Roberta’s sign at BMW Guggenheim Lab (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

Roberta’s, that beloved Bushwick pizza joint, has been tapped to run the cafe at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a pop-up urban think tank of sorts that opened earlier this month on a narrow, otherwise forgotten plot of land on East First Street owned by the Department of Parks & Recreation.

While the indie Brooklyn darling might not be the most obvious choice — Danny Meyer, who operates The Wright, the Guggenheim’s fine dining restaurant, as well as other restaurants in spaces overseen by the Parks Department (e.g. Shake Shack), would be the obvious choice — it’s a natural partnership, says Bronwyn Keenan, the Guggenheim’s Associate Director of Special Events.

Hmm. I wasn’t getting “natural.”

On one hand, you have a relatively grassroots, hyper-local food project; on the other, a heavily-branded, well-funded corporate enterprise that will travel the globe during its six-year run. Add to the mix a general reverence for Roberta’s and an inherent skepticism of these sorts of big ticket projects, and it seems like the two couldn’t be more different.

Except that, well, Keenan is actually right. In many ways, Roberta’s is a fully functional, operational model of what the Lab aspires to be: a community gathering point, a model of urban sustainability and a positive force in the neighborhood. And while it’s too nascent to make a call about the Lab’s success — events are scheduled through October 16 — there is some serious brain power involved, which hopefully bodes well for the programming. Though, I should mention, that Hyperallergic writer Liz Eliano already sees some signs for concern.

Anyway, let’s take a closer look and the cafe and the Lab.

Roberta’s BMW Guggenheim Lab cafe in the East Village (image via

The Venues

 The Lab: The airy, indoor-outdoor structure has been nicknamed the “traveling toolbox” by the creative team. On a literal level, the name refers to the transparency of its inner workings. Stand inside the mesh and carbon fiber structure, look up and around, and everything’s visible — catwalks, cables, remnant graffiti, neighbors’ backyards. On a conceptual level, the organizers are hoping that the ideas hatched within the lab will become tools, so to speak, for the community. (A little cheesy, but admirable.) The Lab is open to the public at all times during operating hours, which makes it one of those much-appreciated public spaces where you can grab a seat in the shade, prop up with your laptop or book, or wait for friends. There are new public restrooms, too.

 Roberta’s: The restaurant inhabits a former warehouse space in a heavily industrial zone in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. While foot traffic may be lighter here than in the East Village, it’s fair to say that Roberta’s literally changed the game for the neighborhood — one of the Lab’s main tenets. The interior is all concrete and salvaged wood, giving Roberta’s sustainability cred along with an “industrial farmhouse” vibe. Gardens are maintained on top of a pair of shipping containers that came with the property and Heritage Radio Network has been broadcasting from the site since late 2009. (See: Programming)

The Mission

Some of the plants that were foraged for us by the Spurce collective (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

The Lab: The BMW Guggenheim Lab arrived in New York with a lot of literature, the most important point being that there’s a theme: “Confronting Comfort.” All of the programming at the Lab — film screenings, urban field trips, how-to workshops, community-based discussions — is somehow pegged to this theme. Last Friday, I joined arts collective Spurse on a research trip at the site of the world’s largest wholesale food market in the Bronx. In the shadow of the infrastructure it takes to feed New York City, we embarked on an urban foraging excursion, with surprising success.

Roberta’s: While Roberta’s doesn’t have a stated mission, it’s easy to find parallels between the Lab’s goals and how the restaurant operates on a daily basis. One of the charms of its location is you can perceptibly feel how Roberta’s presence has helped contribute to that the world that you encounter when you get off the Morgan stop on the L Train, there’s quite a cool, creative, local scene that’s sprouted within the industrial grid. Between the rooftop greenhouse and in-house bakery, Roberta’s gets a gold star for its commitment to urban sustainability.

Community Engagement

The Lab: The cornerstone of the BMW Guggenheim Lab is its programming, all of which is free and open to the public. The Lab team of five members — a Bronx-based environmental justice activist, a Canadian journalist, a Nigerian microbiologist and former TEDGlobal fellow and a pair of Rotterdam-based architects — have hammered out a program of more than 100 scheduled events, or roughly a dozen a week. Along with scholars, activists and urbanists, local figures scheduled to speak include Sharon Gannon and David Life, founders of Jivamukti Yoga; Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/owner of Prune; and Interoboro Partners, the team that designed the installation in MoMA PS1’s courtyard this summer.

Roberta’s: In hosting Heritage Radio Network, one of the preeminent internet radio destinations for discourses on food, Roberta’s has become an incubator of sorts for a very passionate local food community. Founded by Patrick Martins of Slow Foods USA, the network has grown to include 22 shows, all of which are broadcast live weekly from the studio in the freight container. The programming is as esoteric as “We Dig Plants” and “Cutting the Curd.” Tune in and you’re as likely to catch a debate about hops varietals for home brewing as an interview with the founder of the City Chicken Project.

Roberta’s Cafe at the BMW Guggenheim Lab is located at the corner of East Houston Street and Second Avenue and will be open Wed-Fri 1-9 pm and Sat-Sun 10 am-9 pm.

Erin Lindholm writes, blogs and tweets about food, art, fashion and culture in New York City and beyond. She has contributed to Art in America, Women’s Wear Daily, The Village Voice, SF Weekly, The Brooklyn...