Must-See Williamsburg

Rachel Signer

(Updated 03/01/2016)
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Over the past 15 years, Williamsburg has developed into one of New York City's most culturally vibrant enclaves. The Brooklyn neighborhood, which extends roughly from the East River to Bushwick Avenue, bounded by McCarren Park to the north and Flushing to the south (though Broadway is the cutoff for most of the action), is home to an incredible array of the borough's most creative restaurants, fashion emporiums, music venues and arts organizations—little wonder why it's garnered global renown. Although several national corporations have recently set up shop (including Starbucks, much to the chagrin of some locals), independent culture and a DIY ethos remain hallmarks of the area. And while remnants of Williamsburg's grungier past continue operations—look for charming dive bars like the Turkey's Nest on Bedford Avenue—they're frequently located near newer, more chic establishments like Reynard and Hotel Delmano. Emerge from the L train at Bedford Avenue (or the G train at Nassau, and walk south a few blocks) to encounter a dynamic scene that's rapidly transforming, but always places a premium on creativity and self-expression.

To explore more, check out our interactive map of neighborhood attractions, and book a hotel so you can stay right near the action.

Reynard. Courtesy, Wythe Hotel. Photo: Adrian Gaut

Farm to Fork
Farm-to-table cuisine is among the City's most prevalent food trends—a movement for which Andrew Tarlow is at least partially responsible. The restaurateur's emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients defines the beautifully plated dishes at his three neighborhood restaurants: Diner and Marlow & Sons, both located just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, and Reynard, a more recent Tarlow venture. While the first two are relatively casual affairs—head to Marlow & Sons for a breakfast of poached eggs and a biscuit or some lunchtime oysters; don't miss the burger at Diner—the last is slightly more formal, taking up the bottom floor of the Wythe Hotel. The restaurant features tattooed baristas doling out artful lattes, an extensive wine list assembled by natural-wine luminary Lee Campbell and a daily menu, created by executive chef Sean Rembold, with meat from local farms butchered in-house. (Diners interested in postprandial revelry, take note: you can ask the restaurant management for help bypassing the line to the Wythe's rooftop bar, The Ides.)

 

For rustic interior design and enjoyable eats, stop by Allswell during brunch, where casual service and excellent bloody marys are served in a space quiet enough to actually enjoy a conversation. For a truly relaxing experience, there’s longtime neighborhood favorite Egg. The restaurant is known for—you guessed it—breakfast, when diners can order personal French presses, fresh biscuits, duck hash and, naturally, cage-free egg dishes. For smaller bites, swing by Bakeri, which sells some of the finest baked goods around, including savory tarts, cookies and pies. Take your lunch in its backyard garden, appointed with a fishpond, and enjoy a peaceful oasis in an otherwise busy neighborhood. 

Peter Luger. Photo: Michael Berman

Luxe Dining

Restaurants all along the spectrum have made Williamsburg, once a gritty zone where dining options were few and far between, their home. Among the most luxurious is the French-inspired Maison Premiere. Reservations are recommended, even for the bar, where serious drinkers savor the mixologists' concoctions. The Parisian and (New) Orleanian menu focuses on seafood both raw—Maison Premiere employs an oyster sommelier—and cooked, and there's a phenomenal Old World wine list.

 

Elegant Japanese restaurant 1OR8 is a world away from Maison Premiere in terms of design and cuisine, though the two businesses are only physically separated by a couple of blocks. The all-white decor complements the stunning presentations; enjoy à la carte sushi, sashimi and cooked dishes, or put your decisions in the hands of the chef and order the omakase, featuring fresh selections flown in directly from Japan. The wine and sake list is equally impressive.

 

Craving protein? Head to Williamsburg stalwart Peter Luger, Michelin-starred and ranked the top steakhouse in the country for multiple consecutive years. A South Williamsburg dining destination since 1887 (when the neighborhood was predominantly German), the restaurant is renowned for its old-school style and perfectly cooked cuts of meat. The signature porterhouse is a winner, meant to be shared. Arrive hungry: portions are king-size—as are the prices.

Pies ‘n’ Thighs. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Cheap Eats

Though the neighborhood's upscale-casual restaurants receive the lion's share of attention, Williamsburg teems with cheaper options too. Williamsburg Pizza is just one example: affordable prices, top-quality ingredients and “old school Brooklyn” crust have conspired to make this eatery one of the neighborhood's worst-kept secrets. Traditionalists can opt for the Grandma pie (basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce), while more adventurous types can try the apple bacon edition (featuring the obvious ingredients, along with smoked fresh mozzarella, Gorgonzola and crushed walnuts).

 

There's plenty beyond pizza. Head to Pies 'n' Thighs for some of the City's most savory fried chicken (and don't forget a side of mac and cheese, which comes with hot sauce). For under ten bucks, sample the local Latin American fare by grabbing a burrito stuffed with delectable carnitas or carne asada at one of the food trucks parked in various locations around Bedford Avenue between Metropolitan and North 7th Street. 

Brooklyn Brewery. Photo: Marley White

Drink Local

Williamsburg's local spirit extends to its spirits. For those who'd like to imbibe their way through the neighborhood, start at the New York Distilling Company; they give free tastings and tours on Saturdays and Sundays between 3 and 5pm. The distillery uses New York grains to make its gins, which include Dorothy Parker, a classic American-style quaff, and Perry's Tot Navy Strength, named after the commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1841 to 1843. Wine lovers should stop by Brooklyn Oenology and the Brooklyn Winery. At the former's tasting room, open afternoons and evenings, sit at the comfortable bar and enjoy a flight of their locally grown offerings. Brooklyn Winery, meanwhile, also ferments its own products and holds Monday or Tuesday evening tours that include a tasting. And don't miss the small-batch tours at local craft beer purveyor Brooklyn Brewery. Offered Monday to Thursday evenings and limited to 30 people at a time, tours focus on Brooklyn history (through a beery lens), while attendees taste and are encouraged to discuss four of the brewery's products. 

Brooklyn Bowl. Photo: Adam Macchia

They Come Out at Night

Williamsburg's nightlife caters to almost every whim imaginable. One of the neighborhood's most popular destinations is Brooklyn Bowl, a combination bowling alley, dance club and performance venue. Regular DJs include Questlove from the Roots and Jonathan Toubin, who oversees the acclaimed Soul Clap party. For more dancing, head to Output—almost directly across the street—and stand on line for one of the City's premier electronic music venues. Regular appearances by well-known international DJs, plus moderately priced booze and a rooftop bar, have helped bring the nightspot to prominence. If live music is more your style, there's no shortage of spaces that feature bands—Music Hall of Williamsburg, Baby's All Right, the Knitting Factory and Union Pool among them. And if all this sounds too pretentious for your boogie-down needs, show up late at Bembe for live Afro-Caribbean music, where the party doesn't stop until 4am (a half hour earlier on weeknights).

 

The neighborhood is equally chockablock with delightfully unpretentious bars. Crown Victoria is one local favorite, housed in a former police-car repair shop; on Sunday afternoons patrons can enjoy the bar's pig roast. Nearby Brazilian-themed restaurant Miss Favela serves sterling caipirinhas in a raucous environment, almost directly below the Williamsburg Bridge. For a more upscale adventure, don your bow ties and high heels and venture to the modish Hotel Delmano. This craft bar is an excellent place to cozy up with a date over exotic drinks like the Careless Whisper (old tom gin, aquavit, allspice, honey and kas krupnikas). Cheese and charcuterie plates are available to help you soak up the booze.

Catbird. Photo: Marley White

Dress Like the Locals (And Buy Their Goods)

As you'd expect from any neighborhood that asserts a strong sense of style, Williamsburg presents an eclectic shopping experience. Local markets like the Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg and Artists & Fleas are great places to find products by local artisans (and, in the case of Smorgasburg, delicious vittles). Otherwise, one good place to start a storefront tour is the intersection of North 4th Street and Bedford Avenue, where several boutiques are situated: Catbird stocks a range of dainty jewelry, including stackable gold rings; Brooklyn Fox features high-end clothing and lingerie from a variety of designers; Verameat sells heritage-grade jewelry—meaning that it won't chip, fade or tarnish—made in Manhattan; and Awoke Vintage offers a small but well-edited selection of vintage clothes for men and women. A stone's throw from these fashionable spots is the book emporium Spoonbill & Sugartown, where you can browse a fantastic selection of coffee-table tomes as well as used philosophy and critical theory texts, cute postcards and gift cards. Just across the street is Pema, an inexpensive men's and women's apparel outlet that highlights trendy clothes and features fun accessories and shoes; it's named after the Tibetan lotus flower. Another must-visit fashion spot is just one short block away: Lavai Maria, stocked with original clothing and accessory designs and handpicked vintage finds.

 

But to truly dress like a local, perhaps nothing is more important than millinery. Whether you're seeking a fedora or a beret, look for handmade head coverings at two locations in Williamsburg. The friendly folks at Pork Pie Hatters on Metropolitan or Goorin Brothers on Bedford will help you find the right headpiece.

Nitehawk Cinema. Photo: Pedro Feria Pino

Arts and Culture

Although gentrification has pushed many artists out of the neighborhood and into adjoining Bushwick, Williamsburg is still a haven for creativity. For example, check out the Sketchbook Project, a collection of thousands of sketchbooks by all manner of artists, held at the Brooklyn Art Library on North 3rd Street. Those who are into film might gravitate toward Union Docs, a documentary arts collective that screens indie documentaries for a small charge. Nitehawk Cinema—Brooklyn's first dinner-and-a-movie theater—is also high-minded, pairing independent-minded films with cocktails, beer and film-themed food.

 

The neighborhood also invites participation, like at the dauntingly named Society for Advanced of Social Studies (SASS), held at The Bedford, a cozy American restaurant at North 11th Street and Bedford Avenue. SASS takes place one Tuesday each month and features a series of free lectures on a contemporary subject with a sociological angle. Sip on themed-drink specials while listening to talks like “When Computers Became Personal” and “Fun With GIFs!” Artsy types can otherwise indulge their creative impulses at the Painting Lounge on Union Avenue. Bring a bottle to sip on for a two-hour lesson on painting, during which you will attempt to reproduce a famous work of art. All supplies are included, and all skill levels are welcome. You'll leave with a finished work on canvas (as well as a new appreciation of Williamsburg's many riotous street murals).

East River State Park. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Outdoors and Recreation

In warmer weather, Williamsburg is a haven for picnickers and sunbathers. Grab a blanket and a bathing suit, stop by the Bedford Cheese Shop for some provisions and head into the sunshine. Start with a stroll along East River State Park, a fairly recent addition to the neighborhood and a local favorite for lounging, eating and watching the boats traverse the waterway. (One section of the park, starting at North 7th Street, is taken over by Smorgasburg on Saturdays.) At North 6th Street, you can catch the East River Ferry to Manhattan; the schedule varies from weekdays to weekends, and tickets can be purchased online or at the ticket machines before boarding.

 

Irregularly shaped McCarren Park, located on the Williamsburg–Greenpoint border and roughly enclosed by North 12th Street, Bayard Street, Manhattan Avenue, Lorimer Street and Nassau Avenue, is the go-to site for locals. It features a jogging track, several baseball fields, tennis courts and the restored McCarren Pool. The beloved greenmarket takes place on Saturdays where Union Avenue cuts through the park, between North 12th Street and Driggs Avenue. 

Photo: Marley White

Williamsburg Bridge

Perhaps the neighborhood's most recognizable attraction is its primary site of ingress. When it in opened in 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge was the longest suspension span in the world, taking the honor from its more famous southern sibling, the Brooklyn Bridge. Then, as now, the bridge connected Williamsburg with Manhattan's Lower East Side, and encouraged emigration from the latter to the former. Once composed of German and Irish settlers, Williamsburg became predominantly Jewish. (The Yiddish in a street sign on the Williamsburg side, which reads Leaving Brooklyn, Oy Vey!, alludes to this legacy.) Many Orthodox Jews still call the southern part of the neighborhood their home, but over the past few decades denizens of the East Village and Lower East Side have moved over the East River in search of affordable rents and a less harried atmosphere—creating the current mix of hipsters and longtime residents.

 

Other ethnic enclaves are apparent as well. Near the cyclist entrance to the bridge on South 4th Street, you'll encounter El Puente, a comprehensive Latin American arts and culture center with a focus on social justice activism, founded in 1982 during a wave of violence that was felt all over the City, including in this part of the neighborhood, which is largely Dominican and also Puerto Rican. At El Puente you can study the arts or watch a dance or theater performance by local and international artists.

 

Looking out to the right from atop the bridge, you will spy another Brooklyn icon—the Domino Sugar Refinery. Real estate developers Two Trees are currently converting the site into office and residential space. (This plan caused some controversy; throughout Williamsburg, signs reading Save Domino appeared on behalf of a neighborhood coalition.) At least one segment of the refinery, originally constructed in 1882, will continue to grace Brooklyn's skyline as a reminder of the borough's industrial history as well as of the labor strikes that occurred at the refinery in 2000, with more than 250 workers protesting wages and labor conditions. 


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