Good design tells a story. It doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle and end, but some kind of narrative must exist, some sense of time and place—context is everything. The best restaurants exemplify this, portraying the vision of their creators in each light fixture, each piece of flatware, each choice of seating.
Photo Michael Harlan Turkell
Tamer Hamawi, Elise Rosenberg, and Emilie Kihlstrom are behind the beloved Brooklyn restaurants Colonie
, Gran Eléctrica
, and Governor
. They have a deep understanding of the necessity of establishing an original storyline for each of their restaurants. With Colonie, their first collaboration, Rosenberg tells us, “We knew the importance of coming up with a theme that was expressed in every detail—with lighting, with every corner of every table. It really felt like we were giving birth to something.” Kihlstrom agreed, adding, “It was like our baby. Physically? No. It was not physically that hard. But mentally? Mentally it was just as painful.” Hamawi explains, “Being so heavily involved in the design process involved our blood, sweat, and tears. We were in there every day from the first to the last, sourcing everything, overseeing everything. The end result is something we’re super proud of. And it just looks great.”
Colonie opened in early 2011 in Brooklyn Heights and was immediately embraced as a destination spot, both because of its acclaimed menu and its new and fresh take on the “old world” design aesthetic that had become so prevalent in the best Brooklyn restaurants. Rosenberg says, “It was really important for us to have that ‘old world’ element but we wanted to create a forward-thinking version. We added brightness by adding the garden wall and a cool element by using subway tile in the kitchen in order to contrast with all the warmth. This brightness makes it somewhere you want to be during the day and in the summer.”
Photo Dana Decoursey
The success of Colonie enabled the trio to expand and, one year later, they opened Gran Eléctrica in DUMBO, which was soon followed by Governor, also in DUMBO. Although the three restaurants weren’t attempting to do the same thing either culinarily or stylistically, all are linked by the unified vision of Hamawi, Rosenberg, and Kihlstrom. Rosenberg says, “There are elements that tie together all three restaurants: communal seating, old and new, fresh and salvaged.” And there is no doubt the clarity of their vision is what allows them to take different directions in the design of each restaurant.
Gran Eléctrica has a marked sense of playfulness while not seeming at all gimmicky or obvious in its design. In a sense, the design reflects the cuisine, which Hamawi describes as “authentic Mexican with a greenmarket philosophy.”
In other words, both the food and the decor are traditional with a twist. Instead of the kind of margarita that is found at just about any Mexican restaurant in the city, Gran Eléctrica has a beet version whose vibrant pink hue belies its subtle earthiness. The walls are covered in what looks, from a distance, like traditional toile, but up close, black and white images take shape and reveal themselves to be Day of the Dead figures, in the style of artist José Guadalupe Posada, inhabiting an eerie DUMBO landscape. Jane’s Carousel is populated with skeletal horses and a haunted bride and groom grace the DUMBO waterfront. Housed in an historic Brooklyn waterfront building, Gran Eléctrica is imbued with charm and a rich past, while its design and cuisine nod to its history but look to the future.
Photo Noah Fecks
Governor came next and was another collaboration between Hamawi, Rosenberg, Kihlstrom, and their executive chef-partner from Colonie, Brad McDonald. Governor opened to great acclaim—both critical and within the community—but, after just a few months in operation, disaster struck in the form of Hurricane Sandy. Located not far from the lapping shoreline of the East River, Governor sustained severe damage as the storm surged and the floodwaters rose. The months upon months of work were undone, unraveling within hours.
Photo Matt Feddersen
Governor is now in the process of rewriting its story, constructing a new narrative out of the bits and pieces left behind. It is not easy to rebuild. It is not easy to look at a blank page where once a complete tale had been told. But that is exactly what Hamawi, Rosenberg, and Kihlstrom are doing—and they are making the most of the opportunity, taking care to fix the things that weren’t completely right the first time, editing and adding as necessary. However much work needs to be done—and there is a lot to be done—they had already written the outline for what is sure to be—one day soon—a happy ending.
Photo Michael Harlan Turkell