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Neighbourhood Watch: Experience Real Hipster Brooklyn in Bushwick (not Williamsburg)

Stay on that eastbound subway from Manhattan just a little while longer and you'll end up in a vibrant part of Brooklyn that most out-of-towners haven't discovered yet

Saturday Night Live parodied its formerly crime-ridden streets with neighbourhood dudes talking about $8 artisanal mayonnaise and “off-the-chain” wine and cheese artist parties. The New Yorker’s April 2016 cover story cover featured its warehouse raves, commenting that “everyone in Brooklyn is a DJ.” And Vogue deemed it as one of the most stylish districts in the world.

The endearingly quirky underdog to neighbouring Williamsburg’s hipster-central, Bushwick is one of Brooklyn’s most rapidly transforming neighbourhoods – and certainly the one that retains the most edge.

Formerly thought of as a neighbourhood of factory workers, after the mass riots and lootings of New York’s 1977 summer blackout, Bushwick became infamous as a no-man’s land of crime, graffiti streets, and abandoned buildings. By the mid-2000s the neighborhood finally began to turn around with a surge of financial support from the city.

And as Williamsburg morphed into one of New York foremost hipster enclaves, many low-income residents, especially artists, were driven out to neighbouring Bushwick.

Carlo Mirarchi, acclaimed chef of Roberta’s and Blanca, moved to the neighbourhood after college in 2000. “I remember thinking how empty it was,” he recalls. “At night I would hardly see other people walking around. But it was clear that it was well on its way to becoming a place where artists and musicians were starting to plant themselves.” 

Today, the neighbourhood remains one of the few places left in New York where shops have remained in the same family for generations, and bootstrap entrepreneurs can launch a business with humble startup capital.

Manhattanites and tourists are taking the L train to explore the emerging scene in Bushwick. What do they experience? Some of New York’s best pizzas, tasting menus, and hipster hangouts, to Instagram-worthy street art, one-of-a-kind specialty shops, and all-night warehouse raves.

(And now’s the time to visit: The L line closes in 2019 for reconstruction.)

Here’s Billy’s suggested itinerary for an energetic day – well, an afternoon and night – in Bushwick.

Start with lunch or a snack

Where to grab a casual meal to tide you over until dinner? How about Arepera Guacuco, which serves juicy beef and sweet plantain arepa pabellóns accompanied by frothy coconut milkshakes, all made from the traditional and secret recipes of the owner’s Venezuelan mother.

Another option: Over at Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen, twentysomething chef Phuoc Huynh takes creative licence with his grandmother Lucy’s southern Vietnamese specialties, serving dishes including his famous smoked brisket pho (the meat is smoked for 14 hours over mesquite and applewood).

Finally, Hi Hello constructs inventive sandwiches and house cocktails, inspired by American comfort food, like fried chicken with red pepper and pimento cheese, and roast tenderloin with house made “truffle Cheese Whiz.”

Outdoor arts: The Bushwick Collective

There’s plenty of art being created in Bushwick’s sprawling industrial blocks: Not just on the inside, but also on the exterior walls. The area is known for its large-scale street art murals, thanks to the initiative of Bushwick native Joseph Ficalora.

After the death of his mother in 2011, Ficalora began seeking inspiration and comfort. Soon, he pioneered a project to cover his neighbourhood’s ugly wasteland of graffiti and tagged walls with street art. Since then he has worked to persuade local business owners to donate wall space, wrangling permits to legally display street art – and convincing accomplished artists to donate their time and supplies.

It worked. Artists came from as far away as Singapore and South Africa to leave their mark on Brooklyn.

Courtesy The Bushwick Collective

Artist Beau Stanton at work

The Bushwick Collective’s accomplishment is an enchantingly colourful and panoramic outdoor gallery that spans 20 blocks across the intersection of Troutman Street and Nicholas Avenue. From gnarly gargoyle characters to an intricate classical rendition of a cathedral, the Collective’s murals beautify some formerly dirty and crime-ridden streets.

The Collective also hosts an annual block party where outdoor artists create live masterpieces accompanied by hip hop and rock musicians performing in the background.

Dinner options

One of the most obvious reasons to visit Bushwick is a cult (and critical) favourite, Roberta’s, a casual (and indeed downright gritty-looking) restaurant serving up $15 artisanal wood-fired pizza pies and pasture raised beef burgers, with a grassroots spirit that helped to legitimize and define a neighbourhood.

Roberta’s is a lively and rambling cluster of indoor and outdoor dining areas in a converted cinderblock garage. The compound includes a back patio and tiki bar that usually erupts into a dance party, a rooftop greenhouse that supplies the kitchen with heirloom tomatoes to leafy greens, a bakery that makes naturally unleavened bread, as well as Roberta’s own foodie radio station which broadcasts from a shipping container.

Courtesy Roberta's

There's probably no point asking if this restaurant has valet parking

On any given day, wooden seats and long picnic tables are filled by regular locals, visiting Manhattanites and celebrities (Jay Z and Beyoncé have been spotted here, as has Bill Clinton).

The stone-oven pizza pies mix the sacred and the profane with names like “cheesus Christ,” “beastmaster,” and “city wizard,” and daring combinations of fresh ingredients made or grown on the premises and locally (including the mozzarella and flour). Almost everything pairs perfectly with a frosty craft beer, most notably Ron the Red Ryan, aged in red wine barrels and exclusive to Roberta’s.

Courtesy Roberta's

The interior is nicer, but still not too fancy-pants

Tucked away behind Roberta’s ragtag backyard is her unlikely sister restaurant, Blanca, a sleek and airy tasting room. The New York Times deemed its small plates “among the craziest and most delicious in the city.”

Hosting 12 lucky guests four nights per week, the vibe is unpretentious and laid-back, with patrons welcome to play everything from the Rolling Stones to Metallica on the old-school record player. The 25-course, $195 tasting menu is known for playfully adventurous and artfully executed dishes such as shredded wagyu beef tartar with kohlrabi broth, golden tomatoes with sweet corn, and Japanese eggplant with daikon and yogurt.

At the heart and soul of both Roberta’s and Blanca is the simple and deeply flavourful cooking of Carlo Mirarchi (Blanca’s pair of stars qualify him as a Michelin-starred chef). He cites his greatest influences as post-punk musician Nick Cave, contemporary photographer and filmmaker Charlie White, as well as the recipes of the Medici era.

Carlo Mirarchi

According to Mirarchi, his unusual dynamic duo of casual and upscale dining fits the neighbourhood’s creatively resourceful, inclusive, and eccentric “style and approach.” Whether it’s a pizzeria with paper napkins and take-out or a coveted reservation-only tasting menu, “Ultimately you want to create the best experience for your guests. In cooking, you want to bring joy to people.”

Bushwick’s rusty warehouses to auto-parts stores don’t just house artists and one-of-a-kind restaurants, they’re also been reborn as bars and all-night rave spots, making the neighbourhood a destination for late-night revelry.  

At Le Garage, Catherine and Rachel Allswang, a mother-and-daughter team, create Normandy-influenced dishes in garage redone as a French bistro with Art Deco touches. Specialties include dorade ceviche with lime, pomegranate and sweet potato, alongside cocktails that are named after intriguing French women: Existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir is memorialized with Byrrh, dry vermouth, orange bitters and tonic, while Jeanne Hachette, a peasant girl who managed to hurl an invading Burgundian duke into a moat, is rendered in Bénédictine, rye, bitters, and cinnamon.

Montana Masback transformed a derelict gas station into Montana’s Trail House, a place for pure southern comfort. The rustic space is decked out with foraged wood from a Kentucky barn and antique Americana. “Appalachian East Coast country food” is complemented by craft cocktails mixed by tattooed bartenders. The “gin & jam” is a concoction of seasonal jam, gin, and lemon juice and the “traditional mountain soda” combines apple cider vinegar fermented (locally) in bourbon barrels, ginger syrup and maple. In the main bar area, known as “The Tack Room,” one of the bookcases contains a secret door that leads to an outside patio.

After-dinner cocktails and nightlife

The Narrows is where chef Carlo Mirarchi and his staff frequent after a long shift at Roberta’s and Blanca. “I love the Narrows, it's our local and they treat us like family,” Mirarchi says. Behind an unassuming storefront, the 1920s styled bar with dreamy mood lighting caters to locals craving inventive cocktails, hand-picked craft brews and organic wines. There’s also a spacious back patio where you can sip concoctions like the “que bonita,” a cucumber and lime cava float spiked with tequila.

At Left Hand Path, thoughtful cocktails are served under chandeliers made out of solo cups, while June Bar is a neighbourhood hangout hidden behind a 99-cent store.

And then there’s opulent newcomer, The Topaz, a transformed bike shop with impressive design details like Carrera marble and wood reclaimed from the Coney Island boardwalk. Come for cocktails crafted with seasonal ingredients. Want a snack? The fries made from russet potatoes with herb aioli aren’t just fries, they’re “destination fries.”

After a few warm-up drinks, the House of Yes is one of New York’s most original nightclubs and performance venues. The 7,000-square-foot former industrial laundromat affirms its dedication to uninhibited adventure, with a 29-foot “YES” on the exterior wall.

Courtesy David Cova

The patio at House of Yes

Expect a fantastical Burning Man-esque world of burlesque and go-go dancers, fire spinners, and glittery performers dangling overhead. Past events have included a dinner party served on naked bodies, Sunday brunch with aerialists accompanied by live jazz music, and a Prince tribute screening of Purple Rain that culminated in white doves being released over the audience, inciting the crowd to sing When Doves Cry in unison.

Finally, Bushwick’s signature all-night dance party is the tropically themed Bossa Nova Civic Club, featuring homegrown DJs including Alvin Aronson and Lloydski, as well as local musicians. The 1,900-square-foot hole-in-the-wall, founded by a former rave party promoter, pumps out everything from disco to techno, house and funk. Afterwards, follow your fellow night owls to wee-hour institution, Tina’s Place. Bushwick’s longest standing diner has been serving $3 breakfasts since well before the rise of the North Brooklyn hipster.   

Directions by subway 

The L train runs along from 14th Street in Manhattan to Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. You can also take the M train from Midtown, and the J and Z from Lower Manhattan. The subway trip from downtown Manhattan takes about 20 to 30 minutes. 

Published Tuesday, February 28th 2017

Header image credit: Mural by Icy and Sot and Sonni / Courtesy The Bushwick Collective



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