A few months ago, during the darkest days of pandemic winter, Cami Jetta finally decided to take the plunge. For years she had been dreaming about opening some sort of restaurant, and then this past winter she kept walking by what seemed like the perfect small space on South Portland Street near her Fort Greene apartment, the storefront where Pequena used to be before getting shuttered by the pandemic.
“Things started really percolating then,” Jetta told Gothamist. “I think my two great passions in life are bringing people together and food, so the thought of creating a headspace where people feel comfortable and welcome and beautiful and excited while they eat a great meal is irresistible. And I think something specifically about this space is so inviting, it just kind of calls people in.”
So even though Jetta’s never been a professional chef, nor owned a restaurant (her last job was as a fundraiser for the American Museum of Natural History), the terrific new Dinner Party was born.
To get started this summer, Jetta and her crew are serving lavish, six-dish picnic lunches/suppers, packed up smartly in cardboard trays for easy transport to, and dining within, Fort Greene Park, just a block away. The $16 meal changes weekly, and always includes a vegetarian version. After devouring two of these al fresco feasts I can state with confidence that I’d be more than happy to eat anything Jetta serves up in the future.
Last week the meal was anchored by two different slices of sourdough flatbread, one topped with burrata, tangy tomato sauce, some funky soppressata, and a drizzle of hot honey; the other covered in creamy stracciatella, salty feta, sweet charred corn, and fennel for some bite. Both were great, especially when I forked on a bit of Jetta’s extra-lively zhoug—an homage to one of her favorite spots in her former home in Berkeley, Cheeseboard Pizza.
Accompanying the slices was a brightly-dressed kale salad festooned with flowers and a scattering of pickled radishes. Ripe peaches and sweet figs made for a lovely fruit course, and a pair of Jetta’s superb, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate madeleines was dessert. The latter came with a little love note (everyone gets one), which I thought was a cute touch. (I actually ate this meal twice last week, because I inadvertently deleted the photos the first time, and was delighted to do so.)
My second picnic supper was maybe even better, led by a pair of crisp-and-juicy fried chicken tenders served with an addictive serrano pepper aioli. Two classic summertime sides–one mound of vinegary potato salad, one mound of crunchy coleslaw–were the perfect companions to the bird, and the fruit was my first watermelon of the year, a nice refresher on a 93-degree evening. For dessert this time Jetta made a buttery strawberry-blueberry shortcake, and it ruled. This is all wonderfully fresh, full-flavored, delicious food.
As good as these picnics are, it’s only the beginning of Jetta’s plan. At some point this fall, Dinner Party will switch over to, as you can probably guess, serving a proper dinner, with three seatings a night at communal tables, and a set-menu of three courses plus some surprises.
“It is going to be a dinner party,” said Jetta, “but I envision it being much more than that, too. Our staff, Pilar, Emily, Karma, and Michelle, everyone’s an artist, so we also see it sort of as an event space, and an arts space.” Already the dining room wall has a lot of commissioned pieces by young, local artists.
All of this was conceived of and executed during the pandemic, of course, but since Jetta and her team had never opened a restaurant before, she doesn’t really know if it was more or less difficult than it would have been otherwise. COVID restrictions definitely forced her decision to start out with picnics, but, in hindsight, it worked to the team’s advantage, enabling them all to get their feet wet before trying to pull off sit-down dinners for 20, three times a night.
That doesn’t mean any of this has been easy. “My biggest challenge, really, is the crippling, constant imposter syndrome,” said Jetta. “But I just keep telling myself: ‘If I were a young man…’ Maybe it’s very girl-bossy to say that, but I think that men do equally and more audacious things all the time, they just open a tiny little restaurant so it’s like, what do I have to lose other than my life savings and several years? I have the most amazing team and I’ve never been happier. Or more exhausted, but other than that it’s literally a dream come true.”
Dinner Party is located at 86 South Portland Avenue, just south of Lafayette Street, and is currently open on Tuesday through Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., or until supplies last. Preordering strongly suggested, which you can do online, where you’ll also find the menu. Dinner service begins in the fall. (347-463-9173; dinnerpartybk.com)