Find out what makes Tara Oxley’s Eugene & Co. restaurant so special.
Eugene & Company on 397 Tomkins Avenue is a humble year-old establishment by Tara Oxley that seems like it’s been there for ages. The restaurant sits in a corner of a quiet street in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, with intentionally worn signage and walls that create a sense of lived-in comfort. With 12 years of experience in hospitality design, Oxley carefully thinks through every detail of the space, masterfully executing them so that they appear effortless, natural. At our recent visit to Eugene & Co., we scoped out exactly how the architect-trained restaurant owner approaches the design of its interior, menu and experience.
Oxley’s Italian roots compelled her to focus on the concept of family when she first founded Eugene & Co. Naming the restaurant after her grandfather, she attached “& Company” to signify its ties to the neighborhood, and to honor those who helped her build the restaurant. “When I opened up, I asked all my friends and family to donate something so that they were a part of it,” Oxley starts. These donations make up the restaurant’s stock of artwork, consisting of a beautiful photography centerpiece and a few framed family photos in the bathroom. “The company is what makes us all up; I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help and support.”
The founder only lives two minutes and 14 seconds away by foot (“I timed myself yesterday”), but she didn’t always reside there. Having worked in Manhattan’s BR Hospitality for 12 years, she used to live in the Upper East Side, and “lived all over” before that, frequently moving as a child with her military father. Her multi-city background, combined with her work experience in New York and academic training as an architect at Parsons, is what gives Eugene & Co. a global influence despite its founding as a “New American cuisine” operation. While the 38-person restaurant is small enough to to be taken in with one eye sweep, its modest size still packs a myriad of interesting and eclectic details that make it both local and international.
When envisioning the restaurant, Oxley only had the word “handsome” in mind. “I think ‘handsome’ encompasses cozy and warm, and I was always thinking of an English pub — I wanted it to be lived in, I wanted it to be something that, 20 years from now, felt like it has always been here,” Oxley states. But does that mean everything at Eugene & Co. is simply retro or vintage? While the restaurant’s business cards are made up of a stack of old postcards found at a vintage shop, not everything inside is simply old. “I wanted to veer away from the reclaimed, restructured thing because a lot of places [already do that]. I wanted to pull away from that and create a darker environment.”
The result is a mahogany-lined interior with plush leather banquettes, rehabbed school chairs and wooden tables with beautiful flowers in amber glass bottles that Oxley often sets up herself early in the morning.
The space’s textural gray walls are perhaps its most characterizing feature that sets up the overall mood. Brooklyn local Benjamin Lai took a painstaking 120 hours to complete them in a 10 to 17-layer process that involved multiple paint jobs, splattering, shoe polish and plaster. Combined with a bar reclaimed from the Polish Veterans of Foreign War and a melted candle chandelier, the walls give Eugene & Co. that inhabited, gritty feel. The Benjamin Lai connection was a recommendation from a friend, an example of how Oxley’s hospitality background granted her the extensive network of experts who helped put together Eugene & Company.
“I’ve been designing places for someone else my entire life, whether it was residential, offices or restaurants that I worked for at BR Guests. All the time, I had someone else who had the final say. So having the final say and actually doing it for myself was a really interesting process,” Oxley dishes.
Food & Drink
The menu design is just as important for Oxley and team. According to Oxley, new head chef Jeff Shields — another Brooklyn local — “speaks food as his medium of art.” Shields is the guy with the broader ideas for the food, and works with Oxley on the final presentation details. “I’ll say, ‘That’s interesting, but I want a little more color with that,'” states Oxley. “He’s 95% and I’m the 5%. He’s very hard on himself like any artist is — it’s very important for him how he plates things, how his food looks. It’s all about the presentation and he subscribe to that 100%. As a designer, that’s amazing.”
While we were there, we tasted three of Eugene & Co.’s most representative dishes: the Carrot Tartine, Meatloaf Sandwich and Crispy Chicken Sandwich. All three were cooked perfectly with fresh bread and vegetables that had us wanting more — a lot more. The tastes were mostly familiar, but with hints of Shields’ insertion of his own culinary style procured from 15 years of experience (most notably from his previous job which was heavily influenced by South Asian and South American cuisine).
The food is organic, and much of the ingredients are locally sourced, with plans to source even more from small, local farms with the opening of a grocery market across the street next year. The menu “changes very often because we are never satisfied with plating something three days in a row,” says Oxley. That’s definitely an excuse for us to go again.
When asked about the relationship between food and design, Oxley’s answer is plain and simple: “When someone goes out to eat, they’re stepping into an environment that you create, so you have to do everything within your means to create an environment that makes them feel like they’re at home. They come back for the environment, they come back for the food. You can’t have one without the other — it’s a symbiotic relationship.” We agree, Tara.
So if you’re looking for a comfortable, homey and family-like dining experience, go ahead and visit Eugene & Co. at 397 Tomkins Avenue, Brooklyn. Tell them we said hello.