A Brooklyn couple is building community by bridging cultures, one delicious dish and beautiful item at a time
On an unassuming corner of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood sits a small restaurant called Café Rue Dix. There you can tease your palate with classic French fare, like perfectly rolled croissants and pain au chocolat in the morning, or the bold flavors of traditional Senegalese dishes, like the West African country’s national dish thiebou jen, a fish and vegetable stew, at night. Next door is a shop, Marché Rue Dix, that tantalizes some other senses: The light-filled, black and white environment sets a gorgeous stage for the store’s vintage clothing and imported Senegalese textiles, incense, and other goods. But more than adding some culinary and aesthetic charm to the area, this little corner is the nexus of a burgeoning sense of community.
Lamine Diagne and Nilea Alexander, New Yorkers by way of Senegal and Atlanta, respectively, are the married couple at the crux of this community, as the owners of Café Rue Dix and Marché. The two met in 2010 and got married soon after, back when Diagne had to travel an hour on his scooter to Harlem every weekend just to get a taste of his beloved Senegalese food. When the French café he’d been working at closed, they decided it was time to fill that void in their own neighborhood and opened Café Rue Dix in 2013. Though Diagne was the one with years of restaurant experience, Alexander, who had spent the majority of her working life in the retail and corporate world, and selling clothes at vintage markets on weekends, had a love of food that was just as deep: “Eating out was kind of like a part-time job for me,” she says with a laugh. “I was a typical New Yorker in that way.”
Her knowledge of operations and customer service became key components in getting Café Rue Dix off the ground, and her eye for design produced the welcoming atmosphere, which features a graphic mural painted on the exterior wall and gourd drum lamps inside. On the menu, flaky pastry pockets filled with meat known as fataya are served with a Senegalese staple, scotch bonnet hot sauce (a recipe derived from Diagne’s mother’s), and regulars love the spicy stewed beef mafé with peanut butter sauce served over rice or couscous. (The French fare—cheeses, breads, desserts including crème brûlée—is also rooted in Diagne’s upbringing, since France colonized Senegal and embedded its culinary influence.) But as much as the bold flavors draw locals and travelers alike, it’s the Senegalese spirit that keeps folks coming back. “I think the words that I would use to describe it are: communal, family, sharing,” Alexander says of the Senegalese way of eating. “It’s so much more than just putting food in your mouth; it’s how you communicate with someone that you love them and you care about them.”
When the retail space next to the restaurant became available in 2014, Alexander knew it was her chance to realize her dream of opening her own shop. “I wanted it to feel very much like who I am, which is very modern, very clean, but I’m also very deeply rooted in my heritage,” she says. At Marché, which Alexander calls a concept store, indigo-dyed fabrics share the space with chic, chunky jewelry by local designer Aziza, vintage clothes handpicked by Alexander for their wearability, and imported dry goods like coffee and tea from Kenya. “Really, our goal is for you to spend a lot of time in the store and see how you transform to this journey,” Alexander says. “That's what we do here.”
The spirit of Café Rue Dix and Marché stems from Diagne and Alexander’s everyday lives: The couple, who have a one-year-old daughter named Carter, feed their growing group of friends and clientele literally and figuratively. “Bridging cultures is something that’s always been important to us. We are people of the world, and we want people from all over—international, local, whatever—to come and experience what we have to offer,” Alexander says. “It’s about color, culture, energy, community, and it’s just our lives; it’s how we live. And we’re gonna create this environment for people to come in and get a piece of that world.”