How could this be? When it opened in 2001 as a sister of Bliss Cafe, The Pod was one of the slickest restaurants in what was then Williamsburg’s fledgling dining scene. Like its neighbors Planet Thailand and Sea, it boasted the sort of transportive design details (video projections above the bar!) that made Brooklyn Paper, in the only review I could find, call it “a glamorous newcomer to the Williamsburg restaurant scene, [with] an Austin Powers-like vibe that inspires the imagination.” But while you can still visit Sea and its Star Trek-esque transporter bathrooms with video monitors inside, Pod came and went. It was as if a spaceship had briefly docked on North 7th Street, beamed me up inside of it, spat me back out and vanished back into the ether.
And trust me, I was starting to feel like a UFO conspiracy theorist. During conversations with fellow New York nostalgics, I’d bring up names from the lounge scene of that era: Do remember that place under the Manhattan Bridge, Fun, where cameras let you watch the women’s room from the men’s room? Or Remote Lounge, where you could chat with fellow bar-goers via surveillance cams? Void? Baktun? All of those names elicited, “Oh, yeeeeaaahhs.” But when I mentioned The Pod, I just got frowns and shrugs.
“You really don’t remember? It looked kind of like that house Alex and his droogs raid in A Clockwork Orange.”
“Are you thinking of Korova Milk Bar, in the East Village?”
“Nooooo, The Pod!”
Recently, while digging through my matchbook collection, I found proof that I hadn’t imagined it. There it was: a Pod matchbook with the restaurant’s URL. Using the Wayback Machine, I unearthed its old website. The “multilevel playground” described itself in part as a “lime-green capsule,” and its archived site was also a lime-green time capsule, complete with an events calendar stuck on October of 2001 and an equally dated menu. (Butternut squash soup, anyone?) The photos, however, were too small to convey much beyond the place’s aggressive orange-and-chartreuse color scheme. So I found myself calling The Pod’s architect.
Thomas Leeser has designed museums and cultural centers around the world, and was recently featured in New York magazine as the architect behind “Brooklyn’s coolest new office space.” Back when his firm was called upon to design Pod, the owners wanted an Irish pub. He convinced them to do something a little funkier. “The theme was suburban,” he explained of the concept they landed on. “It was a tongue-in-cheek joke on Williamsburg being the suburbs of Manhattan.”
But this was Eero Saarinen’s version of the suburbs. Visitors would enter Pod through a glass façade featuring massive prints of trees (they were never executed).
As Leeser remembers it, building-code issues prevented the sunken bar from opening, and it sat behind plywood, in limbo. Otherwise, the interior was executed more or less as his firm intended, and the bathrooms ended up on a “top ten” list alongside the loos that the architect later designed for a Chelsea lounge, Glass. (At Glass, which won a James Beard Foundation “Best Design Award,” a live video feed of the coed sinks was projected onto the exterior façade, for everyone on the sidewalk to see).
In 2003, Architectural Record bestowed design awards on The Pod, Glass, and another lounge Leeser’s firm had designed, Bot, in Little Italy. In an accompanying article, Bot was predictably described as “part Clockwork Orange and part 2001.”
When I asked Leeser whether he had been influenced by Kubrick, he mentioned the Museum of the Moving Image, which he designed shortly after Pod. “When you’re in the theater you feel like you’re in the spaceship [from 2001],” he said. Around the time of Pod, Leeser was playing with the idea that “the walls and floors and ceiling should be continuous.” That way you could project images onto all surfaces.
Still, design awards don’t keep a restaurant in business. Architectural Record noted that it was “a sign of Manhattan’s outward migration when a restaurant touting ‘world-influenced cuisine with Malaysian and Latin twists’ opens on North Seventh Street, opposite a roofing contractor’s garage and a mixed batch of three-story houses.”
The way Leeser sees it, Pod was a little too Manhattan (though, according to eGullet review in 2002, its chef Darrell Raymond, now cooking with Marcus Samuelsson, actually grew up in Williamsburg). “They ruined this place by introducing expensive food,” he told me. “They made steak au poivre, which in those days was not Williamsburg at all.”
It didn’t help that Pod opened shortly before the September 11 attacks put a major damper on the city’s dining scene. The place closed within a couple of years, and while it’s never mentioned in the same breath as Galapagos or Planet Thailand when people recall the Hipster Handbook era of Williamsburg, it does live on in the video for Ricky Martin’s 2001 single “Loaded,” in which he bar-hops around the city. Skip to the 2:13 mark and you’ll see him living la vida loca at the bar.