Not so long ago, dining in Brooklyn meant grabbing a hot dog while you watched a baseball game. Not anymore. Across the river from Manhattan, the most exciting—and most hidden—dining revolution in New York
By Alan Richman; Photographs by Ditte Inager
No place in America is known more for what it used to be than Brooklyn, yet New York City’s most sentimental borough must accept reality: The Dodgers, the streetcars, and the nickel bottles of cream soda are gone, and a new Brooklyn has ascended, one that is better than ever, certainly where dining is concerned. The fiercely independent spirit of Brooklyn lives on in neighborhoods as dissimilar as Cobble Hill (mostly tree-lined streets) and Red Hook (mostly impassable streets), and new restaurants are providing their customary service, anchoring communities and stimulating revival.
Even those of us who recall the glories of a pastrami-on-rye on Flatbush Avenue—for some reason a little more satisfying than a pastrami anywhere else—have to concede that the new restaurants are more appealing than the ones that lingered on long after World War II. If they are alike at all, it is not in cuisine but in a fondness for brick walls, overhead fans, and attached gardens. They’re also unfussy, but Brooklyn was always that way.
The desirability of Brooklyn restaurants can be seen in the number of Manhattan residents eager to board subways and make their way across the East River to patronize them. So tempting are they that these proud and insular urban dwellers have become what they have always reviled, a bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
The outlying areas of the restaurant restoration are Red Hook and Williamsburg. Red Hook is a peninsula jutting into New York Bay, and it would look like any fading Midwest port city except that it boasts glimpses of the Statue of Liberty, hard to duplicate in Milwaukee or Cleveland. Williamsburg is a late-nineteenth-century urban ruin of chain-link fences, exterior fire escapes, low-slung buildings, and shipping and receiving signs that is now urban chic, overcrowded with artistes. Both are seemingly without zoning, planning, or taste, but Williamsburg is expensive and Red Hook is coming on fast.
Brooklyn is huge, more than eighty square miles, and the renaissance isn’t everywhere. Besides Red Hook and Williamsburg, the boom is occurring in a relatively small section known as Brownstone Brooklyn, which is only a few square miles. As described by residents, this includes Carroll Gardens (“Italian but becoming artsy”), Fort Greene (“bourgeois-black and cool”), Park Slope (“hipster-lesbian tattooed lefties with kids”), Prospect Heights (“reggae stores and a Caribbean vibe”), Boerum Hill (“Heath Ledger and projects”), and Cobble Hill (“so sunny and shady it’s like Greenwich Village but much better because it’s not full of weird people carrying their tiny little dogs”). All were resettled either by frugal newcomers to New York City who preferred to share an apartment with two roommates in Brooklyn rather than with four in Manhattan, or by professionals seeking the jumbo brownstones—row houses clad in dusty-colored sandstone—that are so emblematic of Brooklyn.
So commonplace are these brownstones that they seem less like man-made structures and more like outcroppings that rose up during a seismic shift in the earth’s crust. There is even a local beer called Sixpoint Brownstone, creamy and darker than the sandstone construction material.
The brownstone neighborhoods flow into one another, and they remain—despite an air of prosperity—unconventional, unpredictable, and decidedly void of snobbery. One of my friends who lives in (and will endlessly be renovating) a brownstone in Prospect Heights described her neighbors to me: “On our block, any given day, you will see busloads of Orthodox Jews going to Monticello, New York, where they study; Tibetan monks; old-school Irish guys; well-dressed elderly Caribbean men with canes; and sometimes Foxy Brown’s parked Bentley, because she’s visiting her mother. There’s the Reverend, who is a black guy who wears overalls and a weight belt and has a sign taped to his door, the reverend is in. Then there are the Caribbeans. On one side of us is a family from St. Kitts, on another side a Trinidadian family, and behind us, Barbados. We can smell the curries from all three, and all three are different. We love our block.”
For much of the late twentieth century, Brooklyn lay deteriorated and depleted. It’s hard to say precisely when the transformation got under way, probably fifteen or twenty years ago. It’s easy to say where it began—in Park Slope. Those first courageous folks who immigrated there weren’t ordinary refugees. They didn’t bring with them recipes from their unforgettable homelands—shish kebab and spanakopita—but high-minded culinary expectations that grew out of immersion in the restaurants of Manhattan, always among the best in the world. They were looking for a semblance of haute cuisine, the kind you could indulge in without dressing up.
Today, proper but unassuming dining in New York City has a new center of gravity: Brooklyn. The elegant casualness is exceptional, a function of several factors: low-cost decor, informal servers, and customers whose habits are unlike those of Manhattanites. Saul Bolton, owner-chef of Saul in Boerum Hill, says, “It feels kind of silly to dress up in Brooklyn. Nobody comes straight from the office. Nobody comes to restaurants to see and be seen. At the same time, we get a serious New York crowd, really sophisticated, much more than the average crowd in Manhattan. We don’t get tourists. We don’t get Wall Streeters. We don’t get rubes.”
Saul was the first stop on my eating tour of twenty-one Brooklyn restaurants, none of them in business before 1998. I went there wearing a sports jacket and self-consciously noticed that almost all the other patrons were wearing jeans and T-shirts—and behaving impeccably despite their apparently careless attire. Saul is one of the best restaurants in the borough, but it can no longer be thought of as part of the new wave. Along with three other seminal restaurants—the once grungy, now gastronomic Diner (1998), the revered-beyond-belief Grocery (1999), and the hour-wait-at-all-times Al Di Lá (1998) —Saul (1999) paved the way. Those four are near-classics, more traditional than the restaurants that opened in the past five or six years and began to redefine Brooklyn.
No staff I’ve encountered is quite like the one at The Good Fork, located in exquisitely downscale Red Hook and my favorite of the new Brooklyn restaurants. The service epitomizes—perhaps exaggerates would be more accurate—Brooklyn style. It seems impossible that people who dress so badly can do everything so well.
Their garments appear to have been purchased from a pushcart with the intention of putting on a cabaret act. Ben Schneider, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Sohui Kim, said of one top waiter, “If Matty unbuttons one more button on his shirt, I might have to say something to him, but I don’t want to, because he cares so much about the restaurant. He wore ﬂip-ﬂops to work the other day. I was worried. Nobody wants to see toes. But he didn’t wear them during service.”
In a world of restaurants that too often seem alike, no matter how often ownership tries to make them distinctive, The Good Fork is uncommon in every way. The interior decoration, described by Schneider as “old supper club meets old dining car,” is really more makeshift than that. To me, the curved ceiling is suggestive of a Conestoga wagon or an Airstream trailer.
As soon as I arrived, I ordered fried oysters, knowing I’d need something to nibble on while waiting for friends. Nobody gets to Red Hook on time. This is the only one of the areas that cannot be reached by subway, and the few entry roads are so bumpy and potholed that anybody journeying there by car should shrewdly make arrangements to travel in another person’s automobile. This has to be said: Driving to, from, and within Brooklyn requires fortitude—the grid is ill-conceived, construction is everywhere, and obstructions such as the Gowanus Canal make getting around a challenge that defeats Internet search engines; the usually reliable MapQuest.com is perfect about half the time. An unexpected bonus is that evening parking in Brooklyn remains a cinch; at no time in the course of those visits did I shell out more than a few quarters, and those for a Park Slope meter.
The Good Fork’s Paciﬁc oysters, lightly coated in cornmeal, were cooked just long enough to become warm and creamy, and they came with a salad of beets, fennel, grapefruit segments, tomatoes, and reduced grapefruit juice. When my friends finally arrived, I ordered more. You’re unlikely to have a more memorable fried-oyster plate in your life.
Frankies 457 Spuntino—a spuntino is a snack—is located in Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood that remains Italian in a fine old way. You still find social clubs and Sicilians, as well as lawn chairs set up in the middle of sidewalks. As is mandatory in this part of Brooklyn, the buffalo mozzarella at Frankies was superb. The place is tiny and rustic, with brick walls, wooden tables, and a single restroom awkwardly located in the very heart of the dining area. Not often will you come upon a restaurant where the majority of the tables are near the bathroom. Almost as unusual is a restaurant where nearly every dish is commendable—although you can get better meatballs a couple of blocks away at G. Esposito & Sons, an old-world Italian meat shop.
Frankies does not offer the most charming garden in Brownstone Brooklyn, but it surely is the largest I saw, providing you believe that a gravel-covered backyard qualifies as a garden. It also makes a virtue out of another aspect of eating out in Brooklyn: an unavoidable association with subways. They often operate in close proximity to restaurants, sometimes almost directly overhead, rattling along at a decibel level high enough to require pauses in conversations. Frank Falcinelli, one of the two Franks who operate Frankies 457 Spuntino, is proud to feature the F train behind his establishment. He says, “We got a $12 billion train effect. No price is too much for our fine guests.”
Loud it might be, but it’s not close to the plate-rattling subway intimacy found at Moto, in Williamsburg. This most evocative of all Brooklyn spots, a cross between a medieval alchemist’s shop and a nineteenth-century saloon, sits directly under elevated tracks in a structure that’s practically a miniaturized version of Manhattan’s famous Flatiron Building. The shape (I believe it’s a trapezium) does not allow for parallel interior walls, and the uneven floorboards make walking while drunk (routine among evening patrons) an act of daring.
Although celebrated for its grilled doughnuts, which are just fine, Moto should be proudest of its baked-apple pancake, offered only at brunch. It’s actually a Dutch Baby, a fluffy, sugary, satisfying item that seems half brioche and half upside-down cake. No other dish there will make you as happy, unless you’re Jewish, and then you might be exceedingly proud of the herring, which tastes as if it just came out of a barrel off a boat from Eastern Europe. It comes with matzoh, and not just during Passover. Being Hebrew has never been so hip.
The best restaurant in Williamsburg is Dressler, although it’s so noisy our soft-spoken waitress had to yell. She said to us, “It’s a problem for me. I’m still yelling at people when I get home.” Dressler’s bar is lovely, with filigreed light boxes, but there is an edge of creepiness, too—the peonies, heavy and dying, seemed funereal. The dining room ups the gothic effect. One friend said, “The chandeliers seem to be growing fungus.” We were told the wall panels and chandeliers were fabricated by artisans working out of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is now an industrial park, but I felt like I was visiting Dracula’s country house.
If the room isn’t particularly comforting, the food compensates. Plenty of restaurants feature hot food, others cold. At Dressler, the best items are warm. The Warm Spring Pea Soup with crisp bacon—yes, the crisp bacon survives the wet soup—is intensely homey. The Warm Artichoke Heart Salad is daring, the lukewarm artichoke buried under cool greens to the benefit of both ingredients.
Ici, in Fort Greene, is most famous for its owner, Laurent Saillard, who was the malevolent general manager on the stunningly graphic television show The Restaurant, which chronicled the downfall of one of New York’s famed chefs, Rocco DiSpirito. A veteran of some of Manhattan’s best spots, including Bouley and Balthazar, and a man who seems made for Manhattan, Saillard moved to Brooklyn for the most civilized of reasons: “I was tired of the constant ‘Where’s my table?,’ the drama of the restaurant scene in the city,” he said. (To most New Yorkers, “Manhattan” and “the city” are synonymous.) “I was interested in the organic movement, in the quiet life, in taking my kids to school in the morning.”
The front room of Ici is exceedingly plain, but the garden is exactly right—tree-lined, with a white picket fence, brown metal tables, wrought-iron chairs, and lights strung overhead, a fine spot for nibbling on a duck-confit salad with pickled mustard seeds. The waif-like waitresses are lovely and chatty, although a bit lax in their attention to detail. They never did get around to wiping our table, and as we neared the end of a four-course meal, we had accumulated so many tempting crumbs and scraps I was afraid that small woolly animals would launch themselves from the tree limbs above and begin to feed.
The omnipresent borough of Manhattan is not ignoring what is happening in Brooklyn. Think of Manhattan as a rapacious creature with a yawning maw, coveting innocent prey, and you get the idea. It wants a piece of the action, and it wants it bad. A number of restaurants that are either spin-offs of Manhattan establishments or fashioned to replicate Manhattan style have crossed the bridges and located here. I tried two of them. Both were far spicier than anything else I found in Brooklyn, but neither was of particular culinary interest.
Blue Ribbon Brooklyn, located in Park Slope, is part of the Blue Ribbon empire, and it is predictably taut, trim, composed, functional, and efficient. A small blue neon sign reading oysters is in the front window, and if you stick to those, you’ll do well. The other food I sampled could have been from any high-end chain. Bocca Lupo, located on a pretty corner in Cobble Hill, answers a burning question usually asked only in Manhattan: Once you have built a bar-restaurant that is entirely hard surfaces—cement floor, plaster ceiling, brick walls, wine bottles on display—what can you do to make it extra earsplitting? Answer: Add a DJ. It was done.
Going out to eat in Manhattan today is becoming exasperating, unless you’re in search of mega-establishments, some of them little more than commercial food factories. A frustrated New York Times, in describing a Manhattan restaurant recently, called it a “vast new venue with a 100-foot bar and few surprises on the menu.” The concept of a restaurant built around a chef who is always in attendance (and maybe living only a few blocks away) is vanishing. The same can be said for an appealing style of service—Manhattan selects waiters on looks, Brooklyn on personality; Manhattan stands on ceremony, Brooklyn emphasizes warmth. As restaurants in Manhattan strain to pay odious rents, they increasingly rely on a business model that stresses size and repetition. Manhattan restaurants emulate Vegas not because they love the cuisine. They admire the economics.
Although colossi such as Del Posto appear to be functioning beautifully, it’s not a coincidence that many of the Manhattan restaurants most admired in recent years for their food are small and Brooklyn-like: Fatty Crab, Boqueria, Momofuku Noodle Bar, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
Saillard of Ici, the ex-Manhattanite, says, “The spirit of New York City is much more to be found in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. Everything that is good about New York food is more in Brooklyn. It is the new New York.”
Manhattan, I suppose, cannot help but try to have its way with Brooklyn. It can’t be held back. Nor can development. Zoning changes are already having an effect on Williamsburg, where condominiums are going up. Mega–drug marts have arrived, sucking up swaths of space on the otherwise amiable commercial avenues of Brownstone Brooklyn. A branch of Pó, the minute restaurant that launched Mario Batali, has opened on venerated Smith Street.
There is a solution: Move on. Pack up the kids and the Bugaboo Frog stroller and head for a part of Brooklyn that still frightens Manhattanites. The best choice right now is Bushwick. It’s what Williamsburg used to be, filled with illegal bars and aspiring artists, and it’s almost certainly slated for a high-end revival. The right kind of restaurant is already in business. A pastoral place called Northeast Kingdom (the owners made their way to New York from Vermont) offers potted shrubbery outside, a plethora of forest-animal folk art inside, and an organic-chicken potpie. It’s wonderfully oddball, precisely what a refugee leaving new Brooklyn and heading for an even newer Brooklyn hopes to find.
Alan Richman is a GQ correspondent.
From here: http://men.style.com/gq/features/landing?id=content_5766