It’s ironic that so many things come full circle in our lives, including where we hang our hat, then don’t for awhile and then do….again! When I was in my early twenties, I used to stay with a childhood friend at his crash pad in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Then, for years, I stayed with friends on the lowest east side, lower west side, upper west side, upper east, even the Bronx, but Brooklyn wasn’t part of my “go-to” anymore despite the fact that it’s become a New York borough gem with its trendy shops and restaurants sprouting up everywhere. While Williamsburg has become the overpriced yuppified hot spot over the last decade, there are other new neighborhoods and sections of neighborhoods getting rejuvenated all the time.
I loved Red Hook when I stayed in the area for an Austrian event a couple of years ago — let’s just say that this marvelous dinner in a funky red brick building on Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Street was incredibly memorable. Central Brooklyn feels more gentrified every day and my local friends concur. In April, I stayed in Brooklyn when I headed back to New York for the New York Travel Festival, and although April is often not the best month to travel to the Big Apple, I lucked out — the weather was glorious and clear blue skies greeted me for 80% of my visit. Let’s go on a walk, shall we?
The event was held part of the time in St. Francis College, which is a beautiful old if not somewhat decadent building.
The closest stop to this area is Borough Hall (see below), which has its own set of history. Much of the original architecture remains, at least for the older government buildings. Brooklyn’s Borough Hall was an interesting place to hold a travel conference because of its history. Panel sessions were surrounded by tall flags and speakers sat in deep leather chairs that seemed to swallow them whole. The hall itself was designed by architects Calvin Pollard and Gamaliel King in the Greek Revival style, and constructed of Tuckahoe marble under the guidance of Stephen Haynes. It was completed in 1848 to be used as the City Hall of the former City of Brooklyn. And so, yeah….it has history, especially by American standards.
While I did more walking than training it, the subway remains a great way to explore Brooklyn. There was a farmer’s market on one Saturday I happened to be there – fresh vegetables and produce was available as was cheese, honey, flowers and plants. On the plaza at Court and Montague Streets, purveyors come and sell their latest at Greenmarket, an event which has been thriving in downtown Brooklyn for over 25 years apparently. Three days a week the market serves the diverse communities of Brooklyn Heights, Clinton Hill, and Downtown Brooklyn by providing a bounty of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, beautiful plants and flowers, grass-fed meat, just-caught Long Island fish, free-range eggs, and grass-fed dairy products. Some of the farmers include American Pride Seafood, Ballard’s Honey, Bread Alone, Central Valley Farm, Fishkill Farms, Millport Dairy and Francesca’s II Bakery.
I stayed a few stops away near Atlantic Avenue — below, one vibrantly colored building I walked passed every day on my way to the subway for the duration of my stay.
Below, a 10-15 minute walk from the above area, which was filled with tons of cute and delicious little Asian eateries and shops. In fact, it was not far from here that I shared a drink or two with fellow travel lovers and writers Charles McCool and Bruce Northam. It happens to be Bruce’s hood, so we toasted to Brooklyn at Bar 169 on Broadway during happy hour one afternoon. It turns out that Bruce knows more about Brooklyn than anyone I’ve ever met and I know at least 20 people who have either lived in Brooklyn or were born there.
Asian food and great dive bars are not all you’ll find in this neighborhood. Like everywhere in New York, there’s a Dunkin Donuts or okay…several. What good is an old fashioned DD coffee without an old fashioned cupcake? I discovered Piece of Velvet -(below). How adorable is this? Given my low carb commitment lately, I was ready to walk out after taking my killer shot when she came running after me requesting that I at least have a sample. It was no sample I left with — she insisted I take an entire piece of cake and so….I did. AND, I broke my great run with no carbs on devouring all of it that warm afternoon accompanied by a medium Dunkin Donuts coffee of course.
Oddly enough, Piece of Velvet was founded in 2013 by Englishman Michael Morgan and since then, locations have opened on Fulton and Lawrence Streets in Brooklyn, in Harlem and on Coney Island, a place we must venture back to soon. This tiny little hole in the wall has become famous for pioneering not just red velvet but “velvet” cakes in particular. Oh so yum! For a cake to be categorized as velvet, it must be moist in consistency and melt in the mouth with cream cheese used for frosting. I went with coconut – how can you go wrong?
Brooklyn is exploding as a cultural hub, with more refined bars and innovative beer halls opening up by the week. Apparently you can also see some great local Broadway shows too although I didn’t have a chance to this time around. I’d love to do an art write up on a future trip as not only as the boutique shopping scene expanded, but so have art galleries.
Barclays Center wasn’t far from where I spent more of my time exploring, the infamous home of the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Islanders, and also host of great concerts and sporting events. With over 150 restaurants and bars within a four block radius, you won’t go hungry. Moreso than fine dining and 5 star cafes, you’re more likely to whet your appetite with some of the best pizza in New York, Vietnamese bistros, Korean BBQ, and a great selection of Thai, Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Larger spots include Peter Luger Steakhouse or Junior’s Cheesecake, though I tend to be a fan of smaller joints.
Bruce’s advice goes a long way given his history with the place. He recommended heading to Grand Street for Vietnamese food, where both Mama Pho and Pho Grand are located. Think wood-paneled joint that doles out big bowls of hearty Vietnamese soups & other traditional fare. Another suggestion is Pho Vietnam on 1243 Avenue U. None of these places will come close to breaking the bank. Bruce swears by North Dumpling for some of the best dumplings in the city and Forget Me Not, a Greek eatery run by artists on Division Street. This funky taverna is what ultimately won us over in the end — think classic American-Mediterranean dishes for brunch & dinner, although we all ended up ordering burgers and beer.
For Latin food, check out Bogota Latin Bistro on 141 5th Avenue, where they have tropical cocktails and live music and head to Tanoreen for Middle Eastern cuisine on 7523 3rd Avenue. A fun haunt we ended up at downtown for late night Margaritas and burritos was Rocco’s Tacos & Margarita Bar located on 339 Adams Street. This fun spot also hosted our end of New York Travel Festival (#NYTravFest) party. While chips, salsas and tacos are the order of the day here, their Cacahuate with Smoky Peanut Verde Cocida is delicious as is their Chicken Tortilla Soup. For those not worried about carbs, try their fried jalapeño poppers with cotija cheese, lime crema, avocado ranch and cilantro. If you’re like me and are watching those carbs (especially after downing a velvet piece of cake the day before), go for their Ceviche. Yum!
As for stays? There really aren’t any serious 4 or 5 star hotels YET in Brooklyn, however for comfortable and clean stays in the 3-4 star range, there’s Red Lion Inn & Suites on Butler, Le Bleu on 4th and ALoft on Duffield.
In the Atlantic Avenue neighborhood, a stone’s throw from 4th and 5th Avenue, where there are lots of interesting cafes, bars and ethnic restaurants, the Red Lion Inn & Suites is about a 10 or so minute walk from Atlantic Avenue subway stop, a large enough stop with plenty of connections to pretty much anywhere you’d want to go in Brooklyn or Manhattan.
They offer morning breakfast, which include toast, pastries, bagels, hard boiled eggs and yogurt, a nice benefit when you’re in a rush to head out for the day. It was clean and the rooms were moderately decorated — two thumbs up for the service. Management and hotel staff were top notch here and bent over backwards to ensure my stay was a good one. One note to point out: I couldn’t get wifi during my stay for some reason despite several attempts. They assured me they don’t have issues with wifi so it could have something to do with my firewall – that said, I didn’t find a workaround during my stay. You get a sense that they truly care about their guests however, which is a major thumbs up, especially for New York!
Red Lion Inn
Le Bleu Hotel
370 4th Avenue
Lastly, worth mentioning although I haven’t stayed here yet, is A Loft Brooklyn on Duffield Street (below). I haven’t touched on Williamsburg at all but be sure to read our articles on Williamsburg restaurants and cafes and in a couple of them, we suggest a few stay options.