"Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in. Are you aware the shape I'm in?"
It's the crooning of folk-rock group The Avett Brothers, and those lyrics are in my head as I wander the streets of Brooklyn after a day spent in Manhattan. I'm here in bad shape, fighting a cold, and I haven't slept well for days. It's that kind of condition that either opens you up to the world or shuts you down. I'm vying for the former; I'm trying to keep myself open, to experience the world like a traveler should, before exhaustion shuts me down ... and it will. Oh, Brooklyn, that's the shape I'm in. I'm here for some comfort. Take me in.
Starting about 20 years ago, Brooklyn started changing from its old-school immigrant and industrial roots. Easy access from the L Train out of Manhattan (New York's MTA subway lines are all identified by numbers or letters) 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 north of the city.
"Before we moved here I had so many people tell me, 'Oh, you should really check out Brooklyn. I hear it's really up and coming,'" laughs Matt, a friend who returned from the South to his native Northeast. "It's not up-and-coming. It up and came."
Today, the streets are packed with small boutiques, with coffee houses, with Southern-influenced comfort food. In the heart of Brooklyn, the neighborhood of Williamsburg, is a youth culture driven by people in their 20s and 30s, by creative media shops like Vice, by bars, by pizza, by parks, by art. Even an overnight snow that has turned the sidewalks into a mixture of slush, ice, snow and rivers of grimey melt hasn't slowed Brooklyn one bit. The energy of this place is not bothered in the least by weather.
After a coffee at Swedish-style coffee bar Konditori, I begin my food pilgrimage at Biblio. It's a brand-new restaurant and bar in the heart of Williamsburg (Bushwick is one of the other trendy areas that have really put Brooklyn on the cool-as-you-can-be cultural map). I'm meeting Matt, his wife Amanda and their baby daugther for brunch to see what this Brooklyn buzz is. Like so many travelers, I've been to New York many times, but never ventured beyond Manhattan's skyscraper-lined avenues and "villages."
Matt reps wine and spirits for a massive California company, and as such, he's become inextricably tied to the New York foodie scene, so I've at least got that card in my pocket as I learn about the area. He and his wife live in Brooklyn (but not in Williamsburg, where rents today rival those of Manhattan's upscale digs), and we're here to check out Biblio because he's heard good things.
Inside the bartender is mixing Bloody Marys for a couple at the bar as we take our seats. The library-like name is felt inside. The restaurant is trimmed out in wood like classic bookshelves, but the tomes here are dishes like chevre mac-n-cheese, eggs Benedict, and of course, a massive burger. The food is good; the bar and craft beer selection is thorough; service is prompt. It has the recipe for being a neighborhood fixture. By the time we're wrapping up our meal, the seats have filled in, and it's showing that it's the popular brunch restaurant it deserves to be.
I'm back some hours later having had to venture back into Manhattan, and it's 6 pm on a Saturday. Over at Brooklyn Brewery, the scene is classic Brooklyn. There are hipsters, beer nerds, preps and even a few former Dead Heads who are quaffing pints before a Grateful Dead cover show in the borough. Juxtaposing them, and equally at home here, is a crowd of young Manhattanite financial guys who have escaped their glass-tower-day-jobs to blow off some steam at the brewery. The classic ale here is the Brooklyn Brown, and when you're in this building on a cold winter night, there's no question it's built for brewing first, and the social hangout comes second. It's noisy; it's cold; but the crowd is lively, and a food truck has pulled up out front, catering to the inside crowd.
By 8 pm, the brewery is shutting its doors, the food truck is ready to roll, and I'm ready to go face the cold snowy night.
One of the appeals of Brooklyn has been its location close to Manhattan, but across the water, and I venture down to a park on the East River to take in the view. I catch a waiter sneaking a cigarette outside of a pub around the corner, and I tell him I want to see Manhattan from Brooklyn and get the classic photo.
He mocks me lightly. "Oh, you want one of those." No, it's not Brooklyn hip. It's not Brooklyn cool. It's a classic New York photo, and "Yeah," I tell him, "I do want one of those." He appreciates my sincerity, and directions conveyed, I'm off to the waterfont access points around East River State Park. The view is spectacular, and here's a tip: Even if you have no interest in Brooklyn's foodie scene, in the counter-culture elements, in the young urbanist landscape that's been created over here, and all you want is the classic New York City experience, do yourself a favor and go to Brooklyn and look across into Manhattan. You'll never quite get that feel when you're in the city surrounded by the skyscrapers. Even standing atop Rockefeller Center's Top of the Rock viewing plaza or atop the Empire State Buidling won't quite give you the sense of Manhattan's urban island effect like seeing the island from across the river.
The photos are saved to my memory card, and now I'm back on my pilgrimage, with the goal of seeing two sides of Brookyn's foodie scene. First, I want to see where the locals hide out for a quick bite, so I head to the total dive that is Vinnie's Pizzeria. Slide into a pizza-by-the-slice dive like Vinnie's and you'll start to understand the youth culture of Brooklyn. On a Saturday night, the joint is packed with college students and bar-goers. There are the musicians getting ready for a gig who have stacked a small drum kit in the corner by an ATM while they order their slices. The place is so small that the guitarist has to keep his instrument strapped to his back while in line.
Limited by space, a group of 20-somethings joins me at my little table. They're all from Austin. "Austin used to be so cool," they tell me, saying they're now jaded by the explosive growth of Austin in the last few decades. I suspect they'll find the same thing with Brooklyn; it's all about perspective. The first urban crusading hipsters to arrive in Brooklyn probably besmurch the new arrivals like this group of young women from Austin, but in the end, I don't fault any of them. They're all here for the same reason, and not everyone can arrive at a place at the same time.
Youth culture aside, one of the draws to Brooklyn has been its foodie scene.
I recollect a conversation I had a year prior with Sarah Zorn, a native of the area and Brooklyn magazine's food editor, when she was preparing to publish her book "Brooklyn Chef's Table" with photographer Eric Isaac.
Sarah had explained that Brooklyn's food scene was just repeating a cycle. In the 1930s, she said, you had food artisans driving Brooklyn's economy. It fell off, but now it's back, and some of the streets, like Smith Street, are foodie-centric, with Brooklyn staples like Battersby (Sarah's tip: get the seven-course meal at the chef's table) or Clover Club, known for its mixology concoctions created by owner Julie Rhiner. As Sarah explained, on Smith Street, "ever place is a worthy restaurant."
What's most fascinating about Brooklyn isn't just the amazing restaurants, but how some of these new leaders of Brooklyn's foodie movement are picking up the past and how some are just continuing with the best of the past. You see that in businesses like Brooklyn Brine (where hipsters pickle local produce) but also in Brooklyn Cured, which produces cured meats and sausages. Both Brooklyn Cured and Brooklyn Brine sound like the kind of immigrant businesses you might have seen pop up in Brooklyn 100 years ago, and that's what Sarah had been trying to capture, how Brooklyn's food scene is recycling ideas that have been always been around, but which have just been lying dormant and out of the limelight for many decades.
For me, it's getting late, and the slush on the streets has me searching for someplace warm with a little soul food before I hop the train back to my hotel. I pop into a little restaurant back on Bedford Avenue called Sweet Chick. The tables are full but there's a seat at the bar. It looks like a place that could have been pulled straight from East Nashville, and it reminds me of what my Brooklynite friend had said: "The whole Southern food resurgence has really become a thing here."
Indeed, the Nashvillesque theme is even more pronounced as I open the menu. Chicken and waffles are the staple (served multiple ways), but don't miss the fried Brussels sprouts with toasted almonds in an apple cider gastrique to prime your feast. Pull a side of cornbread if you really want the Southern flair. As a native Mississippian, I can tell you: They aren't faking these Southern dishes.
The night winds down; the slush on the city streets is starting to freeze over again as ice; and it's time to go. Brooklyn's culture is paying its dinner bills, readying to head out to the borough's nightlife, doing what young folks have always done: creating, eating, engaging and celebrating their youth.
(All photos ©Geoff Kohl/Where)