FEATURE

My Brooklyn Is Better Than Yours

Manhattan? Fuhgeddaboudit. These days, the most interesting part of New York is across the East River.

By Grace Bonney, Monday, Mar 19, 2007, 8:00 PM

Park Slope's Applewood (Morgan & Owens)

While residents of Brooklyn have been raving about their borough for years, visitors are finally hearing the call. Grace Bonney, the blogger behind Design*Sponge, shows us a few of her favorite spots.

My first real impression of Brooklyn was of a burning car seen through a broken window at an artist's loft. I was in town to visit a college boyfriend, and, while leaning out of the window, we watched a car nearly explode in an abandoned lot across the street. I'll never know why the car was engulfed in flames, but I'll always remember the thought that crossed my mind: Never, ever move to Brooklyn.

That was six years ago, and thankfully both my initial impression of the borough and the college boyfriend are ancient history. After graduating from William and Mary College in Virginia, I moved to Brooklyn to take an internship with a small record label based in Park Slope. While lugging boxes of CDs around the city and doing the bidding of some fairly nefarious recording artists, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had always been interested in art and design, but I didn't really have a clue about where exactly I fit within those industries.

So, like any new kid on the block, I set out to explore my neighborhood. Along the way I was lucky enough to meet a special someone who accompanied me on these outings. He noticed that my running commentary almost exclusively covered interior design, so over brunch at Union Picnic one day he suggested that I start a blog on the topic. One long story and several years later, the blog, Design*Sponge (designsponge.blogspot.com), is now my livelihood and a forum for people around the globe who enjoy design in its many forms.

Aside from being a fun way to spend the day, Design*Sponge has provided me with a platform to discuss Brooklyn artists and shops. And so I've become something of an amateur tour guide for design fans visiting the borough. While I love holding forth on chairs and tables, it's a thrill to be able to write about other aspects of Brooklyn besides the furniture. What follows is my guide to the best that Brooklyn has to offer. I hope it'll serve double duty: as both a practical guide to eating, shopping, and playing, and a heartfelt testament to the city I call home.

EAT
If there's one thing I enjoy as much as design, it's food. And what I love most about dining in Brooklyn is the sense of welcome each restaurant cultivates. As sophisticated as the food is, there's rarely the stodginess you tend to find in "fine dining" establishments across the river.

The single restaurant I'd recommend above all others is DuMont, in Williamsburg. A little hipstery? Sure. Crowded at times? Definitely. But if you're looking for a place that has delicious food and a warm yet uniquely Brooklyn vibe, this is it. The unfussy modern versions of classics like croque monsieur and roasted chicken are executed perfectly and with feeling. (Don't miss the Dumac & Cheese--it's a $12 dish of heaven, with pasta, cheddar, Gruyère, Parmesan, and bacon.)

Like DuMont, but over in Red Hook, Schnäck offers up comfort food with a spin, serving beer milkshakes next to onion rings and little burgers called Schnackies. It's certainly not for the faint of heart--or for those with cholesterol concerns--but if you've never tasted a beer milkshake you're in for a real treat.

Since we're on a comfort food kick here, head on down to Red Hook's restaurant row (Van Brunt Street) to Baked, for a malted-milk-ball cake or cupcakes topped with red hots. Baked's creations are as satisfying as your mom's old recipes but are sold in an über-hip café designed by Brooklyn locals Hivemindesign.

Unlike Baked and Schnäck, the next few restaurants won't require a postprandial trip to the gym. With an interior that's heavy on woodwork and light on frills, Red Hook's The Good Fork echoes the working-class shipyard neighborhood just outside its doors. But looks can be deceiving; this is the most polished food I have had in ages. The menu varies but always includes light pastas and dishes with an Asian flair, a nod to chef Sohui Kim's Korean heritage. The Good Fork also has an impressive drink selection.

Chestnut in Carroll Gardens makes some of the freshest seasonal fare in the borough, with homemade pastas, risottos, and fulfilling soups. Call for reservations and you'll be guaranteed an enjoyable, relaxed evening.

Brunch is probably my favorite meal, and Brooklyn has some of the best options in the city. Tumble out of bed on Sunday morning and head to Williamsburg's Fada for steaming bowls of hot chocolate. Whether you have pain au chocolat on the side is entirely up to you (but I strongly recommend it).

Then go to Cobble Hill and listen to the ragtime-jazz band while you dine on an omelet or steak and eggs at Bar Tabac. At Union Picnic in Williamsburg, the Elvis (French toast with peanut butter and bananas) and the fried chicken with waffles are irresistible. You might consider taking a walk around McCarren Park when you're done--these dishes are a reminder of why the King had heavier years.

Besides being home to beautiful brownstones, Fort Greene is one of my favorite places to indulge in my burgeoning rice obsession. A tiny restaurant tucked on Dekalb Avenue, Rice works a single main-ingredient theme. The carrot rice ball is a fantastic way to start a meal.

Further north, the sister restaurants Diner and Marlow & Sons sit on a fairly quiet corner in south Williamsburg. Diner, which is inside an old 1920s Kullman Diner car, focuses on executing standards like burgers and mussels exceptionally well, while Marlow is popular for its raw bar. Neither is particularly easy on vegetarians, so be sure to call ahead to ask about the vegetarian dish of the night. Let's just say that the vegetable galette isn't always a success.

At Press 195, further south in Park Slope, the name says it all. Specializing in pressed panini sandwiches, Press offers dozens of options and one heck of a dessert sandwich (Nutella, bananas, and vanilla ice cream).

Just up the avenue in Prospect Heights is Franny's, which some consider the best pizza--being Southern I can't bring myself to say "pie"--in the city. Expect an ambitious list of appetizers using seasonal ingredients, and a main-course menu of pizzas. Bring an open mind: The $8 pizza topped with just olive oil and sea salt isn't pizza as you know it.

Brooklyn is fast becoming a hotspot for those who are believers in market-fresh cooking. One of the restaurants leading the way is Park Slope's Applewood. The wait is often laughable, but the food is seriously delicious. And the lavender martini is a must.

The last three spots on my list are favorites for different reasons. Aurora in Williamsburg dishes up authentic Italian food (and my favorite dessert--affogato, espresso poured over gelato). Little D Eatery combines local ingredients to make interesting meze-style plates. And I love Patois for its modern French cuisine. Each represents the way that Brooklyn's top chefs are taking traditional food and putting a contemporary spin on it.

  • DuMont 432 Union Ave., Williamsburg, 718/486-7717
  • Schnäck 122 Union St., Red Hook, 718/855-2879, shake $5
  • Baked 359 Van Brunt St., Red Hook, 718/222-0345
  • The Good Fork 391 Van Brunt St., Red Hook, 718/643-6636, entrées from $9.50
  • Chestnut 271 Smith St., Carroll Gardens, 718/243-0049, entrées from $16
  • Fada 530 Driggs Ave., Williamsburg, 718/388-6607, brunch $11
  • Bar Tabac 128 Smith St., Cobble Hill, 718/923-0918, omelet $9
  • Union Picnic 577 Union Ave., Williamsburg, 718/387-3800, Elvis $8
  • Rice 166 Dekalb Ave., Fort Greene, 718/858-2700, rice ball $5
  • Diner 85 Broadway, Williamsburg, 718/486-3077, burger $10
  • Marlow & Sons 81 Broadway, Williamsburg, 718/384-1441, entrées from $14
  • Press 195 195 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, 718/857-1950
  • Franny's 295 Flatbush Ave., Prospect Heights, 718/230-0221
  • Applewood 501 11th St., Park Slope, 718/768-2044, entrées from $19
  • Aurora 70 Grand St., Williamsburg, 718/388-5100, affogato $7
  • Little D Eatery 434 Seventh Ave., Park Slope, 718/369-3144, small plates from $7
  • Patois 255 Smith St., Carroll Gardens, 718/855-1535, entrées from $13
  • SHOP
    In the world of design, Brooklyn is a major capital. Over the last few years, the industry has looked to the borough for the latest trends and styles.

    And when the design world talks about Brooklyn, more often than not it's referring to Williamsburg. Once an industrial area known primarily for factories and warehouses, Williamsburg has transformed into a haven for artists, particularly those interested in furniture and product design.

    If a single shop could be pinpointed as the center of the change, it would be The Future Perfect. Dave Alhadeff has created a shop that's known the world over as one of the best places to discover up-and-coming designers. The merchandise is very clever and includes edgy accessories like oil lamps made from recycled (but nonworking) grenades. Once, while traveling in Chicago, I heard shop owners and design students saying "Oh, that's so Future Perfect." You know you've made it when you're an adjective.

    Across the street is a little jewel box of a shop called Sleep. It carries top-notch versions of what the name implies--bedding, pillows, blankets, and lingerie--and it always seems like a great place to take a nap. Resist the urge to slumber and pick up a pair of silk PJ's or even a new quilt if you've got the dough. The bedding can be a bit pricey, but the quality is excellent.

    Independent boutique Sodafine recently relocated from Fort Greene to Williamsburg. Artist Erin Weckerle stocks her cheerful olive-green shop with cutting-edge fashion, such as one-of-a-kind handmade shoes and crocheted earrings. This is the place to snag a piece that you won't see on your friends at home.

    Before you leave the 'hood, stop by Ugly Luggage on trendy Bedford Avenue and PS9 on North Ninth Street. The former specializes in retro furniture and accessories (such as old church pews, desks, and typewriters), while the latter stocks the coolest of the cool in pet gear. I love the modern cat scratchers in hot pink and electric blue.

    Traveling south (on the subway's G line) you'll bump right into Atlantic Avenue, home to a long stretch of vintage and antiques stores. Darr, where there's everything from mid-20th-century chairs and tables to outright oddities (think antique surgery tools, masonry, and glass apothecary jars), is probably my favorite on the avenue.

    If you're craving more antique furniture and feeling brave, walk down Atlantic to Horseman Antiques; the staff can be surly, but the selection is worth a trip. I've been snapped at for touching things (in a furniture store!) but the store has the stuff to back up the attitude. The things I'll endure for good vintage furniture . . . .

    A short ride from the Bergen Street stop on the F line is Tivoli Home, a tiny Scandinavian store tucked into a corner of the General Store (a coffee shop) in Dumbo. Tivoli carries a nice collection of Danish dish towels and ceramics and larger pieces like pendant lamps and glass candelabras.

    One of the reasons I moved to Park Slope was the fantastic selection of shops, like Cog & Pearl, a Fifth Avenue institution carrying goods such as blown-glass jewelry, ceramic bowls, and trays refashioned from street signs; Bird, a chic clothing shop with a branch for babies next door; modern-design store Matter, which is often compared to The Future Perfect but deserves distinction of its own; and Rare Device, a small shop specializing in indie clothing, accessories, and home decor.

    Park Slope is also where the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. makes its home. The store is affiliated with the 826NYC literacy program, founded by writer Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What). The front half of the store sells gallons of "invisibility powder," secret identity kits, capes, and other superhero necessities. Proceeds go toward a free tutoring service, reachable through a hidden door in the back.

    Grab a cab or the B77 bus and make your way to Red Hook, one of the borough's hotter spots. At Erie Basin, Russell Whitmore has pulled together an exceptional collection of antique furniture, accessories, and jewelry. Check out the vintage cameos--they're stunning.

  • The Future Perfect 115 N. Sixth St., Williamsburg, 718/599-6278, thefutureperfect.com
  • Sleep 110 N. Sixth St., Williamsburg, 718/384-3211, sleepbrooklyn.com
  • Sodafine 119 Grand St., Williamsburg, 718/230-3060, sodafine.com
  • Ugly Luggage 214 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, 718/384-0724
  • PS9 9 N. Ninth St., Williamsburg, 718/486-6465, ps9pets.com
  • Darr 369 Atlantic Ave., Boerum Hill, 718/797-9733, shopdarr.com
  • Horseman Antiques 351 Atlantic Ave., Boerum Hill, 718/596-1048
  • Tivoli Home 111 Front St., Dumbo, 718/666-3050, tivolihome.com
  • Cog & Pearl 190 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, 718/623-8200, cogandpearl.com
  • Bird 430 Seventh Ave., Park Slope, 718/768-4940, shopbird.com
  • Matter 227 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, 718/230-1150, mattermatters.com
  • Rare Device 453 Seventh Ave., Park Slope, 718/301-6375, raredevice.net
  • Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. 372 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, 718/499-9884, superherosupplies.com
  • Erie Basin 388 Van Brunt St., Red Hook, 718/554-6147, eriebasin.com
  • PLAY
    The bright lights of Manhattan may lure visitors to sleek clubs and trendy gallery openings, but Brooklyn has something edgier and hipper for those seeking real fun in the city (without dress codes and notorious socialites).

    Whether you're looking to catch a daytime concert in an abandoned pool (at McCarren Park in Williamsburg), play bocce while you drink your beer (at Floyd, NY in Carroll Gardens), or see a live Balkan brass band (at Barbès in Park Slope), Brooklyn has you covered.

    One of my favorite spots is right around the corner from my apartment--the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It show-cases some of the most beautiful flora the city has to offer and hosts the breathtaking cherry blossom festival each April. After you tiptoe through the tulips (and lilacs and orchids), take a short walk down Washington Avenue and visit the renowned Brooklyn Museum. The recently redesigned façade--a sheer glass pavilion created by Polshek Partnership Architects--is representative of the museum's dedication to contemporary art. The museum also has a fantastic series of kids' programs.

    Even small towns boast yoga classes these days, but nothing quite compares to the outdoor Sunset Yoga classes offered by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy. Bring a mat and prepare to be awed by the view of the Manhattan skyline.

    Unlike Manhattan, Brooklyn has a significant amount of open space. From rambling parks and playgrounds to vast rooftops, Brooklyn places an emphasis on getting outside and enjoying the natural beauty of the borough. One of Brooklyn's most beloved alfresco activities starts at a mere $8. Every Friday and Saturday night, and some Thursdays, in summer the Rooftop Films association hosts a festival of shorts and features at various locations, such as on warehouse roofs or at parks. Filmmakers can even submit their own efforts for consideration. I'm sure nothing beats seeing your hard work projected on a screen while gazing out at the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges.

    If you're in Williamsburg, check out the newly reopened McCarren Park Pool. A popular public pool in the '30s and '40s, it was closed in the mid-'80s and became known primarily for its rather seedy nighttime inhabitants. But a few years ago the city cleaned it up, and now the space is used for dance and music performances. It's one of the hottest places to see bands like Sonic Youth and the Walkmen perform in the summer.

    Music fans will also want to hit Southpaw on Park Slope's Fifth Avenue. Once a small venue specializing in great local bands, Southpaw has become a rock and roll institution, attracting nationally known acts like Cat Power and Sufjan Stevens. Looking for something a bit more eclectic? Moto, in south Williamsburg, is under the tracks of the J, M, and Z subway lines (look for the bike hanging above the door). The owners, both motorcycle renovators, have created an old-world European feel where you can hear live bluegrass and klezmer music while drinking a pint of the Belgian ale Corsendonk or one of the amazing wine selections.

    The Riviera gallery on Metropolitan Avenue is part of Williamsburg's growing gallery scene. Some of the most interesting artists and illustrators around, such as Hyemi Cho and Dan Funderburg, have shown there lately.

    Any Brooklyn story would be lacking if it didn't mention two classic spots. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (who created Central Park in Manhattan), Prospect Park occupies more than 585 acres in the heart of the borough. With soccer and baseball fields and wide-open areas for picnics, the park is one of the few places where city residents can escape into nature. If sunbathing isn't for you, check out the pedal boats in the lake.

    And these days, Coney Island is far more than the beach, Nathan's Famous hot dogs, and the Cyclone roller coaster. You can root for a minor-league baseball team, the Cyclones; gasp at the Mermaid Parade (Brooklyn's answer to Mardi Gras, this year's is June 23); and listen to great music at The Village Voice's Siren Music Festival in July. There's a buzz in the area: A group called Creative Time gathered artists to do pro bono work, painting signs and sprucing up storefronts and concession stands.

    My favorite entertainment spot in Brooklyn, Pete's Candy Store, holds a special place in my heart as the site of my first date with my boyfriend. Pete's serves tasty drinks and bar food, but is best known for its weekly events, like a reading series, stand-up comedy, and even a spelling bee. Grab a pint and make a night of it. You'll be glad you came.

  • McCarren Park Pool Lorimer St. and Driggs Ave., Williamsburg, 212/639-9675, nycgovparks.org
  • Floyd, NY 131 Atlantic Ave., Carroll Gardens, 718/858-5810, floydny.com
  • Barbès 376 Ninth St., Park Slope, 718/965-9177, barbesbrooklyn.com
  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden 900 Washington Ave., Prospect Heights, 718/623-7200, bbg.org, $5, closed Mon.
  • Brooklyn Museum 200 Eastern Pkwy., Prospect Heights, 718/638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org, $8, closed Mon. and Tues.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, Dumbo, 718/802-0603, brooklynbridgepark.org
  • Rooftop Films 718/417-7362, rooftopfilms.com
  • Southpaw 125 Fifth Ave., Park Slope, 718/230-0236, spsounds.com
  • Moto 394 Broadway, Williamsburg, 718/599-6895, circa1938.com
  • The Riviera 103 Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg, 718/599-5589, seeyouattheriviera.com
  • Prospect Park 718/965-8999, prospectpark.org
  • Coney Island 718/372-5159, coneyisland.com
  • Pete's Candy Store 709 Lorimer St., Williamsburg, 718/302-3770, petescandystore.com

  • WALKING MAPS!
    Use these handy maps to explore Brooklyn. Just print and go!
    Carroll Gardens
    Park Slope
    Williamsburg