This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Despite being a frequent visitor to New York, I made my very first trip across the Brooklyn Bridge only a fortnight ago with many others from Manhattan as we headed for a Paul Simon concert at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a cultural beacon for the past century. Excellent, crisp pizza at Franny’s after the show, no more than a mile away, made me keen to return to this borough of New York that would, if it were independent, be the fourth largest city in the US in terms of population.
Two evenings later I was back in Brooklyn standing on Fifth Avenue on Park Slope just down from Prospect Park, with Robert W Walsh, the Commissioner for Small Businesses in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, at the beginning of a tour of some of the cafés, bars and restaurants that have sprung up there.
I had sought out Walsh on the recommendation of a successful restaurateur in Manhattan, who, when I had asked for advice on where to eat in the city, had responded immediately, “Head to Brooklyn. Manhattan has just become too expensive for aspiring chefs and restaurateurs to start up on their own.”
Walsh, 49, a broad-shouldered, determined man who is responsible for all the 200,000 or so small businesses across New York’s 300 distinct neighbourhoods, lives in Brooklyn and is obviously proud of his district. But he was quick to acknowledge the role Manhattan’s restaurateurs have played in Brooklyn’s renaissance.
“Over the past decade a number of leading restaurateurs in Manhattan have developed and encouraged the careers of their chefs, pastry chefs, barmen and waiting staff and instilled in them an entrepreneurial spirit. When they’ve finally come to the decision that it’s time to start something on their own, they’ve decided to open here. From a cost perspective it’s a combination of rents and construction costs being considerably lower. But there’s also now a large, talented labour pool, many of whom used to commute into Manhattan until these places opened.”
What also struck me as we walked along to our first pit-stop was quite how attractive this neighbourhood was. Because of the steep slope down from the park to the East River, Brooklyn is rather reminiscent of San Francisco, while the two- and three-storey nineteenth-century buildings reminded me of some of Sydney’s more charming suburbs. There was no evidence at all of the ubiquitous chains or the many tall buildings that now dominate Manhattan.
This impression was reinforced by our first two stops. The Trois Pommes pâtisserie was opened a year ago by Emily Isaac, who had until then been pastry chef at Union Square Café. Despite, or because of, the fact that she was now working 60-70 hours each week, she said that the response to her transformation of a former furniture store into a tea house had been even better than she expected, a reaction that did not surprise me on the basis of the peanut butter cookies, red velvet cup cakes and rhubarb crumble we polished off.
Perhaps Isaac’s cakes and obviously gentle nature had softened me up even more than any cocktail would have done because by the time we had settled into our table at the al di la trattoria a few doors away I was already convinced that I had walked into a very sympathetically designed and extremely well run restaurant.
al di la, opened by Anna Klinger, who also used to cook in Manhattan, takes no reservations but copes with the demand for its excellent, rustic Italian food by using its wine bar, al di la vino, just round the corner as a waiting room. The restaurant itself feels somehow bohemian with its stamped tin ceiling, a large chandelier in the middle of the room, and a big, colourful drape along the far wall above the bar and kitchen. The tables are of simple, slightly distressed looking wood but offset by white linen runners. It could be an opera set.
Duane, our waiter for the night, earned brownie points from me for avoiding the usual mistake of reciting that evening’s specials without bothering to mention the price of any of them. Instead, he ended a detailed but not over-long description of the half a dozen on offer that night with their price before leaving us to make up our minds.
This proved much more difficult than we had expected and even the arrival of a friend of Walsh’s, which allowed us a larger permutation of dishes, didn’t seem to make our decisions any easier. Instead, we stalled by ordering cichetti Veneziani, Venetian tapas of salt cod balls, octopus and white beans and sweet and sour sardines before finally plunging for a fascinating combination of squid, octopus and polenta; ravioli filled with beetroot and ricotta and topped intriguingly with poppy seeds; chicken with a fennel salad; a lamb shank that had been braised for just the right time; and a dish of tripe that any Florentine cook would have been proud of. It was an impressive display. Once some very well made ice creams had been cleared away, Walsh’s astute comment was, “Boy, that was good.”
From our window table Walsh had a good view across the street, where a corner site had now been illuminated by Moutarde, a French brasserie that opened last year, throwing into contrast the still rather run-down buildings next door. “All these new openings have had two significant effects for my department,” Walsh explained. “The first is that whenever busy restaurants have opened on the ground floor they have invariably led to the rest of the building being renovated for residential use, which in turn leads to greater security for everyone as there are now more people looking out on to the streets. And the second is that there was great concern here until recently that when a lot of the old Mom and Pop stores eventually closed down they would be taken over by the big chains. Instead, they’ve been replaced by chefs and restaurateurs, a new generation of independent businesses.”
To prove that the restaurant-led renaissance of Fifth Avenue in Carroll Gardens was no flash in the pan, Walsh then took me to The Jake Walk on Smith Street, the third opening from Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda, that specialises in cheese and wine, and for a final beer at Stephanie Schneider’s very cool, but equally loud, Huckleberry Bar in Williamsburg. While we were there Walsh admitted that overall conditions had been conducive to these restaurants’ success: crime and public safety were at an all-time low and a strong financial sector combined with New York’s tourist boom fuelled by a weak dollar had all played their part.
But Walsh could not have been more effusive in his praise for all that these restaurateurs had achieved. “The pace of renovation has picked up enormously,” he concluded. “Now what I’d really like to do is put together a busload of restaurateurs from Manhattan and take them on a tour of the Bronx and east New York and see how we can achieve the same improvements over there.”