Brooklyn for Beginners

Brooklyn for Beginners

Philip Scalia/Alamy
Philip Scalia/Alamy
A walking tour of the borough's best, all just minutes from Manhattan

Travelers to New York are usually a hardy lot, traipsing through Times Square's garish neon glow at all hours of the night, ascending the heights of the Empire State Building, and packing themselves onto boats bound for the Statue of Liberty. Yet when it comes to crossing the East River, they grow timid. It's a shame, because they miss the borough that is at turns more exotic and more American than any other place on earth, one whose name has been applied to Italian chewing gum, Spanish cigarettes, even characters in Japanese movies.

Two neighborhoods offer the best introduction: Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. To get to the Heights, take the subway or a cab—or walk across the Brooklyn Bridge—to Borough Hall. Its dignified columns and bell tower suggest the city hall it once was (Brooklyn did not become part of New York City until 1898). Several streets lead west from Cadman Plaza to the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade—which locals call the promenade—but the most interesting walk is along the lavish row mansions of Pierrepont Street, reminders of the Heights' role as the cradle of old Brooklyn money.

It's best to visit the promenade in the morning, as the rising sun's rays smack into the mirrored façades of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. The orange Staten Island ferry, laden with commuters, plods back and forth, while nimbler smaller craft round Manhattan's tip. Helicopters buzz in and out of the heliport directly across the river. You may even see wet-suited figures on Jet Skis skipping over the water. While the East River is not as polluted as it once was, the Jet Skiers' enthusiasm is, well, questionable.

Walk a few paces down the promenade, away from the bridge, and turn inland at Montague Street, the Heights' commercial strip. In warm weather, restaurant tables spill out onto the sidewalk, giving the street the feel of a blocks-long outdoor café. Several national chains have staked out territory on Montague, but the street hasn't completely surrendered. It's your choice: a cup of joe at a Starbucks like any other (112 Montague St.; 718/243-0455), or one at local favorite Ozzie's (136 Montague St.; 718/ 852-1553). A short distance along, Montague intersects Clinton Street, where the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity stands on the northwest corner. Currently under renovation (it was a structural casualty of the rumbling of the subway that runs beneath it), the church no longer has its neo-Gothic spire, but it does retain an even greater treasure: the first stained-glass windows made in the United States, installed five years after the church was built in 1844.

Turn right onto Clinton Street and walk the six short blocks to Atlantic Avenue. Along the way, at Livingston Street, you'll pass the original home of St. Ann's, whose congregation has merged with Holy Trinity's. The bulky, ornate building is an imposing presence on these narrow streets.

If the churches haven't convinced you that God is in his heaven, then the variety of food available on Atlantic Avenue will. From the intersection of Clinton and Atlantic, you can make a choice. A right turn will take you to La Bouillabaisse (145 Atlantic Ave.; 718/522-8275), a busy French bistro famous for the dish after which it's named. (La Bouillabaisse is BYOB, so first you might want to stop by the wine store a few doors down.) Food this good would cost nearly twice as much on the other side of the bridge. If the line for La Bouillabaisse is long, try Meson Flamenco, a nearby tapas bar with weekend flamenco shows (135 Atlantic Ave.; 718/625-7177).

A left turn on Atlantic will take you past a dozen Middle Eastern food stores and restaurants, all squeezed onto a single block. Sniff around Sahadi Importing Co. (187 Atlantic Ave.; 718/624-4550): you'll find the heady scents of dates, olives, dried apricots, nuts, and coffee, sold by the pound from open canvas sacks. For wonderful baklava—and every other Middle Eastern pastry—step into Damascus Bakery (195 Atlantic Ave.; 718/625-7070), tucked behind an unassuming storefront on the north side of the street.

Continue south on Clinton until you reach Cobble Hill Park. If your appetite has managed to survive Atlantic Avenue, a good choice is Café on Clinton, an attractive hangout with reasonable prices and a wide selection of microbrews (268 Clinton St.; 718/625-5908).

Running along the southern edge of the park is Verandah Place, a narrow lane lined with squat houses and converted stables. Walking through the mews will make you feel as if you've traveled back 150 years to when the houses were built. Thomas Wolfe once lived in the basement of number 40; in You Can't Go Home Again he described barring his windows "to keep the South Brooklyn thugs from breaking in." The thugs, like Wolfe, have long since departed.

At the other end of Verandah Place is Henry Street. Turn left, walk a few steps, and then cross Henry and continue westward down Warren Street. Toward the end of the block you'll find Warren Place, a short pedestrian mews; it, too, can make you feel as if you've slipped back a century. The 111/2-foot-wide cottages—built in 1879 as working-class housing—originally rented for $18 a month. Today, with their ivy-lined walkways and façades of wrought iron and brick, they sell for $375,000.

Go back to Henry Street and continue south. On the right, you'll see houses 412- 420, built in 1888 and bought soon after by toy king F.A.O. Schwarz.

Turn left on DeGraw Street; then make another left on Court Street, the heartbeat of Cobble Hill. If the Heights is Brooklyn's Upper East Side, then the former Italian stronghold of Cobble Hill is its Upper West—funkier, more diverse, and wetter behind the ears. Walking north, you'll pass three restaurants on the left: Camille's Clover Hill (272 Court St.; 718/ 875-0895) and Kalio (254 Court St.; 718/ 625-1295), known for their eclectic American food, and Caffè Carciofo, which sticks to its Tuscan roots (248 Court St.; 718/624-7551). Farther up, between Baltic and Warren, is Harvest (218 Court St.; 718/624-9267), which has been drawing a strong local following since it opened late last year. The food is Southern; the sides—greens spiked with lemon and corn bread studded with corn kernels—are standouts.

The new restaurants have added much to Cobble Hill's dining scene, but it wouldn't be Brooklyn without a place like Sam's (238 Court St.; 718/596-3458). Since its opening in 1930, Sam's has been a bastion of honest food and local color, a rock against the waves of gentrification that have swept through the neighborhood. Neither the menu of solid Italian standbys nor the plastic flowers on the tables seem to have changed since Eisenhower was in office.

Court Street's food offerings are not limited to what's found in restaurants. Staubitz Market (222 Court St.; 718/ 624-0014) is an old-fashioned, sawdust-on-the-floor butcher shop. Fratelli Ravioli (200 Court St.; 718/ 330-1183) is a pasta boutique whose awning proclaims not a store, a tradition. After tasting the heavenly smoked mozzarella there, you'll know why. On a diet?Explore the Attic (220 Court St.; 718/643-9535), a tiny antiques store, and Shakespeare's Sister (270 Court St.; 718/694-0084), which stocks the seemingly incendiary combination of stationery and candles, with a coffee bar in the back.

When you've finally finished eating, sipping, and browsing your way up Court Street, you could walk a block west and catch a cab on Clinton. Otherwise, continue north on Court, past Atlantic, and you'll be back at Borough Hall, the starting point of our tour. Whether you take a taxi or the subway back to Manhattan, it should be comforting to know you can take your time returning. Brooklyn will always be here.

Former Brooklynite IAN BALDWIN is a reporter at U.S. News & World Report.

Antiquing in Brooklyn?
Three blocks east of Court Street, Atlantic Avenue becomes Antiques Row, a one-block stretch (between Hoyt and Bond Streets) with 18 stores selling the best of yesteryear. Here are the standouts.
Circa Antiques 337 Atlantic Ave.; 718/596-1866. Pristine pieces, mostly from the 19th century, including a secretary once owned by Andrew Carnegie—its history is written on the bottom of a drawer and dated 1888. And check out the 1940's jukebox with the original oak paneling.
Horseman Antiques 351 Atlantic Ave.; 718/ 596-1048. Probably the biggest of the bunch, this tri-level emporium is packed with furniture from Victorian perfection to early 1980's drab.
In Days of Old 357 Atlantic Ave.; 718/858-4233. Only the very best of late-Victorian cabinets, dinner tables, and hand-carved bookcases, as well as a few beautiful steamer trunks and a 19th-century moth collection.
City Barn 362 Atlantic Ave.; 718/855-8566. This sister of SoHo's upscale City Barn sells sleek Deco and 20th-century coffee tables, couches, and armchairs, all in mint condition.
Time Trader Antiques 368 Atlantic Ave.; 718/ 852-3301. A converted 1917 synagogue with three floors of restored Empire, 30's, and 40's furniture. The building's Star of David mosaics and stained-glass windows are alone worth the trip.
Olde Good Things 400 Atlantic Ave.; 718/ 935-9742. Dig a little, and you'll find brass skeleton keys, tinted-glass doorknobs, turn-of-the-century photo albums, and who knows what else. The store's courtyard across the street is crammed with wrought-iron gates, claw-footed bathtubs, and rusted American highway signs.
—David Knowles

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