New York

Photos courtesy of Dinner Pary

Resy SpotlightNew York

Dinner Party in Fort Greene Breaks Many of the Rules — and That’s a Good Thing

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Cami Jetta has many ways to describe Dinner Party, a project she launched a year ago in Fort Greene, Brooklyn: “First and foremost I feel like it is a community of young, queer creative people cooking … That is what the heart of Dinner Party is.” It’s also a restaurant, the 26-year-old says, but quickly follows that up with: “Sometimes I joke [that] it’s a performance art space.” Other times, she thinks of it as an apartment or house — both emotionally and aesthetically.

When I walked in on a Tuesday evening in April, I felt like I was in the warmly stylish living room of someone who moved into a rent-controlled apartment — complete with a small atrium — in the 1960s and never left. (In Jetta’s words, it has the energy of the “rented room of an exiled aristocrat.”) The walls are covered in eclectic art and a handful of books rests on a window ledge next to a slightly chipped Greek-style bust of a woman’s head.

The 500-square-foot space is filled with mix-and-matched tables and chairs and, unless you select “private” on Resy, you’ll be seated at one of them with diners you’ve never met. None of you will be handed a menu — though you can check it out on Instagram — and if, like me, you’re older than 35, you may be the oldest person in the room. There’s a collectivist feeling here, both for diners and the team, and a rumbling of youthful rebellion.

In New York City’s perpetually crowded restaurant scene, it is rare that a new place offers something that’s, well, actually new; but Dinner Party does. It’s a restaurant born of this particular moment, when the industry is still adapting to how COVID has rewritten the script and diners are reconsidering what they want from a night out. It’s also a place that feels like it could only come from a fresh generation taking on the food space for the first time.

In the early days of the shutdown, Jetta was working in fundraising at the American Museum of Natural History and spending much of her time at home cooking. “I think I had an existential epiphany,” she says, realizing what she wanted to do was cook for others. With little restaurant experience, she armed herself with a checklist from a city-run resource for small business owners and wrote a business plan.

In January 2021, Jetta signed a lease for the space that used to house Pequeña, a beloved neighborhood spot that closed the summer before. Family members backed the project. “I’m fortunate enough to have family members who were able to basically give me a sizable loan to get it started,” Jetta explains. “Still, by New York City standards, it was on a budget.” She hosted a party, asking friends to buy tickets and donate what they could to help get the project off the ground. Her best friend Loryn Cook designed the space and oversaw a gut renovation in four months.

In June of last year, Dinner Party opened, selling picnic-ready meals to go, adding seated dinners in August and indoor lunch this spring. “I would say that we did it on about $200,000 total,” Jetta says. While timelines and budgets for opening restaurants in the city range immensely, Jetta opened quicker and on a tighter budget than many.

Just before opening, she told Eater: “Dinner Party is a restaurant for and by young people. … We’re either in for a rude awakening, or the time of our lives. Perhaps both.” Nearly a year later, she says, “It has absolutely been both.” The team, which started as six women, has largely stayed the same with one moving on (though she’s still in the group chat) and two more individuals joining. Everyone is 26 or younger and before this project, only two, including, sous chef Ryan Del Franco, had considerable restaurant experience.

I want to be meeting new people and want to be part of knitting this community together instead of just being another kind of trendy place where you can go and sit with your people. — Cami Jetta

In some ways, Jetta sees her lack of experience as an advantage. She’s acted on instinct rather than following a prescribed way of doing things. The restaurant isn’t a co-operative, but she wanted to bring that spirit to the project — fittingly, everyone is tipped out. “It’s more like I’m big sister than mom. … I am technically in charge, but we’re all kids,” Jetta says. “For people of our generation, some of these things are just givens, which is so cool.”

The whole team also has a say (if they want it) in the menu, which changes entirely each week. Leading up to the Ides of March, they imagined what Julius Cesar ate the night before he was assassinated, coming up with spring allium flatbread, whole roasted branzino with tapenade, and semolina shortcake with whipped ricotta and honey-poached dates.

As the weather started to warm in early spring, the team assembled a menu of mostly plant-based Mexican-influenced dishes, including pan-fried plantains with green chickpeas, halloumi, and honey, and flautas filled with oyster mushroom and soyrizo. For inspiration, Jetta paged through the “La Vida Verde: Plant-Based Mexican Cooking with Authentic Flavor” by chef Joceyln Ramirez, whom Dinner Party also tagged on Instagram. “If you’re cooking in a culture that doesn’t belong to you, it is important to acknowledge where you’re getting that from,” Jetta notes.

There’s no recipe testing in advance of dinner service on Tuesday night. “[We’re] just flying blind,” she says half laughing. Treating it as a sort of dress rehearsal, Tuesday dinner is priced at $40 instead of $48 as it is during the rest of the week.

But, like its namesake, Dinner Party is about more than the food. Before the pandemic, communal tables at restaurants in the city were often considered the worst seats in the house. They served their function — to seat more guests — but rarely did New Yorkers talk to diners seated mere inches from them. At Dinner Party, guests seem more open to those interactions.

It took a bit of prompting from Cook, the restaurant’s designer who was seated at the next table, but in the end, my dining companion and I chatted with a couple in their 20s seated across from us about work, queer spaces, and fertility. It’s something I might not have considered a few years ago, but like others at this phase of the pandemic, I enjoyed a communal table for the night. Jetta is hoping for interactions like these. “I want to be meeting new people and want to be part of knitting this community together instead of just being another kind of trendy place where you can go and sit with your people,” she explains.

As the meal wrapped up over espresso and horchata cheesecake, there was no pressure to leave — a rare feeling in an era when a growing number of restaurants tell diners the table is theirs for 90 minutes tops. Dinner Party currently hosts just one seating a night (though that may change down the line, Jetta adds).

In the days since, I’ve wondered: Can a restaurant that throws this many accepted norms out the window survive? Will diners continue to be open to a restaurant where a favorite dish will likely never appear on the menu again? Will an openness to talking to strangers born out of the isolation of the pandemic remain? And, can a restaurant that operates a bit like a co-op survive in a hyper-competitive city? The cynical New Yorker in me is skeptical, but the team recently received a temporary liquor license, which should bump up their revenue, and Jetta says she’s paying back the loans from family members that helped her open.

Speaking about restaurants from her contemporaries, she adds, “I’m so excited to see what restaurants become — helmed by people who are coming from a less, kind of, traditional way of doing things.” So am I.

 

Dinner Party is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. and from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.; and on Sundays from noon to 2 p.m.

 

Throughout the month of June, Resy is celebrating the Women of Food around the world, with stories devoted to the women who power the restaurant industry.

 

Devra Ferst is a Brooklyn-based food and travel writer who has contributed to The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Eater, NPR, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.