A few months ago, a man woke up to a disorientating view outside the window of his apartment in industrial Bushwick, New York. He suddenly found himself face-to-face with a tender childhood memory and the exact glowing neon sign of the storied “Turk’s Inn” supper club from Hayward, Wisconsin, 1,250 miles away. That the recently shuttered, century-old crown jewel of his hometown could seemingly have moved overnight seemed impossible – which is where restaurateurs Varun Kataria and Tyler Erickson come in. “When I heard that [our neighbour] was from Hayward, Wisconsin, well, it was amazing. Pretty trippy actually,” said Kataria, who has spent the last five years rebuilding the joint in NYC, “But that was the goal. You’re meant to walk through the doors of this place and feel out of time and out of space. whether you come here and know of its history, or come and think wow, I’ve never seen anything like this, yet it still feels familiar.”
Mission accomplished. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you enter the Turk’s Inn, but it’s akin to a warm and fuzzy hug for your eyeballs. Maybe it’s because I have a Midwestern mother who fed me on stories of Polish dance halls and supper clubs in the lush, humid woods of her childhood. Yet, you don’t have to be a supper club connoisseur to ‘get’ what the Turk’s Inn is trying to offer. It will happily unfold its story for you…
The original Turk’s Inn was founded in 1934 by George “the Turk” Gogian, an Armenian man who was born in Istanbul and moved to the Midwest. “He talked about selling eggs and potatoes, or about having a chocolate shop that folded during the Depression,” Kataria says. “It’s a total American Dream story, how he charmed his way through things.” The good old fruits of luck, pluck, and a lot of hard work as they say.
“People loved this guy,” says Kataria, “they wanted him to succeed, and he did. It was through some help of local townspeople that he was able to establish his supper club, which was originally called Giorg’s Iron Kettle – you know, he had taken over someone else’s ‘Iron Kettle’ restaurant – and then it became “The Turk’s Inn.”
A parade of framed faces crowd the walls of the supper club today in Bushwick, but one face stands out in particular: that of a cool, elegant woman known as “Marge,” who was Gogian’s daughter and the last proprietor of the supper club.
Marge was a painfully chic woman, and working as a fashion designer in New York until the family business beckoned her home. “I think her father couldn’t bear to have her away,” says Kataria. “I think he had some health troubles. Anyway, there were no kids, no next of kin, and when she died it was the end of the line.”
Kataria and Erickson are from Minneapolis, and jumped at the chance to effectively save the Turk’s Inn when it went up at auction five years ago. “We bought it without a set plan of what to do,” says Kataria in the warm glow of the dining area, “just knowing we had to keep it going. But it became pretty clear that it would be a restaurant.”
“So for us, it was a question of a rescue mission. This collection was going to be disbanded, which is why we willy-nilly bid on everything. We didn’t have a specific intention at that time other than keeping it all together, and took that leap.” Thank heavens they did, ‘cause now we can take a bite.
Now, we need to talk about the décor. For one, the boys have incorporated Marge’s original drawings into the graphics of the joint (she’d hand paint all of her Christmas cards), lined up all of Gogian’s beer steins, and fully committed to recreating the narrative of the original Turk’s Inn by weaving in its treasures with their own. The result is a place that’s not just a dinner spot, but a destination – much like the first Turk’s Inn.
“It wasn’t in the town, and it wasn’t amongst other businesses,” Kataria says. “It was on its own out there, with a view of the Namekagon River. There were peacocks roaming the grounds. They say [Gogian] planted 50,000 trees on his property. It’s crazy, but it was this barren farm where he had his little kingdom.”
There are no peacocks in Bushwick, granted, but there are endless retro delights. Some walls – we repeat, walls – have shag carpet. One bathroom has Smurf wallpaper, and audio interviews with Gorgian are on loop in all lavatories. Kataria also made sure that the proportions of the dining area are slightly more Midwestern (expect a little more elbow room, he says, than in a typical New York restaurant). The original supper club was built into a Gogian’s estate with different rooms, with each promising a different fantasy (i.e. the “Harem Room”), and in that respect, the Turk’s Inn has gleefully followed suite, with narrative layered into every bit of upholstery. “[The Gogians] had so much stuff, we don’t even have 1/5th of it on display” says Kataria, leading the way into an ethereal stairway lined with Marge’s chinoiserie. He had it backdropped with head-to-toe malachite wallpaper, and topped the room off with a jewel tone ceiling. The effect is rather like being in a hallway by the late, great designer Tony Duquette – a life sized jewellery box.
The restaurant is the heartbeat of the operation, promising an enticing menu of moussaka, lamb meatballs, and more, but there’s also a venue for live music, “The Sultan Room,” a dreamy rooftop garden space, and an open-til-the-wee-hours kebab spot.
“The reason that it’s all of these things, and not just any one of them, is because we want it all,” Kataria says. “People want it all. You can come and have dinner, meander into a show experience, take it to the rooftop and then have a kebab as a midnight snack. The décor isn’t meant to distract you from anything else. It’s meant to show you that a great amount of care was put into this experience, and that you can expect that out of the food as well.”
The concept of a supper club might be foreign to the millennial set that flocks to Bushwick. Frankly, it can be foreign to anyone outside of the Midwest. “Oh, I loved them. It was a big deal,” said my own Midwestern mom, “People didn’t go out to dinner every night back then like they do now. It was special.” Kataria agrees. It wasn’t quite fancy, he reiterates, but it was an affair: “A supper club is a unique species of restaurant. They’re kind of a community centre as well, and the only place for miles around. There’ll be a quirk to their personality, or a theme. The Turk’s Inn was oriental-kitsch, for example. They’re usually cocktail-forward, and have a fish fry on Fridays, and a relish tray, which we have, to start your meal. They’re courteous, and friendly. A duality of high-brow and low-brow. You could easily find someone in a tux with tails, or someone in camo.”
It’s been just over a month since its renaissance, and already locals are treating the Turk’s Inn like a second living room, which is exactly what Kataria and Erickson intended. “It’s not built to make you move quickly,” he says, “It’s built to make you sink in a little bit.” And how could you not? The bar was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, and once welcomed President John F. Kennedy at its counter. Gogian’s original collection of commemorative presidential plates hangs above one booth, to which Kataria has also added President Obama. “It’s cool to just take this thing that we loved and inject ourselves into it,” he says, “Inevitably you have to, it’s an interpretation after all. We want to really tell people, and show people, that this was, and is, a real place built around real lives.”