It's a torrid Tuesday night on the western fringes of Soho, not far from the languorous Hudson River, and I'm desperately craving a cold beer. To find one, I enter Mediterranean-leaning restaurant 508 NYC (508 Greenwich St. at Spring St., 508nyc.com), where suited men sit at the bar and slurp oysters and pints of amber-hued brews. They look delectable, but those aren't my desired suds. I saunter to the eatery's rear. Standing sentry-like before the kitchen is Anderson Sant'anna de Lima, the restaurant's bespectacled co-owner and chef, his arms tattooed as colorfully as a 1940s sailor, his wallet attached to a chain.
"Follow me," he says, leading me past slicing, dicing cooks and to a stairwell. Step by step, I descend underground. The initial sights include several boxes of root vegetables and a silver sink large enough to wash an 8-year-old. But there, nestled in the corner, is cooking gear so shiny, so unlikely that I do a double take: a brew kettle. To my right, sacks of grains are stacked like body bags. It looks like… "Welcome to my brewery," says Sant'anna de Lima, breaking into a broad grin. He leads me to an air-conditioned room filled with dual plastic fermentation tanks and 5-gallon kegs brimming with malty brown ales, coffee-flavored porters and sweetly potent Belgian ales. "Want to try a beer?" he asks. You know the answer.
In New York City, brewpubs are rarer than an on-time G train. Outside of Eataly and Chelsea Brewing Company, there's nowhere to nab house-made craft beer and food. It's criminal. Though New York boasts gobs of globetrotting restaurants, fancy-pants cocktail joints and beer bars stocked with rare elixirs, brewpubs number just two. Two! This won't do. Compared to brewpub-packed towns such as Portland, Ore., and Asheville, N.C., New York is a backwater 'burg.
Partly, this can be explained by space.
A brewery requires copious square footage to store equipment, raw materials and beer. A big space costs big bucks. Secondly, there's the issue of licensing. Acquiring a New York liquor license is a legendary slog, but navigating the red tape necessary to brew and sell suds is an Orwellian struggle. "It took a lot of work, patience and lawyer fees," Sant'anna de Lima says of his year-plus odyssey, "but in the end we got the license. We make our own food. It only seemed natural to make our own beer, too."
Before he brewed, Sant'anna de Lima cooked. In the 1990s, the Parsons grad and Brazil native worked for an advertising firm. Seventy- and 80-hour workweeks blazed a path to burnout. "I quit and started cooking, kept cooking and cooked some more," he recalls. "It was what I was made to do." After toiling in Manhattan kitchens, he and his wife, fellow chef Jennifer Lynn Hill, moved to Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands, to run the restaurant Barracuda. Beach living was a sunny idyll, but the couple were unable to escape Manhattan's magnetic lure. After noticing a listing for a single-room restaurant in western SoHo, they put in an offer. It was accepted. They returned to New York and installed a menu of handmade pastas, seafood and small plates including Coxinhas, which are fried Brazilian croquettes encasing a stewed chicken-cream cheese core. Not long after, Sant'anna de Lima, a fan of craft beers like lemony hefeweizens and bitter India pale ales, started daydreaming of brewing. "I'd love to make my own beer," he mused to his wife. His wish had the hallmark of idle chatter. Except his wife decided to force his hand. One day, Sant'anna de Lima's doorman informed him that he had a package. Inside, he found a homebrew kit. His brewery's seeds were officially planted.
When I say brewery, I'm being generous with my description. At 508, Sant'anna de Lima has a one-barrel brewing system, meaning he cranks out about two standard kegs with each batch. To up his output he brews the same beer twice, then consigns it to the cold room's fermentation tanks where it conditions till ready for consumption. His carbonated creations, such as the light and lovely hefeweizens and a porter gently flavored with Kona coffee beans, will populate 508's six draft lines, elbowing aside all commercial offerings. Also available are bottled brews, including a dry, brightly citrusy IPA and an English-influenced strong ale that's a perfect mate for the restaurant's tender ribs. In the end, it's the mingling of homemade food and beer that sets 508 apart, creating a new breed of New York restaurant.
"We're not a gastropub," Sant'anna de Lima says. "We're a gastrobrewery."