighborhoody place where they’d both want to eat: “I’m so lucky,” he says, “I found somebody who wanted to do exactly what I do.” (That includes raising chickens: Instead of kids, the couple care for six hens that live in a coop behind their apartment just around the corner, feasting on carrot-top cast-offs and cracked corn.)

They divide kitchen duties, with Charlie taking over more of “the grunt work,” as he calls it, at the counter and the stove. He’s been cooking since he was 17 and likes to disparage himself as “the world’s oldest line cook,”—although he doesn’t look a day over 39. Sharon, who earned her chops as a caterer in New Jersey and did a stint as an architect and interior designer before cooking in the Savoy kitchen, starts most days at a Greenmarket—Borough Hall on Thursday, Union Square on Friday, Grand Army on Saturday and, just up the street, Carroll Gardens on Sunday—while Charlie stays in to start prep. (Beyond a few guys washing dishes, making ice cream and cutting meat in the basement, Charlie has two cooks working dinner and one at their quiet late-week lunch service, which he seems to run as an excuse to make less-formal fare like hand-cut French fries and a homemade ketchup.)

After Sharon arrives from market, bags spilling out with bushyheaded bunches of carrots, plump turnips and fragrant pears, she turns to desserts—a slew of sorbets, the famous chocolate fig cake, a dense slab of indulgence—and works with Charlie on the dishes of the week. One day they might fiddle over their ever-changing salad—bedecking its adolescent lettuce with heirloom cucumbers or roasted squash. Another day the project is broiled North Carolina shrimp brought back from their vacation in the Outer Banks, or salmon smoked in-house and plated with potato-yuca pancakes and a tart topper of Asian pear and endive.

They build these dishes amidst a back-and-forth banter that never quite reaches a bicker. (Called out in their New Yorker review as “Lucy and Ricky slapstick,” it’s seriously endearing.) “Hey, I’m cutting the peppers bigger than I did before so they don’t get mushy,” Charlie tells Sharon as he works on that agrodolce compote that makes that scallop plate. “OK,” says Sharon. “Did you hear that ‘OK’?” he says with a mischievous grin: “She doesn’t agree with me.”

But eventually they do agree, especially on the big ideas—like the restaurant’s name itself, which references their original dream to find an old-fashioned storefront where they could also open a market, as well as Sharon’s stepfather, who liked to pat his full stomach after a meal with the remark: “Now those were good groceries.” It still fits, says Sharon: “The menu is all about the ingredients,” she says. “It’s all about the groceries.”

The Grocery’s simple yet flavorful approach can be traced in part to the fact that the chefs honed their love of ingredients (and for each other) cooking across the river at Savoy. Within weeks of meeting they knew they wanted to open a restaurant together, a neighborhoody place where they’d both want to eat.

As the name implies, these two chefs really know their produce. Their signature dish is simply named “roasted beets,” a killer app of housemade goat cheese ravioli atop paper-thin shavings of the root, all drowned in browned butter and finished with toasted pine nuts and fried shallots. It might sound cliché, but if it retired, regulars would riot.

These days, Brooklyn is home to many restaurants whose tiny kitchens produce farm- forward fare that’s both simple and stellar. But The Grocery helped blaze that trail and remains a serious special-occasion space, a restaurant where Friday night newcomers still take a car service back to Manhattan.

Photo credit:  Michael Harlan Turkell.

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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.