THERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when I greeted every empty storefront in my Brooklyn neighborhood with feverish anticipation. Perhaps some crafty entrepreneur has sussed out the need for a new restaurant, I'd think, only to find the niche filled a few months later by a store that boasted "We sell human hair" or a travel agent specializing in flights to Yemen. ("Yemen only!" he cried when I foolishly tried to book a flight to Chicago.)
Boerum Hill, just south of downtown Brooklyn, has always been a bit of a hodgepodge, falafel on one corner, cannoli on the next. Indeed, it was this lack of pretension that first drew me to the neighborhood four years ago. Still, a vague wish list was forming in the back of my mind. A few more restaurants would be nice, I thought. Good ones with comfortable chairs and handsome waiters. Places to go when you wanted to impress a snob with the excellence of Brooklyn or woo a new love with soft lights and strong wine. When friends came to visit, I knew just where they could purchase human hair, but at dinnertime we still defaulted to Manhattan.
Lately, though, it seems like someone has sent my wish list to the big boys across the river. There's been a restaurant explosion in my neighborhood, and most of the newcomers have opened on Smith Street, once a decrepit stretch of five-and-dime stores and laundromats. It isn't just Boerum Hill that's booming, either. Friends report that exciting new places to eat are springing up all over Brooklyn, run by ambitious young chefs who trained at major restaurants in Manhattan but couldn't afford the rents there. The Manhattanization of Brooklyn, the papers were calling it, so I set out on an eating tour of my neighborhood to see if it was true.