Nostalgia has a peculiar way of permeating: sometimes it’s sudden and you’re transported back in time, while in other instances you’re enveloped in a feeling that’s warm and familiar but somehow untraceable. The Turk’s Inn—which (re)opens in Brooklyn tomorrow—is steeped in the latter. From its plush patterned carpet to the imported textiles on the walls, the space—which is 6,000 square-feet and comprises a restaurant, music venue (The Sultan Room), to-go counter (Döner Kebab) and rooftop—feels as foreign as it does familiar. For its owners, first-time restaurateurs and best friends Varun Kataria and Tyler Erickson, The Turk’s Inn was an escape they visited as children, but they are now happily introducing the place to a new audience.
The original The Turk’s Inn (located in a rural Wisconsin town with a population of 2,000) operated from 1934 to 2014, when the final member of owner George “The Turk” Gogian’s lineage passed away. The spirited and uniquely multicultural supper club played host to a number of famous guests—President Kennedy included—families on vacation, and locals that treated the Armenian immigrant-run business the same as the American diner down the road. But the Turk’s Inn was different.
“We both had a huge attraction to roadside oddities and eccentric spaces. We were really attracted to the weird,” Kataria says. “But it was a glimpse into a different world, too. We yearned for something more and it showed that to us. As kids, you’re more primed for that kind of experience.”
While their parents weren’t as fond of the fantastical restaurant as their kids were, they played along and each summer, they returned and the cast of characters inside did too. George Gogian’s daughter, Marge, could be seen grabbing dinner with a man they described as “her best friend, a man in overalls and a trucker hat.” The scenes here became integral parts of Kataria and Erickson’s upbringings, and the pair couldn’t let The Turk’s Inn go. They can’t specify what exactly it was that captivated them.
“We ended up buying everything at auction,” Kataria explains. When The Turk’s Inn shuttered in 2014, Kataria and Erickson ventured north to Hayward, Wisconsin—as they did numerous times as kids. Only this time it was to bid at the estate sale. It began with an 800-pound neon sign and the restaurant’s trademark bar, and ended with a semi-truck arriving at Erickson’s parents’ cabin—where everything was stored for five years. Kataria was studying law at the time, and Erickson was working at his father’s music venue. Still enamored by the The Turk’s Inn, they plotted to re-open it.
“At the end, the glory days were definitely behind it,” Erickson says. “The fumes were everywhere though,” Kataria adds. “You could just see the heyday. For instance, these photographs,” he says pointing to a pair of black and white photos on the wall. “That was a good time. Whatever night that was, it was a good time. Dressed as he is, with his shish kebab over coals, this is a really good time. It was so strong. It pervaded the entire space. I think it’s what really captivated us. It’s this way of living, this way of hanging out. It represented some of the values of high-design and adventurous aesthetic—the patterns, colors, textures, food and drink. It was kind of revelry.”
The pair hopes to resurrect the experience they loved with eccentric design that carries over into the food, but are aware their iteration of The Turk’s Inn needs to appeal to a younger, potentially more discerning NYC crowd.
When you enter their Turk’s Inn, you’re instantly faced with the odd sensation of stepping onto carpeted floor—almost unheard of for a restaurant opening in 2019, but an important element of the original experience. In fact, they sought out a custom carpenter to replicate the original pattern.
That mindset isn’t unique to the floor. As you walk through the space, the line between original pieces and newly added objects is blurred. There is an obvious design lens here, and it does well in not succumbing to its own kitschiness. The design choices feel purposeful and consistent—even a yearbook-like portrait of a cat (which came from Kataria’s apartment) seems at home on the wall above one of the restaurant’s biggest booths.
“It’s very much ours,” Kataria says. “We’re introducing it to this new neighborhood, in 2019, and we have to make a contemporary offering to these people. We’re translating what this place was, and the inspiration that we took from it. We have to transmit this story, but in doing that, you’re making it your own interpretation. This isn’t a shrine. It’s not a museum, but part of this place is telling the story. It’s trying to capture its spirit.”
“It’s also very important to say that we didn’t invent it,” Kataria continues. “We’re taking something that was created well before our time, something that captivated us and we’re now transmitting that to a new generation. There are other aspects of this facility that are much more our own, too. The Turk’s Inn was our muse for this specific space, and then we had to develop a design language that we could extend to these other spaces that didn’t really exist. But the motifs of mid-east and midwest, mid-century and future pervade the entire space.”
When The Turk’s Inn opens this week, its to-go counter, music venue and rooftop will too. “The ideal night here begins with not being able to get a table right away, so you have to take a seat at the bar. Then you have an amazing dinner. You catch a show afterward, or a dance party, and then it’s late and you end up here,” Kataria says as he gestures toward a corner of the rooftop that’ll be selling kebabs well into the night.
Across from him is The Turk’s Inn’s neon sign—now battered and a bit like a lost memory. The original’s history is well-conveyed, but it cannot be understated that this opening is also a powerful debut from two first-time restaurateurs. The food they’re serving isn’t quite Turkish, and their space isn’t just a restaurant. Just like the original, it’s a collision of many things—precisely as intended.
“We’ve also inserted ourselves into the Turk’s story,” Erickson adds. “We’re the stewards now. It was George the Turk, Marge and now we’re carrying the torch.”
“I like to say that this is our 81st year of being open,” Kataria concludes.
Images courtesy of Turk’s Inn