Brooklyn has always had borough-defining restaurants. Just mention Junior’s or Lundy’s, and the dreamy-eyed natives will rhapsodize till the cows come home. And you can always spot a Brooklynite by the way he puffs out his chest while claiming world dominance in sweeping categories like pizza and hero sandwiches (no matter what detractors from Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island might say). In recent decades, immigration has added a wealth of multicultural flavors to the mix, with a bustling Chinatown here, a mini-Mexico there, and a thoroughfare divided harmoniously between Pakistani, Israeli, and Turkish joints. That’s modern-day Brooklyn for you.
But so, culinary chroniclers say, is a type of newfangled Brooklyn establishment—one marked by its presence in recently or soon-to-be gentrified neighborhoods, and one connected to the Manhattan restaurant scene by pedigree and ambition. The New Brooklyn Cuisine (or NBC) restaurant is a subspecies of the New American restaurant, and probably originated in Boerum Hill or Park Slope, where aspiring restaurateurs went in search of cheaper rent, leafy streets, and moneyed clientele, spread to Williamsburg and Fort Greene, and is currently making inroads into Red Hook and Bushwick. Typically tiny, often mom-and-pop-run, built on a shoestring, and devoted (ostensibly) to local, organic, sustainably farmed ingredients, the NBC restaurant has become as much a part of the borough’s culinary identity as a Peter Luger porterhouse.
With few exceptions, these establishments have no publicist and no celebrity chef, and the do-it-yourself approach extends to everything from construction to checking coats. Stylishly makeshift and family-friendly, they’re selling a lifestyle as much as a meal. Movements like this don’t appear out of thin air, of course, and a lot of NBC ventures can trace their roots back to two Manhattan breeding grounds: The Greenmarket-obsessed Savoy, which begat fervent NBC chefs and owners like Franny’s Andrew Feinberg, the Grocery’s Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter, plus Rose Water’s John Tucker; and Balthazar, where a handful of bartenders and managers studied at the McNally school for effortless cool and went on to open DuMont, Ici, Locanda Vini e Olii, and 360. With a chef from Savoy and McNally-pedigreed owners, Diner and its adjacent oyster bar, Marlow & Sons, have all the NBC bases covered.
But that’s just the tip of the Kings County iceberg. NBC restaurants are spreading faster in their home borough than illicit immersion circulators on Manhattan’s haute cuisine circuit. Here, then, are our top fifteen picks. To pinpoint their exact locations, turn to our handy map on page 96.
1 Franny’s is a New Brooklyn Cuisine restaurant masquerading as a pizzeria, which is to say it cures its own soppressata, tops its crostini with Sicilian-pistachio pesto and ramps, and makes a champagne cocktail with lovage syrup. All this and sublime, feather-light pies that arrive at the table authentically unsliced.
2 Frankies 457 Court Street Spuntino feels so entrenched in its Italian-American Carroll Gardens milieu, it’s hard to believe it’s barely two years old. Chef-owners Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli did the glitzy Manhattan restaurant circuit (Bouley, Moomba) before deciding to think small—in terms of space, prices, and a snacky menu of zesty salads, roasted vegetables, and newfangled Italian sandwiches.
3If Fort Greene is Brooklyn’s French-expat epicenter, then Ici is its culinary heart. There’s a French grace to the setting, but the menu stays close to home, reveling in local foodstuffs like “Added Value” collard greens (from the Red Hook farm), Montauk squid, and Greenmarket pork. Arrive at the right season-bridging moment, and you’ll find “Sour Cream Poundcake with First of the Rhubarb and Last of the Blood Oranges Compote.”
4 Queen’s Hideaway is just that—an unassuming, low-key spot in Greenpoint where Liza Queen’s menu changes daily, follows the whims of the chef to the American South, Mexico, or a nearby Polish candy shop. But whether you dine on maple-crusted ham, a bitter-greens salad, or deep-August corn on the cob, odds are good that you’ll begin with a gratis bowl of boiled peanuts and end with a slice of pie.
5It got crazy at The Grocery after Zagat awarded it a 28 for food, but the mom-and-pop chef-owners still patrol the dining room nightly, personally delivering creative American dishes, like cornmeal-crusted chicken livers in a curry vinaigrette with wilted greens and a poached egg, in the best small-town tradition.
6 360 made the prospect of trekking to Red Hook much more palatable with a $25 prix fixe and a hands-on owner who takes almost as much pleasure in explicating the mostly biodynamic wine list as he does in enforcing the house ban on cell phones. The French-inflected menu changes nightly, but you can count on oysters, Cloonshee Farm chicken, and house-made pâtés.