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How A New York Restaurant Reconnected With The Neighborhood

All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Seamless. Celebrating the Perks of being a NYer, Seamless is delivering New York restaurants to your door with Presto! Resto! curated by The Infatuation—including Di An Di. Find out how to win a visit. Plus get free-delivery on Seamless orders from Di An Di between 4/9 – 4/18 using code DIANDI.

Dennis Ngo is a first-generation Vietnamese-American chef who grew up in Houston. After working in New York restaurants for ten years, in 2018, Ngo and his partners opened Di An Di restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint.

In early 2020, we were riding the wave of all the hard work and success that we’d been able to achieve. We were in discussion with a big New York City restaurateur to open a new Vietnamese restaurant. We were in talks with a hotel chain to do a Di An Di in the Middle East. We thought we had the whole year planned out. Then March happened, and everything fell apart.

We only closed for two days. What makes our restaurant so great is the team that we have and the people that are so committed. Fortunately for us, we had a certain group of people that felt comfortable working and wanted to work. We took the opportunity and tried to make lemonade out of lemons. I told everybody, “We don’t have to bat 100 percent. We’ve got to bat about 25 percent here. Let’s try a lot of different ideas and see what sticks and what doesn’t. Get over it about failing. We’re going to have lots of failures.”

Being very flexible really did help us get through that time. I’m sure if you scroll through our Instagram, you’ll see that we tried a ton of different things—meal kits, online classes, et cetera, et cetera. Ideas we thought were going to be down the road for us got prioritized immediately. I thought it was great for us to build that experience and see what worked and what didn’t. And while not all those initiatives ended up working out, it did give us a breadth of experience that we stored in our back pocket for the future.

Di An Di partners Tuan Bui, Dennis Ngo, and Kim Hoang. Photo: Courtesy Dennis Ngo.

We’re friendly with the firm that is producing and constructing the Seamless Presto! Resto! mobile restaurant experience. So I was excited to learn that we’d be working with them again, as I know they do very high quality work with an attention to detail—which as a chef is something I can appreciate and relate to. They recently shared with us a sneak peek, and it completely exceeded my already high expectations. It immediately got my creative juices going and inspired me to see what fun and inventive things I could do as a chef to make sure that the food experience matches the interior design that they have so faithfully recreated.

Delivery and takeout was not a service we had provided before the pandemic. Not that we didn’t want to do it—just that a lot of the menu at the time didn’t lend itself to travel. One of our most popular dishes was the grilled rice paper pizza. That has a shelf life of two minutes. A lot of our menu is based around those kinds of dishes. We knew that wouldn’t work, so coincidentally, in December 2019 we started trying to figure out a compelling delivery menu to supplement our dine-in revenue.

We settled on some basics—things that travel well, like soups. We had been working through December, January, and February to get it all set up on the Seamless platform, get all the photos taken, and so on. We launched delivery earlier in that week before the mayor made the lockdown announcement. We launched delivery on Thursday, and then on Friday, dine-in was limited to 50 percent. Then by Sunday, you could only do delivery and takeout. It was just dumb luck that we had almost two months of lead time to set up the infrastructure—all the paperware, the bags—so we could run delivery and takeout.

After lockdown, we were just trying to find opportunities to serve our local community here in Greenpoint. Most people hunkered down and stayed within the neighborhood. That was a cool byproduct of it all, when people started coming back outside towards the spring and the summer, enjoying the sunshine instead of being cooped up in the house all throughout winter. We tried lots of different little things on our patio. We tried casual takeaway, or going down the pantry route. We were able to get a little bit of success there, which helped us realize that we should double down on that effort. So we’re actually going to launch a more well-planned-out grocery store-pantry concept.

All those things helped us drive the decisions that we’re making now, and how we are as a restaurant now. I don’t even know quite yet what things are going to look like later this year or into next year, because I think the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we want to do business and what our menu is going to look like. But the delivery and takeout model has been great for us. It’s something that we’re accustomed to, and we’ve developed the expertise. That’s a revenue stream I don’t ever want to give up.

Photo: Kate Previte.

Customers come to Di An Di for the food, and they also come here for the design and the vibe and the aesthetic. It has a lot to do with me and my partners being first-generation Vietnamese Americans—our parents immigrated here during the war to escape persecution. We really wanted to be rooted in Vietnamese culture and tradition, but then stepping past the traditional Vietnamese restaurant. We’re in this weird spot, like most first-generation people are, in that we don’t necessarily have that connection with our home country, but sometimes we don’t necessarily feel like Americans either. It didn’t necessarily feel right to us to have this restaurant that relies on very traditional Vietnamese aesthetics. It came down to staying true to our roots, but also providing an experience that is more what people are accustomed to here in Brooklyn—something that is very comfortable, but still very high design.

Our outdoor setup is probably the tenth iteration of that design. We started very bare bones, with a couple of traffic barriers and stools and plastic tables that were very similar to what you’d see in Vietnam—a kind of street aesthetic. We realized that it looked cool, but it really didn’t match our philosophy of design. So it was a process, like for most restaurants during that time. It was a calculation—how much can I invest in this? How long is it going to last? Once we got some clarity from our local authorities that outdoor street dining would be here for the foreseeable future, we felt comfortable investing some money, time, and resources to make sure that our outdoor spaces match the level of aesthetic that we have in our indoor space.

For me as a chef, what’s interesting with the outdoor space is how I can utilize it for food and food experiences. It’s an opportunity to have an outdoor space that lends itself to a lot of interesting, unique styles of eating that are common in the Vietnamese culture, but that we aren’t necessarily able to do inside our restaurant. Last year we launched this barbeque series with tabletop grilling. It’s very similar to the Korean style that a lot of Southeast Asian cultures have embraced. That was a new experience for us. I’m really looking forward to bringing it back this upcoming season and iterating and building on top of that. I could see a world where the outdoor space has its own particular vibe and its own particular menu, and when we start to resume indoors, indoors has its own style menu as well. There are new experiences within the restaurant that we want to share with people here in New York. That’s the stuff that really gets me excited.