I lived for years on the Upper East Side, a period during which my expeditions to Kings County felt just like that: expeditions. There was the odd concert at bam, perhaps a dreaded trek to a friend’s friend’s party, but always the complicated discussions about how, late in the evening, to get back to “the city.” A perfect day in Brooklyn? That would involve … I don’t know, taking the subway into Manhattan?
Ironically, I eventually moved to Brooklyn, lured by a big apartment with an extremely reasonable rent, and from the moment I did I became a zealot, a true believer in my adopted borough. A selected list of some of its virtues follows, all involving points reachable by subway – except for an equestrian pursuit that requires a car (the horse will be provided). Now I wonder, shouldn’t the song go, “I’ll Take Brooklyn”?
The morning’s aim is to get the blood going, albeit in a manner more associated with the Hamptons than the proletarian borough of Dem Bums and stickball. A horseback-riding lesson (or ride along the marshy trails and abandoned beaches of Jamaica Bay) can be had for less than $50, half what it can cost in marshy-trail-and-abandoned-beach-deficient Manhattan. The Jamaica Bay Riding Academy (off the eastbound Belt Parkway between exits 11 and 13; 718-531-8949) is used to newcomers, who are not made to feel ridiculous if they clamber aboard the beast’s left side or commit some equivalent equine faux pas. Take a 45-minute, three-mile trail ride around the secluded section of the bay reserved only for riding, and let the Atlantic’s cool breezes whip your face.
If the idea of clinging to a moving animal with your knees isn’t appealing, you can instead bike, run, or walk through Jamaica Bay’s surrounding recreational area. It has the same spectacular views – the wide expanse of the bay, the Twin Towers glimmering in the distance, and the pristine beachfront.
Time to think about heading back in for a hearty breakfast. Tom’s Restaurant (782 Washington Avenue; 718-636-9738) – a down-home spot tucked away on a rundown block near the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden – is the perfect pit stop for eggs, pancakes, waffles, and grits served up by Gus, Tom’s son, and his longtime crew. If there’s a line, waiters hand out homemade cookies dusted with powdered sugar and fresh orange wedges as Gus, always the debonair host, distracts his customers, many of whom he knows by name, with gossip and catch-up conversation. The last treat is the mint candies dished out by Gus’s mother, who is stationed at the antiquated till. But don’t go on Sundays. “I’m in the Metropolitan Greek Chorale and the St. Constantine and St. Helen Cathedral chorus too,” Gus explains; the whole family takes off for church, and the place shuts down.
To escape the heat of the day the natural way, there are two unbeatable options. The bucolic pleasures of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1000 Washington Avenue; 622-4433) have not been overtouted: Spread out with the Metro section under a cherry tree on the esplanade, or attempt a Zen state while following the goldfish and turtles in the Japanese garden. Parents should know that the Prospect Park petting zoo is just across the street and features all the requisite kiddie favorites: sunbathing sea lions, miniature goats, and longhaired guinea pigs.
Green-Wood Cemetery (500 25th Street; 718-768-7300) is the more adventurous midday sojourn. Encompassing some of Brooklyn’s highest points, the nineteenth-century cemetery has views of Manhattan and the harbor (how do you think they take those postcard photos? You can’t see Manhattan that way from Manhattan) that are among the best. Tourists don’t outnumber the permanent residents, who include Horace Greeley, Margaret Sanger, Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, and, of course, John Matthews – the man who invented the soda fountain.
Later in the afternoon, return to one of Brooklyn’s lifelines: Atlantic Avenue. The stretch between Flatbush and the river offers prime antiques-browsing (ranging from bric-a-brac to nineteenth-century mahogany dining tables – both categories appropriately priced) and ethnic-food-shopping. Sahadi (187 Atlantic Avenue; 718-624-4550) carries the cheeses, meats, and imported delicacies of a top gourmet emporium, with an Arabic twist. The barrels of couscous, cracked wheat, cumin, olives, herbs, and spices offer all you need to prepare a Middle Eastern feast at home or a picnic in nearby Cobble Hill Park. For the accompanying pita, spinach pies – and the essential dessert, a mouthwatering baklava – Damascus Bread & Pastry (195 Atlantic Avenue; 718-625-7070) is just two doors down.
After you’ve been treading the blazing pavement, the college-town ice-cream-parlor storefront Pete’s (185 Atlantic Avenue; 718-852-3835) appears like an oasis. Roomy booths allow you to stretch out while you slurp down a cup or cone of one of Pete’s wacky flavors – molasses-ginger-snap, cardamom, pecan-pie-à la mode, banana-pudding.
A walk down to the very end of the avenue and under the BQE (less difficult than it sounds) rewards with you a view of the docks and a window to Brooklyn’s heyday as a shipping hub. The setting – the piers’ current dilapidation and the occasional plaintive boat horn drifting over the water – is as romantic as it is noirish. Stop by Montero’s Bar & Grill (73 Atlantic Avenue; 718-624-9799), an atavistic joint once frequented by longshoremen – where you can drink a pint and examine the museum-quality vintage photos of sea vessels and a working replica ship’s engine. A late-afternoon visit guarantees a crowd of seasoned geezers and their biddy counterparts. “This is one of the places that just hasn’t changed,” an older sailor says, adding wistfully, “There are a couple of longshoremen’s societies around, but for the most part, people have forgotten what the freighters brought here.” His long-toothed companion nods in agreement. But this place isn’t just about nostalgia; some of the local literati come by to soak up stories for their next novel (along with some of the cheapest beer in town).
A walk by the water followed by dinner nearby is the best way to appreciate old Brooklyn at night. All you have to do is decide whether you want to be on the north (Brooklyn Heights) side or south (Coney Island) side of the borough. The Promenade in Brooklyn Heights (with the surrounding blocks of nineteenth-century wood-framed houses) and Coney Island boardwalk (with its remnants of more fanciful days) are equally historic. Your palate can help you make the decision: When pizza’s in the cards, Grimaldi’s (19 Old Fulton Street; 718-858-4300), under the Brooklyn Bridge, is the only choice. The place is a virtual shrine to the Chairman of the Board, and the staff is all business (they’re polite but won’t put up with high-maintenance Manhattan shtick). For the more full-blown Italian meal, Queen (84 Court Street; 718-596-5955) has long been a hangout for downtown-Brooklyn power cronies who talk politics and justice while devouring plates of fresh mozzarella (made twice a day in-house) and steaming mounds of pasta with clams.
If you have the energy for dinner and dancing Russian-style – and every New Yorker should go to a Russian nightclub at least once – head for Coney Island for a predinner stroll. Then, try Odessa’s (1113 Brighton Beach Avenue; 718- 332-3223), which has much the same history as Rasputin (2670 Coney Island Avenue) but fewer outsiders and therefore a more authentic feel. The hours-long spectacle of ever-flowing vodka, brimming-bosomed girls dancing to Top 40 numbers sung in thick Russian accents, and aging Kremlin types twirling next to Moscow moguls must be seen to be believed. “It’s a bit like an all-age-group prom mixed with a burlesque show,” one non-Russian visitor observed. Is there another borough where you can start your day horseback-riding along the seashore and end it, in effect, carousing in downtown St. Petersburg?