New York’s most populous borough has become famous for its brand of urban cool, but the brownstone neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights haven’t been part of that story—until now. Howie Kahn visits the restaurants and shops driving the area’s renaissance.

By Howie Kahn
December 06, 2015
Brooklyn's New Frontier
Sincerely, Tommy, a new boutique in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
| Credit: Tukka Koski

One recent Sunday on a leafy, shaded stretch of Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Kai Avent-deLeon was styling a photo shoot for the website of Sincerely, Tommy, her shop on the ground floor of a building owned by her grandmother. Her model, an Australian graphic designer named Thembi Hanify, sported a color-blocked ensemble of shorts and a long-sleeved top in baby blue, sherbet orange, black, and white, which bore the label of the Austrian designer Arthur Arbesser. The outfit cost around $1,000.

If you know anything about Bed-Stuy, it’s probably through rough-and-tumble depictions in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the songs of Biggie Smalls. The tide of change that has brought rustic, artisanal-everything restaurants and perfectly curated curio shops to so much of the borough has now reached this neighborhood, however, along with Crown Heights to the south. This was probably inevitable, though for anyone who remembers the crime and riots that took place here a generation ago, it’s an astonishing transformation. But given the durable sense of community in these historically black enclaves—along with beautiful brownstone-lined blocks that reveal the area’s prosperous origins—it’s no surprise that this part of Brooklyn would attract newcomers. The version of Brooklyn cool that has arrived here feels more graceful and grown-up than the scruffy, hipster domains of Williamsburg and Bushwick to the north, and quieter and more intimate than bustling Fort Greene and Boerum Hill to the west. Sincerely, Tommy wouldn’t be out of place in European districts like Paris’s 11th Arrondisse- ment, London’s Shoreditch, or Copenhagen’s Nørrebro, where small, point-of-view-driven boutiques thrive on sleepy streets that seem more like private discoveries than public thoroughfares. Kai Avent-deLeon, owner of the Bedford-Stuyvesant boutique Sincerely, Tommy; products for sale at the store. Tukka Koski

Avent-deLeon decided last year that the time was right to open Sincerely, Tommy, four blocks from her childhood home. In addition to selling clothing, ceramics, and jewelry, the store serves espressos from a marble-topped bar in front. As we walked to a public-school playground where the shoot would continue on the same blacktop as a pickup basketball game and a Sunday barbecue, Avent-deLeon explained what drew her back to Bed-Stuy after a stint working in Manhattan for Chanel. “Small businesses have always played a big role here,” she said. She mentioned a few examples, like Saraghina, the six-year-old craft-pizza spot owned by former fashion designer Edoardo Mantelli, and Lovers Rock, a recently opened reggae bar. “I appreciate being able to keep discovering my own neighborhood,” she added.

A few blocks away is an ambitious 26-seat restaurant called Willow, a sliver of a place nestled in a gut-renovated former tax office steps away from the end of the elevated S line at Franklin and Fulton, across the street from a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Popeyes. It was opened last April by John Poiarkoff, the 32-year-old chef behind the Pines, a popular New American spot across the borough in Gowanus. At Willow, Poiarkoff cooks with beef aged for 75 days and vegetables grown upstate expressly for his recipes. Because this is still Brooklyn, the menu features a rotating dish of snacks he calls “pickled things.” When I ate there, it also included fava beans tossed in a house-cured-lamb-belly XO sauce spread on toast and hake brined for three hours then slow-poached in butter. Though Willow’s food doesn’t reference the neighborhood’s history—others, like the excellent neo-soul restaurant Peaches, do—Poiarkoff seems to relish his incongruous location. “There’s doughnuts, fried chicken, and us,” he said. The dining room at Willow, in Bedford-Stuyvesant; a dish of hake with shishito peppers and lobster at Willow. Tukka Koski

The sharp blue cheese that accompanies Poiarkoff ’s expertly charred skirt steak matures a few blocks to the other side of Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights, in one of the former lagering tunnels of a long-defunct 19th-century brewery. Crown Finish Caves uses these passages to age cheeses from within 250 miles of New York City, which it distributes to restaurants and specialty stores like Covenhoven, a nearby taproom and beer garden, and Saraghina’s spin-off, Saraghina Bakery.

These neighborhoods owe much of their appeal to their large historic districts, which contain many handsomely preserved 19th-century brownstones and mansions reflecting a broad range of architectural styles. Unlike, say, Williamsburg, with its ungainly mishmash of recent residential and commercial developments, this is an exceptionally pleasant place to go for a walk. One of the pedestrian medians on Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights. Tukka Koski

I did just that one Saturday, beginning at Berg’n, a former garage in Crown Heights that is now an airy hall with Annabelle Selldorf picnic tables, a wide selection of beers and wines, and a row of food stalls. My favorite of these was Samesa, from chefs Max and Eli Sussman, which serves excellent shawarma (and pickles, of course). Berg’n is the brainchild of Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby, whose previous ventures, Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, brought buzz, ramen burgers, and curated commerce to other parts of the borough when they were just burgeoning, too. When the duo saw an opportunity to bring the kind of Brooklyn-branded amenity they themselves invented to Crown Heights, they seized it. “We wanted to create an anchor for the neighborhood,” Demby said. “There’s a great future here.” The pizza restaurant Saraghina in Bedford-Stuyvesant; the northern terminus of the elevated S line in Bed-Stuy. Tukka Koski

After passing beneath the S train, I headed south, down Franklin Avenue, checking out neighborhood standbys like Little Zelda, for coffee, and Mayfield, for the raw bar. Over on Classon, the customers in line at Park Delicatessen to purchase fresh floral arrangements studied the skateboard gear and colorful Comme des Garçons wallets also for sale. On Eastern Parkway, I wandered along one of the two beautiful, mellow medians, planted with 1,100 trees of 25 species. The landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed these 30-foot-wide strips in 1866 while they were also developing nearby Prospect Park and expanding Central Park. A century and a half later, I found families sitting on the benches, playing board games and laughing. An elderly woman sold bright-yellow Jamaican Scotch bonnet peppers from a cart. So much of New York encourages you to keep moving. Eastern Parkway asks you to stay.

As the afternoon faded, I headed toward cozy, collegiate Clinton Hill, just west of Bed-Stuy. The dinner line was forming at Emily, which specializes in inventive pizzas. Chef Matthew Hyland turned pies in the wood-burning oven while his wife, Emily, a yoga instructor and poet, greeted guests. Hyland also recently introduced the Emmy burger, to great fanfare. It’s dry-aged, veiled in cheddar, and glazed with Korean-inspired barbecue sauce. Only 25 are served per night. Trying to choose between the burger and pizza is pointless—the only move is to get both. But it was too much food, so after paying the check I wandered the tranquil streets with half a Sophier pie (mozzarella, mustard, sauce, and herbs), gazing at the brownstones bathed in moonlight. I walked until not a single slice remained.