Of all of Brooklyn's neighborhoods, few get paid more lip service at present than Williamsburg. In recent years, the 'hood has played host to a large—and very vocal—influx of students, recent grads and young adults looking for a good-time escape from Manhattan's boom-time rents. The prices rose here, too—but the kids are here to stay.
In fact, Williamsburg—née Williamsburgh—has a long and storied history. North Brooklyn was originally chartered in 1638 by the Dutch West India Company as Boswijck—which was later anglicized to Bushwick. (The waterfront settlement within the town of Bushwick was incorporated as the village of Williamsburgh in 1827.) Commerce and industry boomed in the mid–19th century, and a few landmarks from the era are still around today. Check out the imposing Domino Sugar plant on Kent Avenue stretching from South 5th Street to South 2nd Street; now shuttered, it was once the world's largest sugar refinery. Just a few blocks away, at Bedford Avenue and Broadway, stands the Kings County Savings Bank; built in Second Empire style in 1860 and a local landmark ever since, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. In 1903, the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge—five years after the city of Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City as one of its five boroughs—brought in waves of immigrants fleeing the overcrowded Lower East Side of Manhattan. Déjà vu?
Today, Williamsburg is a true New York melting pot, home to Hasidic Jews and Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Poles, generations of families and, yes, recent arrivals. They've brought in a staggering variety of new shops, restaurants, bars and attractions, and turned the area into a destination. Here are the spots to see.
Williamsburg boasts some of the City's tastiest and most adventurous dining, and, happily, none of it requires a jacket or tie. In fact, probably neither is recommended at Fette Sau, which serves barbecue, dished up by the pound (the selection changes nightly), on metal trays. (If you have sensitive sinuses, steer clear of the blindingly spicy mustard-based barbecue sauce.) Wash it all down with a jug—literally—of local beer. For a slightly more refined experience, try DuMont. You'll likely have to wait for one of the prime garden tables, but the reward is worth it: one of the City's best burgers awaits (so good, in fact, that DuMont Burger, a second location devoted wholly to it, opened a few blocks south).
There are a couple of options for Mexican food, but the best is La Superior, which turns out food so authentic, you may not recognize it. Try the Guadalajaran torta ahogada, a “drowned sandwich” of pork, beans and hot sauce so loaded down it has to be served in a bowl with a spoon.
Williamsburg seems to have as many bars per capita as Bourbon Street. Better still, many of them take the craft of mixology and stylish inebriation very seriously. The current craze in cocktailing calls for Prohibition-era slinkiness, done justice at the dimly lit but beautifully appointed Hotel Delmano. A similar vibe animates Huckleberry Bar, though there you can soak up the hooch with some expertly prepared small plates, too.
If it's beer you're after, fear not. Spuyten Duyvil—owned by the same folks as Fette Sau just across the street—pours rarities from around the world for beer snobs and locals alike. For the Teutonic experience—mit wurst, no less—Austro-Hungarian biergarten Radegast Hall & Biergarten offers some of the finest suds from Germany and Mitteleuropa in volumes that range all the way up to too-heavy-to-lift. It's screamingly loud, unfailingly packed and never less than a good time—three guarantees you can make when you serve up homemade bratwurst.
Of course, you're in Brooklyn for the Brooklyn experience. That's argument enough to check out Brooklyn Brewery, a local favorite since 1988. There are tours on weekends and a happy hour on Friday nights, when you can drink among the gleaming vats. If even that seems newfangled—as it no doubt does to Bedford Avenue lifers—a few truly old-school spots remain. The Turkey's Nest Tavern, a grizzled little sports bar, has steadfastly ignored the new wave. It's a dive bar (not a “dive bar”) where $4 will get you 32 ounces of beer in a Styrofoam cup. That's four dollars cash, mind you. Pull out a credit card here and the bartender will laugh in your face.
As you'd expect of any neighborhood enjoying a recent influx of prosperity, Williamsburg has some great shops, too. Don't be deterred by the Zoolander-ish sylphs stalking up and down Bedford Avenue—there's actually something for everyone (though a 28-inch waist certainly won't hurt your odds of finding the latest in denim).
Ladies—and the guys who faithfully accompany them on their rounds—will find plenty to love at Bird, the largest outpost of Jennifer Mankins' mini-empire of Brooklyn boutiques. The most obsessed-over clothing lines of the moment are all represented here, but the airy, welcoming space keeps the attitude checked at the door. The cutting edge is better represented at Oak, which stocks some of the City's most forward-looking duds for men and women. But even at the temple of directional fashion, the kind staff is always ready to help you tell the armhole from the neck collar on that deconstructed tank top (you may need the help). If all that has you longing for the simpler days of yore, France-born C.C. McGurr's shop, Le Grand Strip, carries an eclectic mix of clothing and accessories old and new, including a healthy selection of vintage lingerie. That should take care of the dainty side of things. It's catch-as-catch can at second-hand mecca Beacon's Closet, where residents sell their old clothes and pick up each others. The vibe may be anarchic, but the getting's good: this gentrification of the neighborhood means everybody's usually got some good stuff to unload. For the best haul, visit at the end of the month. Why? Everybody's rent is due on the first.
You can refurbish more than just your wardrobe in the 'Burg—it also happens to be a mecca for home furnishings and design. The alpha and omega of the area is Dave Alhadeff's The Future Perfect, a pioneer of the “Brooklyn design” movement before the term existed. In practice, that means pieces that are clever but not stuffy. They're priced mostly at the investment level, but entry-level decor is on offer at Sprout Home, whose gorgeous potted and arranged flowers and plants can bring a little garden freshness to even the sootiest neighborhood walk-up. Or, if you'd rather bake than decorate, check out Brooklyn Kitchen for professional-quality pots, pans and kitchen goods as well as culinary classes. The most popular ones aren't for the faint of heart; butcher Tom Mylan demonstrates breaking down a pig or lamb into its various cuts—a sort of Behind the Music for meat enthusiasts.
You came, you saw, you bought. What now?
The best answer is probably to follow a local to some loft party; there's one going on just about every night. Fail-safe options abound, too. Brooklyn Bowl lets you knock down a few pins and offers local beers on tap from Brooklyn Brewery, Sixpoint Craft Ales and Kelso of Brooklyn, but no promises on that perfect 300. Or you can shake it—in the dark, mercifully, given the often-too-cool-to-get-down crowd—at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, which schedules top indie acts and local up-and-comers. Catch an opening at the hipster favorite Journal Gallery, or, when all else fails, just make your way to the neighborhood's pastoral heartland, McCarren Park. You might catch a film screening alfresco or a band playing (professional or not), or just enjoy the crowd lazing, milling about and bickering. On a good day, with your Oak bags and Spuyten Duyvil buzz about you, they won't even realize you're the new guy in the neighborhood. They were, too, once, anyway—yesterday.