Serving Hospitality On Wythe Ave
We sat with the 25-year owner of a neighborhood staple to get its story.
In the mid-90s in his ’85 Jaguar XJ, current Wythe Diner owner Sandy Stillman scoped around industrial Williamsburg. “If you can imagine it, there were only a handful of cars parked on Wythe Ave between N 3rd and N 8th in those days, which was my view when lying on the hood of my car at night and counting the foot traffic (close to zero),” he told me. A food enthusiast, poet, and old soul, Sandy was enamored by the not-yet-up-and-coming neighborhood. “I was eating at the tiny original Planet Thailand on Bedford Ave three nights a week– one of the first places to cater to the ‘BK food revolution’ and, surrounded by artists and tearful conversations from spicy cooking and bad ventilation, decided to find my own spot,” he said in our interview. It’s worth noting that in our correspondence, Sandy attached a screenshot of his current week of dinner reservations, all of which were at Jean-George’s abcV (six nights in a row). He refers to his lifelong obsessive and passionate eating habits as “seeking deliciousness”.
Immediately understanding that Sandy is someone who has a deep, romanticized appreciation for the world, I wait with my pen at the ready. Sandy takes a sip of water to prepare for the long story he’ll tell me about Williamsburg before it was Williamsburg as we know it and how The Diner became his and, through that, ours at Blank Street.
“I had a burrito joint in the West Village already and I wanted to pay a mortgage instead of rent,” Sandy told me. Driving past the diner for the first time, he was sold. “It was the coolest piece of 50s furniture you could ever imagine,” he says. “It felt like a movie set.” He describes New York Slick, a motorcycle repairman on Wythe, who sat on fiberglass seats outside and kept a watchful eye on his bikes and their backdrop, The Diner. Considered ‘Mayor of the neighborhood’, Slick was known to all passersby and had a unique scoop. “Slick told me getting it would be impossible,” Sandy says. The owners, a Ukrainian woman and her son, were planning to keep the space in the family. Sandy, being Sandy, started meeting with the son regularly, who he describes as “highly energetic”– recounting memories of him weeping over nostalgia for his father working the diner, and doing three-finger push ups on the kitchen floor at the age of sixty. “I told him that I loved it, and that if he was ever willing to sell it to me I’d use every dollar I’d ever made on it without negotiation.”
After years of bonding and a failed attempt at closing the sale (the family said they were “too hot” and walked out just before signing), Sandy was losing momentum. But in his mind it wasn’t over, and he sent flowers to the owners in gratitude for the experience. The family sent Sandy back a note saying he was “a nice boy” and that maybe they’d let him have the space after all.
“In 1997 they went through with it and then I was stuck with that behemoth of a thing,” Sandy told me. He watched as Williamsburg metamorphosed– from artists pitching tents in empty factories and living in storefronts in lieu of area housing, to luxury buildings popping up on every corner. Through it all, The Diner has been his baby– moving through the hands of Relish (his own “rebel, renegade restaurant”), iconic La Esquina, and now Blank Street. A statue of Mary, placed in the garden out of respect for the previous owners and beloved by kitchen staff, has continued to sit and watch over the ever-changing space.
An hour in, when I finally got around to asking about Blank Street, I was admittedly nervous to broach the topic. Knowing that my generation covers neighborhoods with newness, and understanding The Diner’s long standing symbolism of things past, I was curious about the juxtaposition. Sandy started at the beginning, describing his relationship with Jai Lott (Blank Street’s VP of Product and Customer Experience) and Laura Simpson (our VP of Operations) and how it organically developed at a different coffee shop where he would write his daily poems. “They were really hospitable in a sassy and fun way,” Sandy says, remembering how their relationship went on for years before the topic of The Diner was brought up in 2019 and again in peak-pandemic 2020. “I had already been talking to The Diner, having a conversation with it, and asking it, ‘what do you want to become?’” Sandy said. “There were a few other substantial offers, but here were these totally f*cking awesome human beings with super positivity in the middle of this really bleak time, this challenging moment.” He recounts that Jai was cleaning up the backyard before they had even made an agreement, a gratitude in his voice that nodded to his love for etiquette and acts of service. “Laura, Jai, and Vinay (Blank Street’s Founder) were just irresistible to me and my values. I loved that sort of perseverance and dedication– they were reeking with hospitality. Whenever I was around I would head over there just to catch some of their energy from the cart.”
And today? Sandy describes every single Blank Street employee he meets as “authentically hospitable.” “How do you hire for that?” Sandy asks. “How do you make that happen? That’s been my experience up to this day, and I’ve been to at least 30 Blank Streets.”
When I asked about Relish, wanting to learn more about the spirit of the businesses that took up this space before ours did, Sandy talked about the energy created by serving democratically-priced, elevated food in Brooklyn at a time you couldn’t find it there, by a local, artistic front of house staff. He said they won awards for their design, their outdoor space, their burger. He described plants and trees and flowers and herbs growing everywhere. I learned that Relish held dozens of movie shoots while it was running, that customers would make out on the lawn out back, and that some married waitresses and had kids, “the most holy outcome of opening a restaurant,” in Sandy’s words. He described Relish as “a physical manifestation of what was inside his brain” and a way for him to express a deep desire to create an experience that made you leave feeling better than when you walked in. “I don’t know that I did the kind of job Blank Street is doing, actually,” he says. “Sometimes I think the product is hospitality, and not coffee, that you’re selling.”
My favorite visual from our conversation was an image the previous owners painted of The Diner shutting down the George Washington Bridge. It wasn’t unheard of to see– after midnight in the 50s and 60s– diners being driven across to Jersey for repairs and returning across, gleaming anew. I picture the chrome exterior sparkling under the glow of the bridge’s lights, this literal shiny object that Sandy Stillman pined after and would look after for decades.
By Laura Casciola. August 2022.