A true labor of love, Aunts et Uncles is a welcoming, bright, all-day cafe-restaurant and lifestyle store in Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean neighborhood that opened for business in peak pandemic times in late 2020. It’s since become a neighborhood hotspot after attracting rave reviews from The New Yorker in May 2021 and The New York Times in December—each one bringing an influx of new customers.
The vegan restaurant is the result of its husband-wife owners, Michael and Nicole Nicholas, talking through myriad formats, locations, and vibes for the very personal passion project for a solid eight years. As early as 2016, the couple bounced around food-meets-fashion business possibilities.
“We’re both creatives, so we thought, ‘why don’t we take our passions for design, entertaining, and art and put it in one space that’s an extension of our home?’” says Nicole. “Everytime our friends and family get together, it’s always at our house.” Throughout the many iterations, there was a guiding non-negotiable: The couple “needed a space where we could see ourselves, and that represented us,” Michael says.
They landed on an all-day cafe format, largely spurred by Nicole’s experience working late nights in bars and nightclubs that grew tiresome. “Everybody thought we’d open a bar or nightclub, but there’s something about connection that I love, and you don’t get that in those kinds of loud, dark spaces,” Nicole says. “When we sit in the space and watch people enjoy it, it all feels worth it.”
Customers range from neighborhood locals to folks from all around NYC to areas much further afield, like a few diners from Germany, who traveled 45 minutes from where they were staying in Manhattan to check out Aunts et Uncles. Here’s what to expect at this Caribbean sensation.
The Aunts et Uncles menu includes cleverly reimagined Caribbean classics sans meat, such as a seafood-free bake and saltfish, a vegan riff on Jamaican beef patties (a collab with next door neighbor, Immaculee Bakery), and mofongo along with comfort food like truffled mac and cheese, a Beyond Meat burger, and a lobster roll that swaps hearts of palm for shellfish. Playful cocktails highlight tropical ingredients such as sorrel and passionfruit.
Aunts et Uncles’ concept actually started percolating over five years ago, long before the innovative space and format came to be, when the couple began experimenting in their home kitchen with recipes for vegan takes on their favorite island fare, tinkering with how to accomplish healthier, plant-based versions of the flavorful meals.
Ample trial and error went into many dishes to nail things like the texture and taste of the bake and saltfish. Michael tried soaking the hearts of palm overnight in kelp and nori to get a seafood flavor, but the kelp would dissolve and turn the hearts of palm green. They ultimately landed on an oceanic-tasting vegan dry rub that’s used for the lobster roll, too.
“What we didn’t want was to open a vegan Caribbean restaurant that’s a straight recreation of what you’d get in a traditional Caribbean restaurant,” Michael says, to avoid people comparing the vegan riffs to the non-vegan original dishes. “We’re Caribbean so it naturally has that vibe to it, but there’s all these other dishes we enjoy and are going to put you onto—that’s it,” he says.
The couple worked with their friend, architect Manuel Garza of Et Al. Collaborative, to design the hip, colorful space with “warm colors that remind us of the Caribbean, while also having a cool, calm feel,” Nicole says.
The trio explored at least seven different configurations, like a communal table instead of a bar or a wall separating the retail and cafe, and myriad color options (i.e. a sage green- or black-tiled bar) before landing on the current setup. The space effortlessly segues from sunny, airy daytime hangout to nighttime supper destination via dimmer, amber-hued lighting, that leads to a “really nice, different dinner crowd,” Michael says.
Aunts et Uncles is open for reservations Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Don’t miss unique community-centric programming, like The Litual, a literature-themed month-long Thursday night series featuring unique, off-menu cocktails and dishes such as kimchi fried rice and tostadas.