When Two Saints pours its first cocktails tonight, it may very well be the dawn of a new era in Crown Heights. Tucked into the corner of Nostrand Avenue and St. John's Place, its high-concept design and upscale menu are a far cry from the bodegas, bargain shops, and West Indian food counters that have populated the area for decades. Its customers will sip lavender-infused Old Fashioneds in a warmly-lit space of mauve tiled walls lined with plush green banquettes. And, for its ambitious owner, this is exactly what the rapidly-changing neighborhood desperately needs.
A European-style cafe that transitions to a bar during evening hours, Two Saints is the latest venture from Michael de Zayas, an entrepreneur and Crown Heights fixture who now runs a quintet of local businesses. De Zayas began in 2012 with Franklin Avenue coffee shop Little Zelda and has since opened Nagel's Bagels (formerly Wedge cheese shop), Hullabaloo Books, and taken on a 50 percent stake in Deck Salon. All of his shops boast comely design and cordial service, qualities that de Zayas insists are what Crown Heights deserves.
"In terms of the people who live here, this is the best neighborhood in America," de Zayas said, sitting at one of Two Saints's small marble tables. The cafe/bar was built with hopes of becoming a destination space for locals— one that emphasizes vibrant conversation over laptop solitude. "Above all we value radical friendliness," de Zayas continued. "And we do that by introducing people to each other and embodying that friendliness quality, which is, as it turns out, contagious."
"I will not allow this place to exist where somebody comes to one table and opens their laptop and that's it," he insisted. And walking in from the street, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to.
Two Saints boasts a gorgeous interior. As you walk through the bar its design scheme shifts from '30s art deco to '50s postwar chic before culminating in a back lounge complete with vintage '70s wood paneling and a massive portrait of actress and Bond girl Jill St. John. The goal was to craft a great-looking bar that didn't skew as fancy nor run down; a deft blend of familiar and slightly strange, like a David Lynch set that sat unused until today. "I hope when you walk in you're taken aback and made to feel comfortable all at the same time," de Zayas said. "We also wanted the place to feel like it's been here for 100 years, but with renovations."
In daylight hours Two Saints will brew Toby's Estate coffee and function as a full-service coffee shop replete with high-end baked goods. Pastries from Colson, Dough, and Ovenly will greet hungry patrons, and the shop will indeed offer WiFi, although power outlets are scarce. Evenings promise bottles of Red Stripe, Finback beers on draft, two house wines on tap and cocktails that draw on Caribbean influences like ginger beer and sorrel (a hibiscus tea brewed with cinnamon and clove). Patties and doubles from nearby Trinidad Golden Place will be ordered in for late night snacking.
For Crown Heights locals, the bar's name may seem like a clever nod to geography; Two Saints is situated on St. Johns Place and St. Marks Avenue sits only four blocks away. But its flair for history is embedded in the name, as well: Nostrand Avenue was co-named Toussaint Louverture Boulevard in 2004, and a portrait of the Haitian revolutionary—de Zayas slyly pronounces the name "Two-Saint"— hangs near the entrance as a counterpoint to the back lounge's Jill St. John piece. "The two of them, they're our two saints."
Ultimately, Two Saints aspires to infuse Nostrand Avenue with the sort of high-end product that typically demands higher prices. But de Zayas has found a way to keep the menu mostly reasonable; beers will run between $4-7, cocktails will set you back $10, glasses of wine will vary from $6 - 12, and that delicious array of pastries will go for $3 each. With all of Crown Heights becoming increasingly expensive, Two Saints's relative affordability—in comparison to fully gentrified sections of Brooklyn—belies its ornate face. "Nostrand Avenue is going to change rapidly in the next two years as rents go up," de Zayas mused. "But my staff and I love Nostrand as it is. We celebrate the diversity of it and want to be a hub for that."
Looking back at the long, difficult process of building the new cafe and bar, de Zayas paused for just a beat. "The awesome thing about this corner," he said, "is that everyone keeps coming to the door and asks, 'When are you opening?'" Now, that day has come.
753 Nostrand Avenue. Open 7 a.m. - 2 a.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. - 3 a.m. weekends