When Ria Graham set out to create Kokomo with her husband Kevol their mission was to transport guests to the Caribbean without leaving Brooklyn. “The Caribbean is so versatile, and over hundreds of years has formed its own beautiful melting pot of cultures from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas,” says Ria who, along with Kevol was raised in New York City and has deep Caribbean roots. (Her mother is from Trinidad. Her father hails from Grenada.) “The stories that we tell culturally and through our food are unique.”
Just across from the waterfront in Williamsburg, the decor and cuisine is thoughtfully curated. “Few people know the level of detail that went into designing and creating Kokomo,” says Graham who shares that designer, Dara Young from The Aviva Collective, created Caribbean-inspired intimate dining spaces throughout.
“The focal point of our main room is a communal table to welcome families, friends, and strangers to enjoy a Caribbean feast while overlooking our beautifully lit bamboo bar symbolizing positive energy and strength,” says Ria. The main room also contains an intricate art installation, also designed by Young, that recreates a Caribbean village outfitted with miniature stores and people.
Then there’s a section called“Lovers Rock” containing two person swings hanging from the ceiling. “It ignites the feeling of an intimate Caribbean romance,” says Ria. The back room was designed to embody the beauty and lushness of a Caribbean rainforest. “And our downstairs champagne room designed with colors of the Caribbean sea evokes an underwater glamorous cave experience,” she adds. “We strived to hit all the marks of what makes the Caribbean so special.”
In addition to its design and dramatic waterfront views, the cuisine, which celebrates their Caribbean heritage, also makes Kokomo a standout. “We knew we wanted to design the menu to reflect our background and the many countries that influenced Caribbean culture as the legacy of colonization,” says Ria.
To that end, Ria points to the Wah Gwaan flatbread. “The crust is a traditional New York City brick oven crust, a nod to the community we grew up in,” she says. “The base is a tomato confit which reflects the French influence in the Caribbean. The stars of the dish are sautéed jerk shrimp and ackee, a national fruit in Jamaica.” That is topped off with a drizzle of cilantro sauce “It’s our final nod to the Latin influence,” she adds.
In 2020, when Ria and Kev were originally set to open Kokomo it seemed like they were at the bottom of their proverbial Mount Everest trying to figure out how to scale the thing.
Ria had spent her early career in marketing and sales for a local Caribbean restaurant. Kevol worked for many years curating dining experiences as part of a band of roving chefs. But neither of them had ever opened their own restaurant.
“Our second child was due on March 21, 2020 and our restaurant was scheduled to open in April 2020,” says Ria. That was until the pandemic shut everything down in March, 2020. Watching so many restaurants shutter, the couple was consistently told to close down that they would never make it.
“We had invested our life savings and also enlisted our parents to invest in this venture. It was a huge bet on ourselves,” says Ria who shares that their families were supportive of their goal of building generational wealth. At that point they realized they had to move forward despite all the obstacles.
“That was the time to admit failure and sink into a depression. But we understood that we had few alternatives,” says Ria. After overcoming the shock of Covid-19, they shared their story on social media and received an outpouring of positive encouragement. As first time restaurateurs, with zero understanding of how to operate during Covid-19, they opened Kokomo July 4, 2020.
Opening a restaurant in any climate is hard. Then there’s the pressure of opening your first restaurant. “Adding the pressure of Covid-19 took it to another level,” says Ria. “There was an immense labor shortage, strenuous rules and regulations and the great unknown of what tomorrow would bring.”
Yet, despite the ever-changing regulations they were able to stay afloat. “We have a great team that we painstakingly grew,” says Ria. “Their passion and commitment to Kokomo keep us humble.”
Not only did Kokomo survive, it thrived. “Every night is a celebration at Kokomo, which may be the pandemic’s best scene restaurant,” raved Pete Wells in his New York Times review. And the Kokomo continues to evolve and be the go-to destination for Caribbean cuisine.
Meanwhile, Ria and Kevol remain in awe of the opportunity to share their passion in such a unique setting. “There is something about eating Caribbean food, sipping on a rum punch or pina colada, listening to Caribbean music, watching the sunset and feeling the breeze float off the water,” she says about sitting outside on the patio in the warmer months. “You forget that you are in New York City for a couple of hours. It’s priceless.”