Historian, tutor, PhD chaser, freelance academic and a total Brooklyn babe! My gorgeous friend Melissa has been and seen everything that has happened in her ever-evolving borough this past couple of decades. How lucky are you that she’s written a very detailed guide to life in her borough below. So if you want to experience Brooklyn like a local, check out my city guide for New York, including all Melissa’s Brooklyn tips.
I’m a Brooklyn girl, born and raised, which sometimes feels like an endangered species here in this rapidly changing borough. But gentrification discussions aside – and, believe me, I know that is a big aside – I love living in Brooklyn and still know most of the faces I meet on my street. I moved back just over 6 months ago, after five years of living in the Bay Area and London, and Brooklyn welcomed me home with open arms and cocktail kisses.
I live in Ditmas Park, which used to be called Flatbush before the real estate agents discovered it. Ditmas Park is filled with big wooden Victorian houses, spacious yards, and highly unusual and sought-after driveways and garages. I love emerging from the subway and feeling like I’m far away from siren screams, hotdog-infused air and the dodging and weaving of New York’s streets. Ditmas is a quiet leafy respite, and I’m grateful for that. But living in Ditmas does make me biased towards South Brooklyn, and often lazier than I’d like when it comes to going to events and parties in Williamsburg or Bushwick.
I should probably also mention that I’m an unapologetic foodie and boozehound. You are most likely to find me having dinner out, helping a friend roll out homemade pasta for her new supper club, or sipping a cocktail. But, of course, I do try to get some culture under my belt in addition to food and drink in my belly. Oh, and I also love to get dressed up and dance.
So keeping these things in mind, here is my brief guide to the best borough in the world. Come see Brooklyn like a local.
I almost don’t know where to start. But it’s Brooklyn, so let’s start with pizza. In my opinion, the best pizza in NYC as a whole is Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J, in pretty deep Brooklyn. It’s a schlep, and it looks like any other pizza joint, but trust me, it’s not. Other recommendations are Totonno’s in Coney Island (get the white pie), Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, Roberta’s in Bushwick, Saraghina in Bed-Stuy, Emily in Clinton Hill and Wheated in my own neighbourhood, Ditmas Park.
Maybe I should admit here that despite being Eastern European Jews, my parents and I know Italy, love Italy, have lived in Bologna, and would happily eat our collective body weight in pasta. Call us Italian food snobs, fair enough, but we know what we’re talking about. So keep this in mind when I say that our favourite Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, especially for pasta, is Al di La’ in Park Slope. Get there early, no reservations. I also love all the food produced by “the two Frankies,” chefs Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, including Frankies Spuntino and Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, the latter of which also arguably serves the best “Prohibition-era” cocktails in this borough, if not city.
Red Hook is a neighbourhood on the Brooklyn waterfront that is far enough from any subway to have retained the look and feel of a real fisherman’s wharf. Warehouses are interspersed with white clapboard row houses, and the cobble-stoned streets have names that harken back to Brooklyn’s pre-English Dutch days. As you’d expect, there’s great seafood found nearby at the Red Hook Lobster Pound. Less expected is a tiny gem called The Good Fork, on Van Brunt St, coupling American and South Korean comfort food that reflects the couple who owns it. There is also Pok Pok NY (a creative Thai food spot that’s an offshoot of its Portland parent – now closed) and Alma, a Mexican place more worth a trip for its tequila cocktails and roof bar with amazing views, though the food is also solid. And if you are into BBQ, then it doesn’t get much better than Hometown Bar-B-Que, also on Van Brunt, unless you want to head to the American South or Texas.
Fort Greene is another great neighbourhood for food and drink, and my favourites there include Martha (now closed), which has truly masterful Asian-American small-plates, Walter’s for cocktails and nibbles, and Roman’s has become a neighbourhood staple.
There are a lot of great Asian spots in Brooklyn, but one of my favourites is Purple Yam, which serves up Pilipino-based Asian fusion in my own Ditmas Park. Talde in Park Slope, owned by Top Chef Winner Dale Talde, also serves eclectic Asian fusion and some of the best chicken wings I’ve ever tasted. I’m not really a chicken wing person, but Talde’s wings converted me, at least for the night. There has been a ramen revolution in NYC recently, and Chuko Ramen in Prospect Heights serves some of the best. If there is a wait, they just opened Bar Chuko, a traditional Japanese Izakaya (or pub) serving small plates across the street. Brooklyn also has its own Chinatown in Sunset Park, which is both cheaper and less crowded than Manhattan’s. I’d head there for dim sum in particular, at Pacificana or East Harbor Seafood Palace.
If you are willing to make the trek to Sheepshead Bay, you will find an old-school Brooklyn neighbourhood untouched by hipsters, where fishing boats still leave at dawn, and where you can eat great seafood at places like Liman or Randazzo’s Clam Bar.
Finally, I’m not a dessert person at all – I’m more cheese than chocolate – but I have to mention Ample Hills Creamery (3 locations in BK) for ice cream, with flavours like crack caramel or chocolate malted, and sought-after fast-disappearing ice cream sandwiches.
Coffee in Brooklyn
As an itinerant academic, it might seem like I should have the best café’s in Brooklyn researched and card catalogued. But actually, I just go to my local spot on Cortelyou Rd, Café Madeline, which has lots of plugs and poached eggs, again and again, and again. So I asked the advice of my friend Melanie, a café queen and director of an amazing non-profit called The Other Side. Her recommendations are Colson Patisserie, Park Slope (French bakery, art by local artists on the wall); 61 Local, Cobble Hill (coffee tea, wine and beer, food, all local. Performances, poetry, open mic in event space upstairs); Root Hill Cafe, South Park Slope/Greenwood (teeny artsy cafe); Vineapple, Brooklyn Heights (extremely quiet but a nice atmosphere. Great for working or reading, not having a conversation); and finally, DuJour Bakery (cafe with food and wine in Park Slope. Nice place for small quiet company). I also sometimes go to Outpost Lounge on Fulton St.
This category is going to be hard for me! How to choose? How to organize? It’s almost as if I’m writing a mini-dissertation! So I’m going to do this vaguely by neighbourhood. It also feels like I’m sending out an email to a birthday party: apologies to all the bars I forgot to invite, it’s not personal!
Right after college, I lived in Gowanus, a neighbourhood named after Brooklyn’s favourite and most-polluted canal. I used to go to dance parties thrown by the queer art collective Cheryl at The Bell House, and in the summer, I’d head to the tongue-and-cheek-named Gowanus Yacht Club to sip $2 PBRs (for the Brits, this is the hippest bad beer in town). Now the neighbourhood has gotten a bit fancier, with places like the Royal Palms, a warehouse-sized bar and “shuffleboard club” that feels like you stepped behind the scenes of an early Beach Boys concert… in a slightly forced and off-putting way. More relaxed bars in the area are Halyards, Lowland Bar, and Canal Bar.
But my current favourite bars these days are both in Clinton Hill: Sisters is a sleek modern wood-panelled bar that is straight-up gorgeous to look at. The cocktails are tasty, as is the food, if not a bit overpriced. But it’s great for a one-stop night in, with music, DJs and dancing later in the evening. When the weather turns warm – or warmish – I head to Hot Bird, also in Clinton Hill. Warning: there is no fried chicken served… it’s named after a long-closed chicken joint. Instead, there is an on-site food truck, reasonably priced well-made drinks, and a huge outdoor area with a fire pit when things get chilly… this is my go-to bar for bigger gatherings.
My love affair with the elusive Red Hook does not just involve food, but great bars as well. Bait and Tackle and Brooklyn Ice House are literally right next to each other, and both have a similarly relaxed almost dive-bar feel. Yet, reflecting the cosy community vibe of Red Hook as a whole, these bars are more friendly neighbours than competitors. Everybody knows each other, and for my friends who live in Red Hook, walking into Ice House is like walking into someone’s house party… but outsiders are welcome! Drag Queen Karaoke at Hope and Anchor (now closed) is also a great way to spend a weekend night.
My absolute favourite place to dance right now is Friends and Lovers in Crown Heights, with amazing DJs, and not-to-be-missed Soul Nights. You’ll never want to head to Manhattan clubs again, I promise! Another local spot is Franklin Park, which is a chill beer garden by day but gets dancy at night, with a fun diverse crowd. The Bell House, mentioned above, also has good dance parties – often with a theme that will make you pull out the fancy dress.
In North Brooklyn, The Woods has music and dancing, with a great hip-hop night on Thursdays.
Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick tends towards the electronic music parties, often with no cover. Union Pool is another classic spot that I’ve been going to for ages, and while it can be fun, it can occasionally disappoint.
Music spots in Brooklyn
I used to go to more shows in my misspent youth, but academic life and laziness have taken its toll, and frankly, I’m embarrassed to admit my current tenure in Brooklyn has left me listening to the sound of silence. (Who doesn’t love a Simon & Garfunkel joke?!) I asked my musically plugged-in filmmaker lady-friends Samantha and Elisa for advice on this one. Elisa wrote, “Issue Project Room, Roulette and Dream House for all your weirdo music needs,” and Sam added Trans-Pecos, a great spot in Ridgewood to hear underground music with a really nice backyard space, and beautiful murals on the wall. Ridgewood is in Queens, not Brooklyn, but I agree should be included in this guide!
Cultural things and activities for a history nerd
The Brooklyn Flea Market is open all year round, and always makes for a great afternoon, and a guaranteed way to find vintage clothes, handmade made knick-knacks and locally made snacks. April–October it is outdoors on the weekends in Ft. Greene and Williamsburg. November through March it moves indoors.
Also, check out what’s happening at Pioneer Works, a brick 19th-century warehouse turned into an art space in Red Hook where you can see really great performance art, live music and some really great painting shows. As my friend Samantha mentioned, they now have a music residency curated by Genesis B Porridge and Ariel Pink among others. While in Red Hook, check out the Freebird Bookstore, and then eat and drink at one of the places mentioned above.
Visit the Old Stone House in Park Slope, a reconstructed 1699 Dutch farmhouse that was central to the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War.
Finally, the Brooklyn Museum offers art, history, and natural history in one place and is NYC’s third-largest museum. As a history nerd, I love their period rooms, but they also have one of the most important feminist art collections in the world, including Judy Chicago’s famous 1970s installation, The Dinner Party. The Brooklyn Museum pushes boundaries for a museum its size, and during its First Saturdays’ events, there is live music, DJs, and the museums are open late… something about wandering a museum at night has a naughty magical feel.