Ray Abeyta goes way back with Williamsburg. The 56-year-old painter arrived in New York from New Mexico in 1986. A few years later, he met his future wife Alyssa and, together with Zeb Stewart, they opened local fixtures Union Pool and later Hotel Delmano. The couple (separated but still friendly) and their teenage children have been fixtures at many Williamsburg haunts — including Five Leaves, where Ray has been a regular since the start.
Five Leaves began as the brainchild of part-owner Jud Mongell and actor Heath Ledger. Before its opening in 2008, though, Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose. Despite that tragedy, the elegantly rustic bar-restaurant ascended to make the intersection of Bedford, Lorimer and Nassau a destination. On the weekends, throngs of customers crowd the sidewalk waiting to experience it.
We spoke with Abeyta not long after another untimely death: the sad and surprising suicide of his friend Colin Devlin, whose restaurant, DuMont, helped pave the way for the type of casual fine dining featured at Five Leaves.
Five Leaves starts and you got Jud, [his wife] Kathy [Mecham], Heath Ledger, they’re gonna open up their own joint. They get toward the finish line, and then Heath dies. And they’re like, What are we gonna do? That was a big chunk of the money. But then of course, Heath’s family stood up and finished up what their son started. And they opened by the skin of their teeth.
I didn’t go to opening night because I knew it’d be a big clusterfuck. But I came afterwards. I got up at sunrise one day, and I wanted to go for a motorcycle ride. So I hopped on my 1968 Triumph and went bombin’ around Brooklyn. All of a sudden I felt: I need coffee. I was all the way down past Coney Island and I was like, there’s nothing down here. So I come back to Williamsburg, and I see [the barista] Carlos outside, sweeping up and setting up tables. I just roll up on the sidewalk on my motorcycle and say, “Dude! Make me some coffee!” He’s like, “Come on in, man!” That was my first hang here. It was the most pleasant thing. It was just him and I. The sun was just comin’ up.
Coffee geeks can be really annoying, especially those baristas who think their coffee don’t stank. Sometimes it does, man. And your attitude stinks. I don’t want my coffee as bitter as my fuckin’ barista, man. These guys are so anti-that. They’re just cool, chill, efficient. You get an espresso from them and it’s got that beautiful crème on there. The heat’s just right. That is an excellent cup of coffee. And it comes without the attitude.
The place is really popular and for good reason. I rarely do brunch because I don’t get up that early. But if I do want to come by I know how to squeeze in at the bar usually. Or I’ll just come in here, grab my coffee, and just sit on the sidewalk. I’ll get a milk crate from around the office and just sit down outside, man. I’m a patient guy and I understand that the neighborhood is a different neighborhood, and places are a lot crazier and busier.
This neighborhood is like the navel of the universe. Everybody winds up here. And you bump into the most random, amazing people sometimes. And places like Five Leaves provide those weirdly magnetic locations where people are attracted. What they do best is they give us our cosmic living rooms.
I’ve known Jud since he used to work with Colin from DuMont who just passed away. We did a little thing for [Colin] the other night. More like immediate friends. Just trying to wrap your brain around that kind of shit…Meredith [Chesney] who has Mousey Brown brought up the financial aspect of what was buggin’ [Colin] out, and how so many of us moved to this neighborhood all those years back and started up these little places because we needed places to go. We wanted cool places, and we had aspirations to make cool things happen. And then the commercial lease business in New York got so out of control that the little business that you opened up for two thousand dollars a month in rent, all of a sudden your lease is up and that shit is $30,000 dollars a month. And what happens to your world?
Granted, I’m the fucking kiss of death. Because once an artist moves into a neighborhood everything else follows: cool restaurants, cool bars, cool people. And then New York being New York – or any fuckin’ city – all the tourists and the looky-loos, they all wanna come and hang out. You see [Five Leaves] on the weekends; it’s all weekend warriors.
I’ve shown up here at ungodly hours of the morning, just fucked out of our brains. Me and my boys should not be in here. All the civilians are here having their eggs and coffee and we’re like, “Grapefruit margaritas, motherfucker!” We’ve been up all night and up to no good doing every number of illegal substances. That’s when your regulars can be your biggest pain in your ass. When you own bars, your friends and your family are your tightest bunch, but they’re the ones who are gonna be pissin’ at the bar because they don’t want to go to the bathroom. They’re the ones that are gonna be startin’ fights. They drink too much and get annoyed when you cut them off.
I’m not a nostalgic person. I love the things I’ve done in the past, but my present is so fucking amazing. Having seen all my buddies dying, those guys are gone. We’re not here for a long time, so we have to be here for a good time. This present moment is all we’ve got. Like right now: to talk about the places we love. What could be better than that?