On a frigid Brooklyn night, a deep-red facade on the corner of DeKalb Avenue and Adelphi Street in Fort Greene’s historic district glows invitingly. A worn wooden door awaits under the weathered sign of Chez Oskar, and those who enter will join a convivial scene that has been in steady swing for 17 years.
The aroma of shellfish broth mixes with the chatter of patrons at candlelit tables. Strains of Gypsy jazz float above the long bar in a room that is equal parts Left Bank bistro and Harlem Renaissance speakeasy. A daring rust and teal color scheme complements familiar red walls and wooden nooks adorned with brasserie bric-a-brac (framed mirrors, a regional map of France, an enormous empty bottle of Bordeaux, a folk-art Eiffel Tower). The dominant features of the room are original canvases and a mural, all painted by the owner, one of the least likely restaurateurs in all of Brooklyn.
Charlotta Janssen was born in Maine to German parents. After an itinerant and international upbringing, she returned at age 22 to the United States, where she worked as a model, a theater seamstress, a street musician and a painter.
Her early efforts as an artist were subsidized primarily by her work in restaurant renovation.
It was that connection to the restaurant world that inspired an idea from an ambitious French boyfriend with a work visa and a passion for restaurant life.
Chez Oskar opened in 1998 and was nearly shuttered within a year because of circumstances that Ms. Janssen referred to as “insanity” — con men, drug dealers, forgeries. The next year, Ms. Janssen, now unattached and the sole owner of all the legal obligations, took over the operations of Chez Oskar with considerable debt, back taxes, a threat of eviction, liens from purveyors and no practical restaurant experience outside of renovation. What she did have — beyond serious backbone — was a superb chef, as well as the communal spirit of an artist.
To run a restaurant, Ms. Janssen drew from the best assets she had: her skills as a painter. She refers to much of her artwork as “augmented portraiture,” which combines collage into tactile portraits that reveal the depth of a subject’s persona. She did the same thing with her bistro.
She repaired relationships with her suppliers, bonded with locals and hired a staff, of varied backgrounds, whose loyalty she earned.
“The world is full of really good people,” Ms. Janssen said. “And you need to cultivate that vibe.”
The vibe was in full effect on a recent Saturday night. Couples and groups of friends of different races, ages and sexual orientations lingered over plates and cocktails while parents brought their children in for quick bites.
The neighborhood has changed a lot since the early days. Though Chez Oskar’s cuisine was a departure from the late-20th-century Fort Greene staples of soul food and takeout, the restaurant did honor the neighborhood’s arty and multicultural atmosphere.
Newer restaurants now abound in Fort Greene, catering to the influx of young professionals after modern dining. But Chez Oskar has remained relevant by staying true to its original aesthetic.
Michael Robinson, who describes himself as an entrepreneur, radio host and author, has owned a Fort Greene brownstone for 24 years and has patronized Chez Oskar regularly since it opened. The food, he says, is terrific. But his love for the place borders on the mystical, recalling a time before Brooklyn was a brand.
“The energy is always good,” Mr. Robinson said.
“I love the neighborhood vibe and diversity of diaspora. It’s beautiful.”
Published on The New York Times: Fort Greene Changes. Chez Oskar Doesn’t.