Photo by Johannes Kroemer
In an area quickly transforming into the new — West Village? — it’s essential to know the convivial neighborhood hangouts, those bistros where one relies on consistently good food in a cozy atmosphere. A place that doesn’t see you as a dollar sign when you walk in the door.
In the middle of Smith Street (in that transitional zone that could be called Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill or Boerum Hill, but we’ll call it South Brooklyn) that place is Robin des Bois. If you’re a newcomer, you may walk by this quirky French bistro and only notice the fish-net-covered mannequin legs sticking out of a 70s space ship in the window display, also featuring a large alligator skin. Don’t let the bric-a-brac fool you. Inside Robin des Bois is a candle-lit haven for weary souls, a restaurant and bar where French owner Bernard DeCanali serves light French fair like roasted chicken, risottos and cous-cous with veggies and meats, and my favorite: a beet salad with goat cheese, in a dining room replete with candle-lit wooden tables and a fireplace to warm your cold heart.
Nine-year-old Robin des Bois provides comfort food when you haven’t the energy to cook, and the staff is very nice to restaurant-trained children (I love going with my daughter). Those who’ve been around a while know the joint for its popular brunch in the quaint back garden. The Sherwood Special—a large selection of meats, cheeses and accoutrements–will feed a party. Meats, fish, risottos—I’ve not had a bad meal here, and I’ve had many.
Robin des Bois also boasts an inexpensive wine list, making it a perfect date night for those on a budget.
Owner Bernard DeCanali was one of the early pioneers of Smith Street. As an importer of French décor and antiques, DeCanali outfitted Bar Tabac on Smith Street, as well as Manhattan French bistros Lucien and Casimir. He opened Robin des Bois as an antique shop in 2000, added a coffee bar, and slowly transitioned into a restaurant. If you find yourself mesmerized by the dizzying display of posters, lamps, glasses, art or the massive chandelier hanging over the dining room, much of what’s inside is for sale.
A Marseilles transplant, DeCanali moved to Manhattan 30 years ago, when he says the French population here was small. After a career in fashion, working for Betsey Johnson and building exhibits at fashion trade shows, DeCanali started an antique trade, in which he would buy items in France and wholesale them here, mostly outfitting restaurants to have that “French” look.
Like many old-timers, DeCanali is horrified at some of the changes going on in South Brooklyn—namely, the gentrification. He came here for space and liked the grit of Smith Street. Now, the wealth concerns him.
Eighteen years ago DeCanali moved to Boerum Hill when he found a “big, abandoned, cheap warehouse with broken windows and no heat. There was danger, but space. I’ll take that.”
He had to put a lock on his car hood, because people were stealing car batteries.
“You used old tires, or else you would find your car on blocks in the morning. Now, there are Porsches on my street,” DeCanali says.
“It feels like I’m lost in the woods. When I opened on Smith Street, there were eight restaurants. Now there are 48.”
DeCanali organized the first Petanque festival, and credits it with creating the momentum that pulled waves of French residents to the Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill area.
The first festival was a sleeper hit, and “all the French people already existing here suddenly put themselves together, and then you had a mass of people.”
Lately DeCanali is fretting about the state of South Brooklyn. On the one hand, it’s “the best of both worlds,” he says. “It has the European flavor and it’s ten minutes from the city.”
But the gentrification and trend toward restaurants with $15 cocktails has him on edge.
“Smith Street, there’s two ways it can go. It could go to trash or very easily go West Village. It’s never going to be the East Village. The East Village is Williamsburg. Smith Street was the bordello of New York City. There was tavern after tavern filled with people working in the (Navy) yards. On a bad day it will become a bordello again. But, the trend is more like Greenwich 20 years ago.”
Why should people go to Robin des Bois?
“It’s the only place on the street where you will be treated as a person, not a number. Well, maybe not on the weekends. But if you come in here two or three times, people will recognize you and remember you. It’s a true experience, not a factory experience.”
Sample: Shrimp Provencal appetizer, $6; Merguez sausage with creamy lentils, $8.50; Beet salad with goat cheese, $6.50; Skirt Steak au poivre with potatoes gratin and string beans, $17.50; creme brulee, $6.
Robin des Bois
195 Smith St., near Warren
M-Th, 4 p.m. to midnight. Fri, noon to midnight. Sat, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sun, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.