Fort Greene Bar Scene: Stonehome Wine Bar

Written by Nida Najar on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.

Stonehome Wine Bar has been getting a lot of press lately, and when you visit it’s not hard to see why. Impeccably designed, it has a lovely outdoor patio, friendly staff and, most importantly, delectable food and wine and not-extravagant prices. 

I happened to hear from a friend who worked at the place, that the owners are a cool married couple, extremely welcoming to their staff. And they love Brooklyn.  That was enough to make me want to get them on the phone for an interview, which I promptly did.  Rose Hermann, a German-born, Fort-Greene-enamored artist who co-owns Stonehome with her sommelier husband Bill Stenehjem, was kind enough to talk to me about the perks of building up a business in her borough.

How long have you lived in Fort Greene?

We have lived in Fort Greene since 1983, so that would be 25 years.  This was when our friends from Manhattan used to think they had to get a passport to come visit us.  We had lived in Manhattan for 1 year and then we moved to Brooklyn. 

Back then there was just a lot more space out here and more a neighborhood feeling.  Mainly we came for the space and the small village atmosphere.  People were always super friendly and welcoming here.  I think what sets Fort Greene apart is that people, black or white, have largely owned their homes here.  It’s been written up as one of the most successfully integrated neighborhoods in the country, and I’ve never felt like an outsider.  It was definitely like that 25 years ago, and that hasn’t changed.

What is your perception of the changes in the neighborhood since you moved?

Part of the reason we opened this place was that it was really hard to get a good meal and certainly impossible to get a good glass of wine around here.  There basically was nothing here when we moved here.  Four years ago when we opened there was more.  We’ve been observing every single business that’s opened here, and finally we thought, if we’re so smart, we might as well try our hand at it.

You are a decorator, I’ve heard?

I’m an artist and designer and my husband, Bill, worked for the Board of Education, he’s a psychologist.  He has a Masters in Consulting Psychology from Harvard and worked in the school system for 15 years.  We do nothing but the restaurant now.  It’s completely time-consuming.  If I get over to the studio twice a week that’s great. I also designed this whole place. I’ve done a lot of design work before that.  I certainly had the most freedom in this project.

We are happy, but the first few years were really, really hard.  We underestimated how time- and labor- intensive it would be.  And expensive!  In Year Five, it’s getting to be more manageable.  We’re slowly starting to chip away at the loan we took out.  {laughs}. 

And how did you and your husband meet?

I grew up in Germany, and I went to California as a foreign exchange student when I was 16.  I met him at the end of that year.  When I was 19, in ’73, I came back and started living in California with Bill, and we’ve been together ever since then.  It’s been over 30 years that we’ve known each other.

We still really have a great time together, in spite of the business and everything.

You seem to also have a pretty tight-knit staff who seem to like their jobs, which in the restaurant business is pretty rare, especially in New York.  How do you manage to carry that off?

We pick staff based on character and manners.  Somebody who seems like they’re really with it can obviously learn about wine, and we do wine training every week.  People work their way up from dishwashers.  We have health insurance for our employees.

We tend to hire people who have other interests.  One guy just finished his architecture degree at Pratt.  Artists.  We pick people that we would like to get to know (laughs). 

Tell me about your chef.

We had our head chef, John, in mind as a chef but we had no idea how good he was going to be.  We could tell right away that he was extraordinarily talented.  Little did we know he’d be such a great person.  He leads by example and his staff really respects him.  They work hard for him because they really admire him.

Is the menu a joint endeavor?

It’s really been important to me to have a seasonal menu.  Pasture-raised meats, and, when possible, local produce.  John and I share that passion, so it works out.  I no longer approve his dishes, he has complete creative freedom.  We meet regularly, and we go over the menu.

What’s your favorite part of the business?

My biggest surprise has been the community aspect of it, I set out to do that but I didn’t know how great it would feel at the end.

People make friends here.  People have gotten engaged here.  There’s a lot of sweetness to the place and the experience of running it.

What your relationships are with other restaurant owners in the neighborhood?

It’s really amazing the camaraderie among all the business owners.  That’s something I didn’t really understand before I entered into this business.  We will run into another restaurant to borrow printer rolls, seafood towels.  You can consult with people, help them set up their computer systems.  I didn’t know how supportive everyone would be.  People wouldn’t think that, they would think that we would hate other.  I think it’s that nobody likes to see any business failing in the neighborhood.  It’s really pretty amazing. 

Photo by Michael Kenney, courtesy of Stonehome