How Two Jersey Girls Conquered Downtown NYC

As trendy restaurants come and go, few have the long-term draws to hold the attention of New York's restless, on-the-pulse crowd. And that's why Dimes, a two-year-old health-conscious eatery that's firmly planted its roots in Chinatown, is different. Its thirtysomething owners, business guru Sabrina De Sousa and chef Alissa Wagner, have placed more value on originality and the surrounding community than on orchestrating a “scene” (though the latter came anyway), an approach that's completely won over locals' hearts (and taste buds).

Though you'll still rub elbows with a dressed-down model or crop of man buns if you pop in on a Friday night, the duo has conscientiously crafted a locally sourced menu model to outlast its reign as a fashion-y destination du jour. (The peach toast with lavender goat cheese is a no-brainer, BTW.) It's a play that speaks to the real-life gal pals' more than 10 years of restaurant experience between them — and their predictable wellness geekdom. Less expected is that they're totally down to earth and actively in tune with Dimes' off-kilter neighborhood.

De Sousa and Wagner proved their unforced place in the local landscape when they recently showed us around their stomping grounds, styled in Coach’s New York-inspired fall collection. Along the way, they walked us through their creative vision, how staying true to themselves has helped them swim in an ultra-competitive industry, and what they love most about the city they call home and HQ. Read on to find out why Dimes isn't just another blip of a downtown hot spot — it's here to stay.
Lots of people dream of starting a business with a friend. How did yours come about, and how has it affected your relationship?
Sabrina De Sousa: "Alissa and I met many moons ago [while working at Lovely Day restaurant in Nolita]. Our symbiotic friendship always stood the test of time, even with our own personal growth through all these years. When the idea of opening a restaurant came into play, it was clear that we could do it together. We’ve done lots of traveling together — to Patagonia and Italy — which helped shape Dimes into our reality."

Alissa Wagner: "We wanted to open the type of place that we would love to go, and a place for our friends really. We found ourselves always going to Whole Foods for lunch because there was nowhere around for us to get a healthy and delicious meal.

"Now, Sabrina and I have been friends for over 10 years. When we met, I was drawn to how open and curious she was to new ideas and adventures. She’s still one of the most adventurous people I know. We have a great relationship both inside and outside of the business."
Why do you think the trend of eating healthily has picked up pace in recent years? Is it just that, a trend, or a big shift in mentality?
AW: "There is a general shift happening in food culture where people are way more conscious about the origins of food and the impact on one’s body. People on the whole are more educated and informed."

Who is the Dimes regular, and how does the Dimes lifestyle reflect its downtown environs?
SD: "The Dimes customer cares about staying healthy while not limiting themselves from an occasional indulgence. That totally reflects the Dimes lifestyle. Downtown is such a stimulating place because of the eclectic and driving force of all the creativity that takes place."

AW:
"They are smart, creative, fun, and inspiring. They live a lifestyle of exploration while sending creativity and passion into the world."
Chinatown isn’t the most obvious place to open a buzzy new hot spot, even with a handful of trendy places popping up there in recent years. What about it, for you, made it the spot to set up shop?
SD:
"Parts of Chinatown are still very much untouched and laden with raw grit that I love. The cultural architecture and history around Dimes is quite unique. Just across the street there’s an abandoned theater where Charlie Chaplin once performed."

AW: "Sabrina and I both lived within a block from the restaurant. As locals, we knew that there was a hole that needed to be filled in terms of our vision. It just seemed perfect. Chinatown has remained incredibly intact for many years. It’s filled with family-run businesses and people who have lived in the same apartment for more than 30 years. The neighborhood has seen its fair share of gentrification, but those who have moved here, like myself, respect its original roots and are keen on keeping it sacred. The local Chinese community remains the majority and continues to keep their traditions alive, from early morning tai chi to secret mah-jongg games to the temples."
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It’s in fashion these days to complain that New York has strayed drastically from its grittier, unmanufactured roots. It sounds like the environment around Dimes defies that notion to some extent.
SD: "I sometimes find myself feeling more than jaded about the speed of relentless change in this city. But then I’m reminded that that state of flux allows us to push the envelope and inspire those peeking in. Most of my friends are in creative industries and many work for themselves. It’s infectious to be around young and vibrant energy, and it's inspiring to see people working so hard to bring new ideas and concepts into the world."

AW: "It’s definitely not the New York of the '80s, but New York is a shape-shifter. It’s a living being continually adapting to the changing social and cultural environment. It’s my favorite city in the world because it’s always on top of what’s new, exciting, and relevant to our current needs, and it will always be home base to the most original and unique people in the world. There’s a 92-year-old local man who’s been playing traditional Chinese music on our front step from pretty much the minute we opened in 2013. He’s lived in the same building since the 1930s, and he has our names written on a piece of paper that he keeps in his pocket so he doesn’t forget."
You’ve said that, as business partners, you’re really invested in the neighborhood around Dimes. What does that mean to you?
SD: "I think contributing to the growth of a neighborhood is integral. Whether it be planting a tree or picking up garbage you see on the sidewalk, the smallest gesture reflects commitment and a sense of community. Our goal was never to clone Dimes in unknown territory. We’ve always been invested in our own neighborhood — hence Dimes and Dimes Deli [the takeout shop and organic produce market taking over the original café’s former East Chinatown space], newly opened this month."

AW: "We have a strong following of locals whom we love — young professionals, artists, musicians, friends — so I want to create a home away from home for them. They are the foundation of the business, so naturally they’re my inspiration when creating and developing our menu."

Has your everyday style been influenced by the area?
SD: "Comfort is always on my agenda. Dimes is very simple, and it’s only natural that our aesthetics reflect that. Sometimes I buy Chinese slippers in the neighborhood, and I love the tai chi uniforms that I see in the park."
How do you stay authentic within a scene that can make one seem pretentious or like they're trying too hard?
SD: "I go with my intuition. My day-to-day can sometimes be overwhelming, so balancing things out by keeping it simple is a regimen I try to stick to."

AW: "Don’t take yourself too seriously."

Tell us about Dimes’ decor. What was the thought process behind designing it?
SD: "Our brief was imagining a postmodern Japanese artist living and making ceramics in an adobe somewhere in Big Sur. We wanted to keep the design minimal as a way to not distract from what you’re eating. Not to say that there aren’t fun surprises — we referenced [a prolific, abstract German artist’s] irregularly shaped frames for tabletops and a few color-tinted windows to keep it fun."

AW:
"The aesthetic is a reflection of the menu — clean, bright, and beautiful. We wanted something timeless with playful elements integrated into the details. The bathroom is especially playful, with hand-painted tiles by [a friend who is a pottery artist in Brooklyn], a soccer-ball light, and its own soundtrack."
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There have been rumblings of a Dimes part II: Dimes Deli. Can you tell us more about the new spot?
AW: "Dimes Deli is located in our original space at 143 Division Street. It’s a takeout spot featuring sandwiches, salads, soups, and smoothies. We’ll also be doing rotisserie chicken and lots of amazing vegetable sides. The takeout just opened, and in about a month, we’ll be opening a produce market next door. It’s a continuation of the Dimes vision in a new format. We have a far-reaching vision, so it's fun to daydream about where that might take us."
Okay, down to business. What are we ordering?
SD: "Breakfast: Ciao Bowl. Lunch: tuna nori wrap. Dinner: Dimes Caesar and striped bass."

AW:
"Breakfast: lavendar acai bowl with a side of sausage — best of both worlds! — and a juice of the day. Lunch: black-rice bowl with seared tuna and a fennel-ginger lemonade. Dinner: wheatgrass margarita, stone-fruit panzanella, striped bass over green curry, mango kanten."

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