Brooklyn’s Culinary Scene
A gritty borough once overshadowed by Manhattan has now become home to some of the city’s best restaurants and acclaimed chefs. The amusement over Brooklyn’s cultural explosion is no longer a subject for headlines, as most of those in New York City and around the world are well acquainted with the borough’s liberation. Brooklyn’s experimental nature has always attracted artists, musicians, and creative types of all sorts, but most recently its culinary movement is making Brooklyn a top destination for restaurateurs as well.
Brooklyn has always had borough-defining restaurants. Just mention landmark restaurant Lundy’s, one of the city’s largest and best seafood spots in Sheepshead Bay, or Junior’s in Downtown Brooklyn and the dreamy-eyed natives will rhapsodize till the cows come home. They once defined life in the borough, making it unnecessary to toddle to Manhattan for a lively and memorable night out, and they died as the flood-gates opened on the national franchises that came to dominate many neighborhoods. “Fifteen years ago if you would have told me that Brooklyn would have one of the fastest up-and-coming food scenes, I would have told you that you were out of your mind, “says Chef Barrett Beyer, Long Island native and Hell’s Kitchen contestant. “When I think about going to Brooklyn, it’s not just about Juniors Cheesecake—now there are so many places and hidden gems. A few notable places for me would have to be The Meatball Shop, Bed Stuy Fish Fry and Milk River to name a few and of course the most mentionable weekend culinary event “Smorgasburg.” This renowned flea food market showcases 100+ local and regional food vendors to upwards of 10,000 visitors, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Brooklyn.
About twenty years ago, Brooklyn started changing from its old-school immigrant and industrial roots. Easy access from the L train out of and across the famed Brooklyn Bridge, combined with lower rents and lower housing prices, drew young people and young families looking to plant themselves in the heart of the city without the Manhattan address. Those days have certainly changed. Brooklyn is no longer the undiscovered territory south of the city. Many Brooklyn-based chefs did get their start over the river in Manhattan. When you factor in outrageous real estate prices, and a crowd that cares very much about the trends, celebrities, and the newest hottest restaurant, it makes sense that Manhattan can be a hard place to survive.
Gowanus, the southwestern Brooklyn neighborhood named for the toxic canal that snakes its way through it, doesn’t sound like a hot destination. But this neighborhood is thriving; small businesses, artists, and tech startups are moving into the area in droves, taking advantage of the neighborhood’s relatively low rents and fundamentally changing its character. Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue in Gowanus is precisely what you expect from a small Brooklyn barbecue joint; long wooden tables, super-friendly staff, and sustainable practices. The meat, which is smoked on a pit from Mesquite, Texas, using maple and red oak from up-state New York, is all locally sourced from farm cooperatives that raise free-grazing animals without hormones. Matt Fisher, Pitmaster and Executive Chef, along with owner Bill Fletcher, fell in love with the neighborhood back in 2012, and have been going strong ever since. “Lower rents attracted creative people to edgier outer borough neighborhoods, which enabled bold, experimental dining options and small craft operations,” says Matt. “There are still a lot of patches of Brooklyn that have evolved but have maintained their identity. I really love that.”
In the 1930s, the food artisans were driving Brooklyn’s economy. It fell off, but now it’s back, and some of the streets, like Smith Street in Cobble Hill, are foodie-centric, with Brooklyn staples like ‘Battersby’, 3 star Michelin rated ‘Chefs Table’ and ‘Chance’ Asian Bistro & Bar, known for its mixology concoctions created by head bartender Edgartista. As a self- taught Guatemalan artist with a unique style, Edgar merges architecture with organic, flowing, futuristic art to create a visually stunning effect. After moving to the USA fifteen years ago, Brooklyn has ultimately remained his muse. “I discovered my talent on the subway. Even after moving to Miami, I realized that there was so much more opportunity in Brooklyn,” states Edgar. “Downtown Brooklyn and Park slope are some of the hottest places. Smith Street in Cobble Hill is becoming the new Park Slope,” he says.
“This is the new breed of Brooklyn restaurants: small, seasonal and understatedly stylish”
Despite the community of artists moving in after being priced out of Soho, Chelsea, and the near-end of the L train, there were few places to hang out, like the historic Teddy’s bar in Williamsburg or the classic old man’s bar, Jackie’s 5th amendment in Park Slope. On Williams-burg’s south side there were no gathering places where artists and musicians could come together for a coffee, steak or slice of cake. Instead there were forbidding walks under the Williamsburg Bridge and long, dark blocks bereft of commerce. Yusef Austin, owner of The Cocktail Architect, a consulting agency creating bespoke cocktails for social, corporate, and charity events ranging from custom unique bar designs and cocktail demonstrations to ice sculptures and staffing, has gained a new perspective over the last ten years, “At the time of the hipster movement, I honestly was less drawn to BK. It seemed contrived, young, horrible fashion, and nerdy” he says. After moving from Manhattan to Midwood, an area south of Prospect Park, a few years ago, with his wife and son, Yusef began to appreciate the area in a way that he could never have imagined. “I live in a pretty simple and quiet neighborhood, but with the invention of the car, we have the freedom to explore,” he states. “My favorite spots to visit are Park Slope, Red Hook, and Crescent Heights.” When asked about some of his favorite spots, “I have two in Clinton Hill—Madiba, South African Cuisine (best Peri Peri prawns ever) and Locanda Vini e Olii, a rustic Italian [spot] in a century-old pharmacy that was converted into a vintage space.”
Rebecca and Andrea Tory have lived in Park Slope for fourteen years and they have just opened their new restaurant Hugo & Sons. What used to be a butcher shop back in the 20’s and 30’s and more recently an artist’s studio, is now filled with the smell of warm Italian bread and fragrant pasta sauces. “We have always been keenly aware there was room for improvement in terms of where one could eat out,” says Rebecca. “Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg seemed to have the better restaurants—we wanted to create a NYC worthy place in our corner of Brooklyn that is stylish yet relaxed, affordable and accessible.” Park Slope is blessed with vast stretches of green space, scores of restaurants and bars, a diverse retail sector, and a population of more artists and creative than even its reputation for comfortable bohemianism might suggest. Rebecca explains, “I’ve noticed more and more people moving in and expecting better quality places to eat and shop. Older places are closing that are not keeping up with the changing times. I think people read about great restaurants opening mostly in NYC and want one in their own neighborhood.” For Rebecca and Andrea, their journey is part of the Brooklyn evolution. “It’s a natural progression that Brooklyn is now so populated. It’s only natural that the culinary scene grows out of this to provide people with exciting, vibrant places to eat,” Rebecca explains.
This is the new breed of Brooklyn restaurants: small, seasonal and understatedly stylish. As culinary chroniclers say, it is a type of newfangled Brooklyn establishment; one marked by its presence in recently or soon-to-be gentrified neighborhoods, and one connected to the Manhattan restaurant scene by pedigree and ambition. This is modern-day Brooklyn.