Brooklyn Then & Now

published Feb 27, 2016
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(Image credit: Kerry Brown / 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation )

The borough depicted in Brooklyn, one of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture, is a nostalgic, blue-collar departure from today’s posh condos flaunting shiny granite kitchens. While 21st-century Brooklyn remains proudly anchored to its deep ethnic roots, it is no longer defined by middle-class families savoring carefree afternoons on brownstone stoops or parish dances (leading, many immigrant women hoped, to a potential suitor). And food is one powerful way of chronicling Brooklyn’s transformation.

The Way We Were

Gathering around the dinner table, families of yore eagerly savored home-cooked meals spawned from cherished recipes. The Sicilian grandmother who spoke little English might have ritualistically spent her Sundays patiently stirring a pot of tomato sauce in a Williamsburg apartment building, while a daughter might have dutifully helped her mother dress tender brisket with horseradish sauce inside one in Midwood.

Meals were eaten outside the home, too, of course. Teenagers loved their cheesecake sessions at Junior’s on the corner of Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues; businessmen relished traversing the Williamsburg Bridge in the name of hefty Porterhouses at Peter Luger Steakhouse; and when they weren’t chowing down on clams at Lundy’s, chances are Sheepshead Bay families were unwrapping tender roast beef sandwiches at Roll-N-Roaster.

Some of these relics thankfully still exist. Williamsburg fixture Bamonte’s remains a well-preserved retro shrine to red sauce, grocery stores in Greenpoint continue to stock Polish delicacies, and immigrants from the Middle East and Mexico alike infuse the borough with vibrancy (and killer labneh and tacos).

The Times They Are a Changin’

But bygone Brooklyn has largely vanished. In its stead are myriad restaurants, often small and airy, that herald ingredients procured from farms. There might be a tin ceiling, furniture crafted from sustainable wood, and a bar churning out pretty little cocktails made with homemade lemon-verbena syrup. The diners will often be young, brandishing tattoos and strollers in equal measure. Just as vintage Brooklyn was tinged in possibility, a future in the new one is especially heady if you’re at the helm of a restaurant.

“Brooklyn has become this unique space that now stands as a leader in culinary innovation,” says Andrew Whitcomb, the chef at Colonie, a calming Brooklyn Heights restaurant serving dishes like blistered duck eggs and romanesco soup with beer vinegar to loyal locals. “The Brooklyn style of eating and dining is spreading across the world, with Brooklyn-inspired restaurants popping up in Paris, Italy, and Tokyo.”

Milestone restaurants paved the way: On Smith Street, snaking through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, boasted (now-shuttered) the Grocery was one of the first restaurants to emphasize seasonal cooking. Restaurateur Andrew Tarlow’s empire hatched with Diner, a Williamsburg diner car where waitstaff informally scrawled the menu before patrons’ eyes on the paper tablecloth. The crowds lined up for beet-filled ravioli at Al di La, Park Slope’s contemporary twist on Italian cooking, just as Franny’s, in Prospect Heights, helped solidify the “artisanal” movement by offering crackling pizzas laden with straight-from-the-farmers-market goods.

Incidentally, Al di La roughly translates as “on the other side,” a nod to the fact that the restaurant, when it opened, was in a commercial dead zone. Today, the Brooklyn dining scene from Ditmas Park to Bedford-Stuyvesant to Red Hook is brimming with options, although there’s still appetite for new entrants.

Missy Robbins, the long-celebrated chef of A Voce in Manhattan, just opened the Italian restaurant Lilia in an old Williamsburg auto-body shop, where she makes the likes of ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto and lamb leg steak. “Brooklyn wants new restaurants, and there is a ton of room for new places and chefs. People, particularly in this neighborhood are craving quality and restaurants they can eat in frequently,” she says.

Another neighborhood to watch is Gowanus. Straddling Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, the neighborhood has an alluringly quiet, industrial feel. One restaurant slated to open here is Freek’s Mill from JT Stewart and Maxime Giordani, alums of Manhattan’s Casa Mono and Bar Jamon, along with chef Chris Shaner, who used to work at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café. “Gowanus is just now developing a foothold in the Brooklyn food scene, which gave us an exciting opportunity,” says Stewart, who adds that skyrocketing rents in Manhattan have made Brooklyn a more attractive place for chefs and restaurants. “The money saved in rent gives more freedom for creativity, and at reasonable prices for our customers.”

All Together Now

Fostering community was highly valued in the mid-century Brooklyn of the film, written by Nick Hornby and based on the bestseller by Irish novelist Colm Tóibín. And although the borough’s become far ritzier in the ensuing decades, for some chefs this old-fashioned essential is still a priority. As Robbins says: “It is amazing to see familiar faces daily that have already become regulars.”

And Whitcomb says that despite the borough’s abundance of fresh “hipness,” he feels honoring Brooklyn’s history is crucial. “This borough is surrounded by different ethnic communities. I’m constantly inspired every day and able to channel that into my work.”