Must-See Bed-Stuy

Jessica Allen

Twenty-five years after Spike Lee memorably depicted a day in the life of the neighborhood in Do the Right Thing, Bed-Stuy has shed its volatile reputation and emerged as a must-visit destination. First, there’s the food, including the whimsical creations at Do or Dine, the pizzas at Saraghina, the unique doughnuts at Dough and the flavorful doubles (a classic West Indian snack) at A&A Bake and Doubles Shop. Then there is the beautiful architecture: just about every tree-lined block reveals a treasure or two in the form of an Italianate brownstone or landmark row house. Let’s not forget about the neighborhood’s illustrious inhabitants: only in Bed-Stuy can you get a drink at a bar owned by actor Anthony Mackie or walk past stoops where the Notorious B.I.G. (who, contrary to myth, actually grew up in adjacent Clinton Hill, near the border of the two neighborhoods) and Jay Z got their starts. When the sun goes down, you can see an Off-Broadway show by an up-and-coming African-American performer or hang out in the parlor of a townhouse built in the 1880s, listening to jazz. The streets hum with an energy as distinctive as its residents, many of whom can trace their Brooklyn roots back to the first wave of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. By all means, be prepared to say hello to those you pass kibitzing in their gardens or tidying their steps. Most of all, be prepared to be welcomed to a neighborhood bursting with pride, culture and community.

Saraghina. Photo: Will Steacy

Carb Loading
Begin your Bed-Stuy day by loading up at one of the many carb-focused restaurants. It’s hard to miss the splashy Scratchbread storefront: if the crowd clustered around the takeaway window doesn’t catch your eye, the walls striped in primary colors will. You can check this slow-food-focused bakery’s online "breadule" to see what might be available on the day of your visit, or simply belly up for a slightly spicy, slightly sweet pecan-chai-caramel-chili sticky bun. Another great option to start your morning comes from Dough, purveyors of doughnuts in such gourmet flavors as orange cardamom, lemon poppy, and cheesecake and graham cracker. For more savory options, try Brooklyn Kolache, which claims to be the only bakery in town focused on the kolach, a specialty pastry from Central Europe by way of Texas that features a variety of fillings surrounded by puffy dough. In addition to sweet kolaches with chocolate or cheese, you can opt for those with potato, egg or whatever else looks good. Get a cup of Kitten Coffee joe, "burned, bagged and dragged in Bed-Stuy," as well. Open for breakfast but a hangout through dinnertime, Saraghina prepares the food its owners grew up eating—namely, pizza, panini and pasta, made with fresh ingredients and lots of love. The whitewashed, sunlit dining room encourages lingering, so feel free to kick back with a half liter of the house red.

Photo: Will Steacy

Beyond Brownstones
Even the most cursory walk around its residential streets will reveal the beauty of Bed-Stuy. Row houses, brownstones and apartment buildings—many dating to the 19th century—feature a mix of architectural styles, including Italianate, Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival. Some homes are terra-cotta, some pink or cream with red trim, some gray with blue. Slow strolls and keen eyes will be rewarded with glimpses of turrets, stained glass and elaborately designed iron handrails. In the 1970s the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District was created and promptly appointed to the National Register of Historic Places. A mosey around Decatur Street and MacDonough Streets between Tompkins Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard will show you why. (Creating another historic district in the area is currently on the City’s agenda.) Landmark buildings include the Alhambra Apartments, at Nostrand Avenue between Macon and Halsey Streets, designed by Montrose Morris in 1889–90; and the Renaissance Apartments, at Nostrand and Hancock Street, designed by Morris in 1892. Boys High School, at 832 Marcy Avenue, a massive Romanesque Revival structure designed by James Naughton and also finished in 1892, remains as imposing today as when Isaac Asimov, Max Roach and Norman Mailer walked its hallowed halls.

Courtesy, Beast of Bourbon

Destination Dining
Celestino specializes in seafood, namely Mediterranean preparations of it like lobster ravioli, in a well-lit dining room loaded with old-timey diving equipment. Since January 2014 DeKalb Restaurant has brought an organic, farm-to-table aesthetic to the neighborhood. Much of the restaurant consists of reclaimed materials, including seats made from church pews and parquet floors from a Manhattan mansion. The menu depends on what's in season, but skews New American with an international inflection. A decidedly different vibe exists at Beast of Bourbon, with its live music, barbecue, 40-plus beers on tap and roughly 200 ryes, whiskeys and bourbons, all served up in a humongous cement space.

NoBar. Photo: Will Steacy

Watering Holes
When he's not too busy playing Falcon in Captain America or a battle-hardened sergeant in The Hurt Locker, actor Anthony Mackie runs NoBar in Bed-Stuy. This low-key drinking den seeks to bring a bit of New Orleans, where the actor was born, to Brooklyn. Honor the owner himself by ordering a Mackie (white cranberry juice, citron vodka, lime juice and orange and ginger liqueurs). Even more low-key is Tip Top, which operated for decades as a private social club in the basement of a townhouse. It's no longer a who-you-know place, but it remains as unpretentious as ever. Project Parlor does indeed partly resemble a parlor, courtesy of thrift-store finds like a stand-up piano, boudoir couches and an elaborate chandelier. There's also an electric fireplace for chilly winter nights and an outdoor space for temperate summer ones. In addition to its cozy atmosphere, Doris has DJs spinning actual records most nights of the week (check the Facebook page for updates). Dynaco is overseen by two brothers, who wanted their new(ish) bar (it opened in spring 2013) to have a yesteryear feel. The name comes from hi-fi audio equipment owned by their father throughout their childhood; in homage, the bar uses a vintage sound system to play tunes.

One Last Shag. Photo: Will Steacy

Bed-Stuy has no shortage of famous residents, past and present, including Aaliyah, the Notorious B.I.G., Gregory Porter, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Gregory Porter, Jay Z and Norah Jones. Like a lot of bars, One Last Shag plays music; unlike a lot of bars, this one encourages, and even expects, you to get up and dance. Whether you hear songs by any of the aforementioned artists will, of course, be determined by the person behind the turntables or iPod. If something comes on that you're not into, you can escape the narrow space by bringing your party to the patio, which is decked out with a string of lights. Lone Wolf is both a bar, with frequent themed DJ nights, and a performance space, which has welcomed burlesque stars and virtuoso banjo players alike. Bed-Stuy hasn't just bred popular musicians: performers such as Chris Rock, Lena Horne and Tracy Morgan also spent formative years in the neighborhood. For more than four decades, the Billie Holiday Theatre has brought Off-Off-Broadway to Bed-Stuy, with a focus on work by African-Americans. The theater produces its own seasons and strives to keep prices reasonable in order to attract as broad and inclusive an audience as possible. On Friday and Saturday nights Sankofa Aban, a bed and breakfast, opens its parlor to all for an evening of jazz. Make sure to stay for the post-performance fish fry, the proceeds from which are donated to the musicians (it's $30 if you pay in cash).

Pilar Cuban Eatery. Photo: Will Steacy

Caribbean Flair
Start your Caribbean food crawl at A&A Bake and Doubles Shop, a wee storefront selling a popular street food from Trinidad and Tobago called doubles. This pocket of hot goodness begins with two fried slices of squishy bread known as bara. Between them goes channa (curried chickpea stew), along with peas, potatoes, carrots, coconut, tamarind chutney and/or Scotch bonnet pepper sauce. Doubles are generally consumed for breakfast, but you'll see a gaggle outside this restaurant during all daylight hours (A&A closes in the late afternoon). Although the neighborhood has a large population of Caribbean Americans, this is a go-to snack for all kinds of hungry hordes. It comes in wax paper; unwrap, unpeel and nibble carefully, as doubles will definitely gush and spill. You can get doubles made with herbed bara at Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop, or you might sample a roti: unleavened Indian flatbread wrapped around curried goat, chicken, conch, shrimp or vegetables. Unlike A&A, Ali's has indoor seats. At Trini-Gul long lines of customers queue for, among other delicacies, bake and shark, a sandwich made from fried bread (aka "bake") and bits of shark meat. Don't worry if you don't go in for shark meat; you can get your bake with saltfish or veggies like pumpkin and okra. As you'd expect from the name, Pilar Cuban Eatery does traditional Cuban food; standouts include the house-smoked chorizo, tostones and empanadas (made from scratch each morning). Whatever you get, save room for the extraordinary black beans (note, the restaurant is moving to a new spot a few blocks away in August 2014).

Peaches. Photo: Evan Sung

Down Home
As part of the Great Migration in the early and mid-20th century, African-Americans left the South and headed north, rapidly populating NYC neighborhoods like Harlem and Bed-Stuy, which still boasts one of the largest populations of African-Americans in the US. Almost a century later, several restaurants nod to this heritage by devoting themselves to soul food. Peaches has earned raves for its contemporary Southern cooking, especially during brunch. Typical offerings include grits with shrimp or catfish and sides like collard greens. Sister restaurant Peaches HotHouse also has legions of fans, drawn to its Nashville-style hot fried chicken. Note: it's not for the faint of heart or timid of palate, as this version includes ghost chili, one of the hottest chilies known to humankind. After sampling some of that, you'll have earned a reward, and high-calorie rewards abound at DocD’s Southern Desserts. Among the cakes in regular rotation are Mama's 7UP Florida Cake and Sweet Savannah Pineapple Coconut Cake, made from recipes passed down through church and family. Naturally, the classic red velvet also has a prominent place on the menu. David's Brisket House makes another kind of soul food, in the form of thick-as-your-forearm sandwiches with thinly sliced, incredibly tender pastrami, corned beef or brisket. Perhaps more satisfying than the food is the backstory: the original Jewish owners sold their shares to a Muslim man from Yemen, whose family continues to operate the place, constantly packed with students, cops, foodies and everyone in between. The food is neither kosher nor halal, but utterly New York.

Brooklyn Children's Museum. Photo: Marley White

Kids go cuckoo for the Brooklyn Children's Museum, the very first museum created just for them. Since its founding in 1899, this bright yellow museum has sought to enrich and empower children by showcasing highlights from its permanent collection of 30,000 cultural objects and natural-history specimens, with an emphasis on interactivity and hands-on learning. There's even a Baby Hub, with vibrantly colored (and padded) structures. After working out their minds, give their bodies a workout at Herbert Von King Park. Originally named after abolitionist governor (and, later, US vice president) Daniel Tompkins, it now honors a community activist nicknamed the "Mayor of Bedford-Stuyvesant." Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the duo behind Central Park and Prospect Park, designed the park in 1871 as a place to hold official ceremonies and celebrations. It's a little more raucous these days, courtesy of playgrounds, ball fields, a rec center with computers and art rooms and an amphitheater that regularly holds concerts and performances. Across Lafayette Street is one of only a few landmarked trees in the entire City, a ginormous magnolia that's worth a gape or two. Closer to Marcy Avenue is the Hattie Carthan Community Garden, complete with plump chickens. They love to squawk at onlookers.

Peace & Riot. Photo: Lionel Sanchez Jr.

Not surprisingly, a trawl around a neighborhood as food focused as Bed-Stuy can leave you reeling from deliciousness. Combat whatever ails you at Tony's Health Food Supermarket, a wellness emporium that's been around for decades. If you're not sure what you need, talk to the friendly staff. Once you've stocked up on supplements, roam over to Breukelen Cellars, which provides a different type of antidote to world weariness and would-be food comas. This boutique holds periodic art displays (with the pieces for sale) and vends wine, especially organic and sustainable potables. Similalrly, Bed-Vyne Wine offers plenty of opportunity to imbibe, along with art shows and concerts by local musicians. Long-time Bed-Stuy resident Achuziam Maha opened Peace & Riot with her husband in late 2013, and the eclectic store’s stock reflects the couple's interests, as well as the global sensibility behind Maha’s design business, Ibo Interiors. If you’re looking to collect patterned pillows, score Dutch dining chairs or peruse a range of handcrafted pots and other home accents, this is your store. Armed with purchases for your body and your house, you can finish your shopping excursion at Shirley & Alice, a store run by Khalilah Williams-Webb, stylist to New York Knick Carmelo Anthony and other well-known athletes. On its racks you’ll find vintage threads for men and women from estate sales and thrift stores, along with clothes by up-and-coming indie designers.