Clinton Hill is a landmark neighborhood of classic brownstones and grand mansions: the ‘tree-lined blocks with little shops’ epicentre of all things Brooklyn. Safe, leafy and curated, with phalanxes of previously-Williamsburg celebrities ambling their strollers past small-vineyard, biodynamic wine shops to buy gluten-free kibble for their Bedlington Terrier.
There’s BAM and Brooklyn Flea. The Barclays Centre and Mark Morris Dance. There’s Greenlight Independent Bookstore, opposite Provisions and Greene Grape, just along from Scoops and flower shops selling orchids that sprout from Catskills moss. There are more Paine’s of Maine cedar incense cones than you can shake a stick at.
Once the ambiguous meat in the Fort Greene/Bedford-Stuyvesant sandwich, the neighborhood has blossomed in the last decade into a bastion of the Brooklyn renaissance. Much of this has centered on the collective fetishizing of food. What was previously a culinary wasteland with only a single wheezing Italian – bathed in flourescence and mid-century marinara – is now a food-oriented theme-village. Every week a new opening, chefs with names to conjure with, Eater and Grub Street gumshoes camped out on corners in dirty raincoats. No longer a hint of irony in lionizing 8 great local international meatballs or the rise of the artisanal Myrtle Avenue macaroon.
(by distance, nearest first)
- Aita – For the blind and palsied who can’t make it further than the end of the block; here’s a restaurant at the end of the block. Small, sweet and tender. Less portentous than some of the others, no need to practice lip pursing or eyelid-fluttering ahead of time. Italianate, braised beef cheeks, oxtail ravioli, grilled octopus, well crafted cocktails. It stays open late. But not quite as late as it’s sister speakeasy, Mayflower, tucked almost invisibly one door up Waverly, where you can sit until the wee hours sipping yourself into a human puddle
- Emily – acorn-small, just up the street. Recently voted New York’s best pizza, no small feat in an age when pizza is tongued, sniffed and quaffed like vintage Burgundy. Went from cheerful hangout to hallowed legend in the space of about six weeks. Pizzas in four categories – the reds, whites, greens and pinks.
- The Finch – crumbly-brick-crudely-patched-with-rough-plaster confirms you to be firmly at the breast of Brooklyn artisanal. But good God, they just got a Michelin star! Big menu for a small place, things like lambs’ tongues, scallops with snails, Amish chicken and burrata. Very beardie/man-bunny.
- Locanda Vini e Olii – Legendary outpost of hand-weaned food of the kind you might find at some empty Slow Food haven in Emilia-Romagna on a Wednesday night in November. Pastas you’re afraid to pronounce: fazzolettini, pizzoccherifa. Served seriously. Meats cured in situ. None of Romans’ scrummagy old goat bones. Wine pairings. Cavernous goblets with wafer thin rims, a shadow of breathy Nebbiolo at the bottom. It’s the real deal; preceded the Brooklyn foodie tsunami by several years. Great room too, remnants of an old apothecary.
- Little Brother – gum-smackin’ kid sibling to The Smoke Joint on South Elliott, doing roughly the same but with different tattoos and a few blocks closer; thus rendering it a rare, viable to go option. All creatures great-and-small, raised with an open palm and read unthreatening bedtime stories before being slaughtered, bled, smoked and served in $7 sandwiches. Good standard beanish, mac ‘n cheesey sides. Take it all next door to Hot Bird which (unusually, for a bar) allows the consumption of elsewhere food with its south-of-the-border beers.
- Bar Chuko – sister to Chuko across the street. An izakaya, which is apparently an after-work food and drink joint in Japan. Wonderful small-plates, kind of Japanese tapas. Things like pickled mackerel, fresh warm tofu, skate wing, followed by crispy rice bowls. Cocktails too. We keep setting off to go other places and ending up here.
- Chuko – stripped-down ramen-chic from Morimoto veterans on Vanderbilt. Pork cutlet banh mi (Vietnamese for ‘darling piggy bun’) or raw kale and kale tempura salad. But most importantly – ramen. The pork bone, kimchi version with a medium boiled egg in it. Cool straight-from-the-can sake and Japanese beer.
- Roman’s – Marlow brand’s Italian outpost on DeKalb. Different menu every night lends everything a ‘give it a shot’ quality. Some shots stray from the bullseye, a couple miss the target completely. But for each paleolithic dog’s bone, there any number of delicious fiddleheads in hen broth or crostini of nettles, ramps and ricotta. Also things rabbity and marrowy, along with sour and the bitter cocktail pairings. Jolie-laide Gainsbourg waitresses help give the place a hipster family vibe, more like Trastavere than Brooklyn. We once had a Risotto Milanese with a veal shank the size of a toddler’s femur.
- Walter Foods – vaunted Williamsburg raw bar, filet mignon, french dip joint, braves the over-windowed corner of DeKalb and Cumberland that brought other restaurants to their knees. Bearded, tattoo’d waiters in aprons and bow ties, who appear likely to burst into barbershop harmonies. It’s that menu. The shaved brussels sprouts sport hazelnuts instead of pancetta, and the artichoke dip is a bit different from Freemans. Still, they do it well and it’s open late.
- The Smoke Joint – see Little Brother above.
- James – overlook the slight air of food-snoot and burrow like a star-nosed mole into confit of pork belly and cauliflower soup with smoked trout, pressed young chicken and The James Revenge, which involves bourbon, absinthe, blood orange and vertigo.
- Willow – the best new place around. Chef John Poiarkoff (from The Pines in Gowanus) brings new American Experimental to Bed-Stuy, in a tiny spot under the steps of the Franklin Avenue station. It’s all about alchemy with amazing ingredients, sourced locally, most notably from the Catskills. The owner, Carver Farrell, is a close friend of Bell End, having overseen the early stages of the renovation. Mention our name and get either a free cocktail or thrown out.
- Saraghina – pizza again, but perhaps a bit looser at the seams than Emily, as befits a location considerably deeper into Bed-Stuy than most people are used to venturing. It’s worth it though, for the rooms (and garden) as well as the wood-fired pizza. It’s our ‘if in doubt …’ place to go if there are a bunch of us malingering with no reservation.
- Franny’s – on the unlikely autostrada of Flatbush, Franny’s was our equal, but has left us in its wake. The beaming grins of familiarity have given way to Gioconda smirks and a stare that says ‘have you come about the dishwasher job?’. It’s wonderful though, despite our relegation to Everyman. Just the smell of the place. Wood-roasted pancetta, wood-roasted flowering greens, wood-roasted pork sausage all conspire to suggest that life in general would be better wood-roasted. Each crostino is an Earl of Crostini. And the waferish, charred-airbubble pizza makes that stuff you get in Napoli seem like the damp sole of a house-slipper.