A borough becomes an idea—and dinner is never the same again.
Those long of tooth and geologic of mind might thank the Wisconsin glaciation for Brooklyn’s incandescent and enduring influence on the way we eat today. Twenty thousand years ago, an ice sheet charging across the country like a slow-mo bat-outta-hell carved out the East River, separating the island of Manhattan from the land mass of Brooklyn in such a way that the estuary was spannable years later by a series of bridges and tunnels. Spanned it was—in 1883, 1903 and 1909—and tunneled under too, most saliently in 1924 with the 14th street tunnel through which the L train runs, such that by the turn of the 21st century, Brooklyn rested in an equilibrium between remote and accessible, tilled and untilled, potential and kinetic energy. Thus did it become the fertile crescent for American restaurants.
In the last fifteen years, with the bell curve bulging in the early- to mid-aughts, there was nowhere more influential than Kings County when it came to reimagining what the American restaurant could be. The confluence of time and place in the borough’s kitchens created the culinary equivalent of the Swinging 60’s. Every restaurant was Sgt. Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon or Pet Sounds. The key, then as now and as Virginia Woolf knew back in 1929, was a room of one’s own. In Brooklyn, this was the happy after-effects of the ice age which gave space to the imaginative faculties of its chefs to work from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
Manhattan has the skyscrapers and, tiny island as she is, an immense density made diamantine brilliant by constant pressure. Unable to grow out, she grows up. Unable to sit still, she churns and iterates and eats herself up. Brooklyn, however, is part of the much larger Long Island and still has space. This space extends to the east all the way to the Atlantic Ocean to the north all the way to Queens. There’s space to sprawl, space for kitchens and dining rooms to expand, space not to grow up but to remain young and carefree or nearly free or at least affordable, for a chef with a dream.
Ask any chef today what the constraints are against experimentation and you’ll usually get some variant on the razor-thinness of margins, on the imperative for a quick and substantial ROI, on the need to have two turns every night to keep the lights on. This leads to two deleterious consequences—The Tyranny of the Burger and the Tasting Menu—from which Brooklyn has been largely spared.
As for the first, I aver that the ambitions of a restaurant that relies on solid base-hits like burgers and fried things will always be limited in scope. They can be Billy Joel, that is, but never Bob Dylan. However, when a restaurant steps up to the plate in a high-pressure, high-cost arena like Manhattan, it is prudent and probably necessary to limit oneself to easy and safe plays. Thus comfort food has proliferated, filling seats and stomachs but often leaving the mind unengaged.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, restaurants of great ambition must bankroll those ambitions with equally stratospheric prices which raise the barrier of entry to the extent that though the art is indeed fine, the air is so rarefied few can breathe it. These restaurants, the names of which are well-known to all, are the Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Brilliant, but who has cannons lying around in the orchestra pit?
Brooklyn, on the other hand, up until recently at least, offers restaurateurs a little bit more leash to explore. Rents were cheaper, spaces were more spacious, the landscape less. At the same time, Manhattan adjacency more or less meant that the market was there and the talent, too.
There can be no quibbling that Manhattan, since the days of Delmonico’s and certainly since the 1939 World’s Fairs’s Le Pavillon, has been the epicenter of fine dining in America. And like Broadway hopefuls, aspiring authors, far-flung weirdos, chefs too have flocked to the city’s kitchens for generations. Each carried forward and fostered that fine dining spark but Brooklyn, with the exception of certain steakhouses and red-sauce joints, proved immune. So when it came time for new arrivals and Manhattan emigrants to seek shelter in Brooklyn, they were hungry and happily there were chefs eager and able to feed them.
Take for instance Caroline Fidanza, who was the chef at Diner, the beach-head of Brooklyn restaurants, established in 1998 by a handsome bartender and painter named Andrew Tarlow in a rust-covered old dining car at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. Fidanza had worked at some of Manhattan’s best restaurants, like Po under Mario Batali and at Peter Hoffman’s Savoy, but lived nearby. Fidanza had the bona fides but at Diner, she, Tarlow and a band of outsiders had the space to create their own world. By equal parts happy coincidence, necessity and conviction they began to connect farms with their bare metal tables in the badlands, making farm-to-table something that wasn’t limited to those with second houses who wouldn’t blink twice at a three figure check.
Further South and a little later, two guys named Frank—Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli—who had cut their teeth in Manhattan at Jean Claude and Bouley (Castronovo) and with David Burke, Charlie Palmer and Drew Nieporent (Falcinelli) turned an old Italian social club in Carroll Gardens into what they called a “spuntino.” Frankies in those days felt like a Tony Bennett duet album. The old and young commingled, each perfectly realized and glamorous in their own way. There was a garden and moonlit cavatelli served under the thick cloud of bonhomie. Thus laid were the seeds of the famous Empire of the Franks and more importantly the template for a sort of swan like restaurant, which was casual on the surface but ferociously paddling underneath. A visit to any number of early Brooklyn restaurants, like Sharon Pachter and Charles Kiely’s Carroll Gardens’ gem The Grocery or Saul Bolton’s eponymous bistro Saul, would reveal a tableaux of neighborly conviviality in which the exquisitely wrought brushstrokes of the food were rather downplayed by the informal warmth of the scene unfolding. It was embryonic, unironic hipster nonchalance.
Nowadays, the Brooklyn restaurant scene has become both wilder and weirder as well as more professional and Manhattanite. Brooklyn has gone from a borough to both a borough and an idea. Even in Brooklyn, there’s a sense of “Brooklyn.” There are now regional Brooklyns popping across the country—though they are entirely their own things too, which is confusingly part of their Brooklyn-ness. Brooklyn has come to mean freedom to make one’s own way.
In the actual borough, culinary cross-river traffic has become hot, heavy and two-way. Some chefs incubate in Brooklyn and then head into the city, while an equal amount—Andrew Carmellini, Michael Psilakis and others—make the reverse commute into the borough. As rents have risen and Williamsburg’s once rugged waterfront has been replaced with gleaming condo buildings, experimentation and with it greatness has been pushed further East into Bushwick and north into Queens and South into Crown Heights. Roberta’s and Blanca continue to be a Shambhala off the Morgan Avenue stop, where Carlo Mirarchi’s rock-n-roll pizzeria has grown into a compound that includes a radio station, an adjacent two-Michelin star tasting menu counter, a little bit of a farm and a lot of attitude. Deeper in Bushwick on Jefferson Avenue, Faro’s Kevin Adey is extremely and fruitfully obsessed with pasta arcana and ancient grains. A recent menu item is scarpinocc with wild mushroom, burgundy truffle and ricotta.
From Brooklyn came veggie-forward tasting menus long before that was a thing (Semilla) and strange fusion as improbable as true love (Shalom Japan, from a pair of married chefs), the original Aska and the new iteration of Aska too, fine dining paired with beer (Luksus) and a bistro in a former garage (Le Garage) and a pastificio in a former garage (Lilia) too. There’s heady Peruvian food (Llama Inn) and maritime Welsh fare (Sunken Hundred). Many restaurants have farms in their backyards (Olmsted) or farm-like gardens (Faun) or farms upstate (Egg).
There are many more restaurants from the Franks and many more from Tarlow, and those begat others which begat others. And today, there are so many hotspots there that Brooklyn seen from space, which is what Brooklyn is all about anyway, is a solid web of brilliant light. But most importantly, Brooklyn seen from the table is electric, delicious and still free.