Variety show: Tony Scherr belts out a song at Cafe 111 in Downtown Brooklyn while bandmate Tim Luntzel supports him on bass guitar during June 15 show.
The Brooklyn Papers / Gregory

Signs of life may soon creep into the nights
of Downtown Brooklyn, and a local restaurateur wants to be the
first to push and prod it into being.

Nando Ghorchian, who owns Cafe del Mar, Balzar, Caffe Buon Gusto
and the soon-to-open El Cubanito in Brooklyn Heights reinvented
another restaurant of his, the critically maligned Acqua on Court
Street, into Cafe 111, an eatery by day and free live music venue
by night.

"We did it for the future, really," he says of Cafe
111, which opened last December. "The neighborhood is really

He points to his soon-to-be neighbors, the dormitories and apartment
towers opening this fall on Atlantic Avenue, as proof that even
this part of Downtown Brooklyn, which traditionally has been
shuttered and empty by sunset, could support nightlife.

At the moment, Ghorchian’s ambitions appear to be modestly successful.
The cafe boasts a full calendar of three or four performers nightly,
most of whom play for tips and pleasure alone. Employees, musicians
and customers all agree that Cafe 111 has steadily drawn bigger
crowds since it opened, thanks to well-connected management who
bring noteworthy musicians from the surrounding neighborhoods.

"Nando’s given us free reins," says Aaron Whitby, the
music curator at Cafe 111, whose own credits include his own
record label, Blackfeet Productions, which released the acclaimed
debut album of Brooklyn Heights soul singer Martha Redbone last

Whitby says diversity is his goal, and by booking artists of
all styles, from R&B and soul to folk and rock to hip-hop,
he hopes to draw audiences from all backgrounds. Those styles
are loosely organized by the night of the week. Mondays and Wednesdays
are dedicated to jazz. Tuesdays and Thursdays are for singer-songwriters.
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays seem to offer everything else.

Whitby talks about other plans, too – live comedy, midnight sets
six nights a week and a "Bush Bashing Day" when the
Republican National Convention visits the city in late August.

The strategy is to draw three established crowds: Smith Street
diners; moviegoers leaving the cinema across the street; and
those Manhattanites fearless enough to venture one subway stop
into Brooklyn.

Of course, the real treat is for Brooklynites tired of trekking
into the city for music.

"It’s all the same bands that play at the Living Room,"
says Teddy Kumpel, a guitarist who plays here as Teddybut on
Tuesday nights, referring to the Lower East Side lounge. "Might
as well come here."

Live music at Cafe 111 is loud, but not overbearing. And partly
because the place is still in its infancy, crowds are light.
On a recent Tuesday night, the cafe’s slowest according to Whitby,
customers rarely numbered more than a dozen.

"I did back flips when this place opened," says Pete
Harris, a London-born promoter who runs harrisradio.com, an Internet
radio station, from his Brooklyn Heights home.

"It’s civilized. You’re not coming here to stand up in a
dark, dingy basement," Harris says. "You can bring
your mum."

Mum may approve, but the crew of Cafe 111 will need to untwist
a few kinks before they can reap her reward.

"It’s a hard situation. We have lunch with lawyers and judges,
so it can’t look like a bar," says Marta Blaszczak, the
general manager of Cafe 111. Still, she is trying to tweak the
environs to appeal to night owls.

Inside, the atmosphere is bordello red, from the painted walls
and the red velvet drapes that decorate the deeply recessed stage.
Candles and white Christmas lights dangling like moss set the

Detail is otherwise lacking. A random jumble of empty wine bottles
that decorates one precipice should be recycled. Most of the
bite-size paintings on the wall fail to evoke description.

Cafe 111 is privileged to have a back patio, but to get to that
coveted piece of real estate, one must walk a tight passage through
the kitchen.

"It’s OK. We have nothing to hide," says Blaszczak.
True, from all appearances, the kitchen is exceptionally clean.
But on a busy night, that corridor must be a nightmare. Try not
to startle any waitresses ladling cream of mushroom soup on your
way in or out.

Lastly, too much diversity can be messy.

"Part of their problem is they haven’t settled on a format
of music yet. People aren’t sure what they’ll get," says
Sean Fitzell, of Carroll Gardens, who came to watch the saxophonist
Michael Blake.

That night’s lineup seems to confirm that sense of schizophrenic
booking. The four acts included a world music combo; Teddybut,
who sings hokey, pun-laden songs by himself; a bluesy trio led
by Tony Scherr; and Jamaican reggae led by Blake.

In many ways, the booking is like the Cafe 111 burger. That sandwich,
a signature dish judging by its name, consists of a dense patty
awkwardly topped with fried onion rings, mozzarella and portobello
mushrooms. Fine ideas on their own, but not as tasty taken together.

Cafe 111 is located at 111 Court St.
at State Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Entrees: $6.95-$15.95.
All performances are free, and there is a two-drink minimum.
Cafe 111 accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Open
daily. For more information about upcoming performers, call (718)
858-2806 or visit the Web site at www.cafe111online.com.

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