In 2012, Laura O’Neill and Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen, co-founders of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, opened a restaurant in Greenpoint. They called it Selamat Pagi, “good morning” in Indonesian. The menu was inspired by cuisine from that region and was also largely vegan. Behind the restaurant’s main dining room, the company produced every ounce of its organic and vegan pints.
“When we took over the space and it had a kitchen we said, ‘Let’s do an Indonesian restaurant,’ and that became Selamat,” O’Neill told me recently, sitting at the table near the front window in the restaurant’s new and much more casual re-design. Selamat, then, was more of a pet- than passion-project when it opened, and looked pleasantly yet more predictably Brooklyn: Scandinavian-inspired, with a combination of old and new fixtures—original pressed-tin walls on one hand, and muted minimal finishes on the other.
Recently, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream moved its over-burdened production operation behind the dining room to a 5,000 square foot warehouse in Greenpoint. As a result, the restaurant was able to double its floor space and get a makeover that better reflected the co-founders’s current tastes. Primarily, that meant a focus on creating a more fun yet still minimal look. And through large and unpainted particle board booths in front, palm-frond wallpaper, and neon lighting cast throughout, they’ve achieved it.
Following the vision of design firm Carpenter & Mason, O’Neill, along with the help of her staff and some very talented woodworkers, undertook the project alone. The work was cosmetic but extensive, and completed in just a couple of weeks. “We didn’t want to lose sales for more than two weeks, and didn’t want the team to not be able to make any money,” O’Neill told me, as we both sipped on a Soju-based Bird of Paradise that was frothy, buttery yellow from passion fruit, and topped with a sprig of mint.
To push things forward as quickly as possible, O’Neill became the de-facto project manager. “It was fun, too, renting all the equipment around here—everything you could ever want is in these streets: sanders, a lumber yard. At G.T. Rentals you can rent for the day for just 30 bucks,” said O’Neill. Plus, she was gifted with a ready and willing staff. “Everyone had done a ton of DIY stuff in the past. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, just show me where and how you want it.’
At that point we were munching on some Selamat classics—spring rolls with greens as wraps, pumpkin coconut curry, and a vegan dish called the Bali Bowl with lentils, papaya salad, and a veggie paté. “People get married to dishes, and when you take them away they get really upset,” O’Neill observed, explaining why the menu, in additon to the space, had not been given complete reboot. I noticed a blue dot on the floor, a remnant from the prior space. “I was sanding the floor, and we did it by hand around the perimeter,” she said, which accounted for its imperfections. But of course, that’s the charm of D.I.Y.: You see the love in the work.
“It was fun, too, renting all the equipment around here—everything you could ever want is in these streets.”
O’Neill sourced all the materials from diverse and often cheap sources. The magnetic wallpaper design from Visual Magnetics came via her friend Ame Cotton, who is a textile designer at Liz Casella studio. “They gave us a good deal because they haven’t done a lot of restaurants,” said O’Neill of the non-permanent wallpaper company. The low-hung wicker lampshades above the bar came from Etsy; O’Neill’s boyfriend and bandmate, Greg Yagolnitzer, who is an artist and animator by day, designed the neon palm tree in back, and O’Neill chose a local fabricator to produce it.
Carpenter & Mason designed the large, rudimentary benches that fill up the front dining room. While the plan was to sand and paint the particle board and poplar frames they’re made from, O’Neill never got to it. “I think it looks better raw. It’s a huge part of the look,” she said. “The priority was not to get the highest-end material. It was like, let’s use better materials where it matters, and not worry about it where it doesn’t.” That took some guts, I thought, not to worry too much about being fancy, especially around here. “Restaurants are kind of smoke and mirrors, you know what I mean? It’s commercial use, so it has to be hard-wearing.” And while the marble tabletops might look fancy, they were the cheapest of all—free—leftover from their new ice cream production space, which had been an old marble warehouse.
I commented that it must take a fearless personality to do what O’Neill and the Van Leeuwen brothers have done: Build an internationally-known ice cream brand and neighborhood favorite restaurant in less than a decade—and make it look easy. I wondered, being master of her own projects for so long, could she operate any other way?
In response, O’Neill described seeing a man recently on a cigarette break near the Holland Tunnel. “He looked at his watch, and I knew he was thinking about his shift, and how many minutes he had on it,” she reflected. It was that feeling of being stuck in a job that she didn’t like that she wanted to avoid, and why she created a life that she could be in control of.
So while she may be, in a sense, never not working—the work itself? That, she conceded with her casual smile, has never been the problem. “I’m still a pretty good worker bee.”