Beyond a few visible safety measures, the brunch experience at Little Sister feels almost normal. A man wanders in, menu aloft, to take in the baked goods while a hostess points out and describes the cream cheese quesitos, open-faced galette pies, and the Brazo Gitano. A couple of folks mill around the surprisingly open space while barista Darcy assembles their to-go orders placed at the door. Another pair takes a seat at the long bench for dine-in service, where close tables are cordoned off with hearty bouquets (arranged weekly with cuts from The Floral Reserve) at every other spot for social distancing. Outside the entrance on Rochambeau, patrons glance over laminated menus while waiting to go inside.
The leisure and ease of popping your head into a neighborhood cafe to see what looks good can be trickier to navigate these days, with online coffee orders and breakfast reservations requiring forethought and planning. But the vision behind Little Sister has always relied on a little bit of spontaneity – in the chance social encounters of congregating in a cozy nook – and the unique floorplan and flow owner Milena Pagan derived for the cafe makes this possible, even in a pandemic.
“It’s been challenging with COVID, balancing how we connect with people,” Pagan says. While the Hope Street cafe has been welcoming patrons since their soft launch in July, she explains that for now, Little Sister won’t have online ordering or reservations, favoring a streamlined service approach with a hostess taking orders at the door and letting one party in at a time. “I wanted to do it in a way that felt really in-person. I missed having these brief interactions with the people who make my food, the people who make my coffee.”
Though the brainchild of the same established bread makers and pastry chefs behind Rebelle Artisan Bagels, Little Sister carries out a concept all its own. “A lot of the food was inspired by what I grew up eating in Puerto Rico,” says Pagan, describing her vision to craft a menu of casual comfort food that also represents her identity, that “feels familiar yet adventurous.” Powdered sugar-dusted mallorcas, a traditional Puerto Rican sweet bread, and other specialty pastries are offered among light (yet elevated) lunch fare, like avocado toast, wedge salads, and shakshouka, a spicy tomato dish.
Pagan’s idea behind Little Sister, conceived over a year ago, was to have a bustling all-day cafe: “a room full of people, with really good energy, really good food.” Now, during a time when people crave social interactions, even in small doses, that focus has shifted slightly while still preserving a more refined cafe experience, complete with real plates and silverware. “The idea is that if you’re just passing through, you can have a little bit of distance, you can get your food very quickly, but if you want to sit and stay, you can enjoy an ambiance that’s a little bit more chill and feel like you’re actually sitting down.”
More than a prodigy of Rebelle, Little Sister feels like the younger sibling in the close-knit family of Hope Street, where passersby may recognize the name from winter pop-ups at Stock Culinary Goods, or from meandering around the corner of Rochambeau to stumble upon its mini garden patio. Says Pagan, “There are so many locally owned businesses here and I feel like I want to do my part to make the energy really vibrant, and have more people come out and support all the businesses, too.”
737a Hope Street