Sunset Park is one of those Brooklyn neighborhoods with a little bit of everything for everyone: bustling thoroughfares lined with shops and restaurants representing nationalities the world over; expansive green spaces for exercising or relaxing; and stellar views of the Upper New York Bay and beyond, especially at dusk, when the neighborhood very much delivers on its name.
In fact, Sunset Park fully embodies the melting-pot ethos of New York City. For centuries the neighborhood—loosely 36th to 65th Streets and from Ninth Avenue west to the Bay Ridge Channel—has embraced a steady stream of immigrants, all of whom have made the place their own: the Irish in the mid-1800s; Finns, Poles and Norwegians after that; and, more recently, transplants from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Puerto Rico, as well as Chinese from Canton and Fuzhou. Where else in the world do you have an old-school Irish bar in the same neighborhood as a Danish Athletic Club and a populous Chinatown?
Its revitalized industrial spaces are home to thriving manufacturers and struggling artists alike; its cemetery a haven to New York notables (Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat) as well as a wild colony of monk parakeets. Which is why hopping on the D, N or R subway (the first two run express in these parts) is so worth the effort. Here are a handful of spots to experience, see and, yes, taste, the best that Sunset Park has to offer.
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Begin with Dim Sum
As many an NYC foodie will tell you, dim sum has lately become a battle of the boroughs. Throughout the City, restaurants specializing in these Cantonese small plates are kicking up their game. But in none of the City's other Chinatowns is dim sum executed on such an epic scale as it is in Sunset Park. The brunch-time meals-on-wheels experience here is especially grand, hosted in huge, banquet-hall-like spaces that would be impossible to maintain in higher-rent neighborhoods. From a culinary standpoint, the high turnover translates into fresher fare, and attempts at one-upmanship beget experimental dishes that you can't find elsewhere. East Harbor Seafood Palace, a chandelier-laden space where waiters sport maroon tuxedos and bow ties, is Sunset Park's biggest and busiest spot—a prime target if you have time for just one Brooklyn dim-sum meal. New Spring Garden, just down the street, is another popular spot (it seats around 500, and there are still lines sometimes), while Pacificana, located on a second floor overlooking the street, serves terrific har gow (shrimp dumplings) and short ribs in a large room with relatively subdued decor: think wood-paneled walls and soaring ceilings.
There's more to Brooklyn's Chinatown than just dim sum, of course. On Eighth Avenue alone, you can find eateries specializing in food from Fujian, Sichuan, Yunnan and other provinces of China, not to mention the countries of Southeast Asia. Mister Hotpot—where the design is flashy, the music bumping—does a hip, youthful take on hot pot, in which diners flash cook thinly sliced meats in a boiling broth directly at the table. Don't let Metro Café's decidedly bland name fool you. This Szechuan eatery uses the cuisine's signature mouth-numbing peppercorn in its fiery-hot dishes, bringing new levels of heat to familiar dishes like mapo tofu as well as to more exotic ones like sliced tilapia swimming in red chili oil (approach with caution). Elsewhere, you can find Chinese dishes that are even more off the beaten path. Lucky Eight, for example, is known for its seafood delicacies, like sea cucumber and abalone, while Yun Nan Flavour Garden serves a nearly impossible-to-find dish known as "crossing-the-bridge noodles"—made with pork and black-skinned Silkie chicken, both of which are served raw in (and then get cooked by) the steaming hot broth. And although bahn mi—those Vietnamese sandwiches served on small, crusty baguettes—are all the rage now, it's worth making the trip to sample the superlative ones at Ba Xuyên, on Eighth Avenue. Two neighborhood grocery stores are also worth a visit, as they carry a wide selection of prepared foods, not to mention just about every Chinese ingredient you could imagine: New York Mart and Fei Long Market. The latter has a large food court, where you'll find stalls serving favorites like soup dumplings and hand-pulled noodles.
Parks and Recreation
Although Sunset Park is located a few blocks inland from the bay, its unusually high elevation offers sweeping views that take in the Statue of Liberty as well as New Jersey and Staten Island. Come at dusk to catch the glorious sunsets, and be sure to stop by the cluster of flowering trees that make up the park's September 11 Living Memorial Grove, from where you'll have a clear view of Lower Manhattan. You'll also find a range of activities in the park: tree-lined paths for walking; open fields for sunbathing; and loads of recreational facilities, including handball, basketball and volleyball courts. The park's crown jewel, however, is its majestic art deco swimming facility—a WPA project that first opened in 1936—with an Olympic-size pool. The recently opened Bush Terminal Piers Park is well worth the short walk west down 43rd Street toward the water. In addition to huge playing fields, the park has a waterfront esplanade that looks onto tidal ponds and restored wetlands in the Bay Ridge Channel. And after the sun sets, head to Melody Lanes, a retro bowling alley where bartender and neighborhood legend Pete Napolitano, most likely wearing his signature bow tie and suspenders, has been regaling customers with his unique take on the meaning of life for more than 20 years.
Art and Architecture
Swaths of residential row houses, originally built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, still stand side-by-side in many parts of Sunset Park, uninterrupted by the stray glass facade of a new development. Architecture buffs also praise the way the neighborhood's bow-front brownstones coalesce to create a visual rhythm you don't find in many other parts of the City. (For prime examples, walk down 43rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, or 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.) There's a smattering of original Finnish coops, including the Alku and Alku Toinen (on 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth)—thought to be the first nonprofit cooperatives in NYC. In other parts of the neighborhood (like 40th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues), you'll find a repetition of near-identical apartment buildings rendered in various color brick. Another local architectural attraction: St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, designed by beaux-arts architect Raymond F. Almirall. The church's beehive spire tops off what was once one of Brooklyn's tallest structures. And while Sunset Park doesn't have as burgeoning an art scene as some other up-and-coming neighborhoods, it does have Tabla Rasa, a gallery that often presents group shows in its turn-of-the-20th-century carriage house.
Latin American Dining
In a neighborhood as ethnically diverse as Sunset Park, you don't have to travel far to sample the incredible breadth of Latin American cuisines on offer. In fact, just go for a stroll down Fourth and Fifth Avenues. La Fe, on Fourth and 36th Street, does comidas tipica criolla (or typical Creole meals), emphasizing steak and seafood. The broiled lobster—which can be ordered with various hot sauces—is a showstopper, but the restaurant also serves more basic fare, like Cuban sandwiches and mamey (tropical fruit) milkshakes. El Tesoro Ecuatoriano, just off the park on Fifth Avenue, is an Ecuadorian spot with an extensive selection of bright ceviches, which are available with one, two or three types of seafood. And with a name like Super Pollo Latino, the must-order dish at this no-frills Peruvian joint on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street is imminently clear: the spice-rubbed rotisserie chicken. Be sure to load up on Super Pollo's famous green sauce.
As diverse as Sunset Park's eating scene is, it does have one specialty: tacos. A few blocks south of the park, you'll find Tacos Matamoros, where the char-grilled marinated pork is roasted on a spit and then shaved, shawarma style, onto corn tortillas. Tacos El Bronco, over on Fourth Avenue (there's also an El Bronco truck on Fifth Avenue and 37th Street), has a similar set up and was recently singled out by the Food Network for its "flawless" pork tacos accompanied by roasted onion bulbs. Meanwhile Ricos Tacos, a few blocks south on Fifth Avenue, is your go-to for superlative handling of unusual cuts of meat, like beef tongue. Those looking for more elaborate Mexican preparations should try Maria's Bistro Mexicano, whose standout dishes include a thick-cut pork chop grilled with Oaxacan achiote salsa, and el molcajete norteño, which is grilled sirloin, shrimp and poblano peppers served on a heated lava rock. The neighborhood caters to those looking to cook up some Latin food at home too: Plaza Xochimilco 2, on Fifth Avenue near 57th Street, is your one-stop grocery shop, and has a dizzying array of fresh jalapeños.
Bakeries and Cafés
Plenty of opportunities exist to satisfy your sweet tooth after whatever meal you've chosen. La Gran Via Bakery is a Cuban-owned establishment known for its elaborately decorated and painstakingly constructed cakes, from those adorned with a cascade of delicate sugar flowers to something shaped like an Angry Bird. Thankfully, La Gran Via also sells its confections by the slice, including tres leches, cheesecake and Dominican cake (layered, with a tropical filling), as well as cannolis and cookies. Ines Bakery, a Mexican spot, also has amazing tres leches plus house-made doughnuts. It's the place to go should you get a hankering for something sweet in the wee small hours; on weekdays, Ines stays open all night. Bon Appetite is an Asian bakery over on Seventh Avenue, trading in a variety of cakes, buns, milk teas and dumplings. The Green Fig Bakery, near Green-Wood Cemetery, is a bi-level cafe with a wide selection of pastries and baked goods: basics like croissants and black-and-white cookies; treats such as pumpkin bread, linzer tortes and chocolate-covered fig crucettas (a kind of cookie). It also has savory lunch fare, including many vegan options.
Industry City and Brooklyn Army Terminal
At the turn of the 20th century, the 6-million-square-foot, 16-building complex known today as Industry City was a thriving center of manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. Spanning more than 30 waterfront acres, Bush Terminal, as it was called then, had its own police force, fire department and power plant. After extensive and ongoing renovations, this sprawling campus (18,480 windows, 144 elevators) is now home to a broad range of tenants, from individual artists to larger companies. These include a handful of chocolate factories, namely Tumbador, Liddabit Sweets and Li-Lac, the last of these a nearly 100-year-old business that recently moved production to Brooklyn; watch its confections being made by peeking through its large windows. But the site not just about commerce: during the summer, weekly Mister Sunday parties transform a courtyard into an outdoor dance space, while all year round, Industry City Distillery, famous for its 80-proof vodka made from raw beet sugar, offers weekly tours (Saturday, 3pm; $15) of its facilities. You'll be able to inspect the hand-built stills and "immobilized cell bioreactor fermentation system," among other features. For a quick bite, head to the complex's food hall, home to Colson Patisserie, Blue Marble Ice Cream and ReCaFo (short for "Real Caribbean Food"), among other gourmet-ish spots. A couple of miles away, the BKLYN Army Terminal, another rehabilitated industrial complex covering some 4 million square feet, once served as the country's largest military-supply base. Walking tours of the terminal are offered twice a month (on weekends; $22) through Turnstile Tours.
Beautifully kept grounds. Stellar views of Manhattan. Magnificent architecture. Oh, and free parking. Is it any wonder that Green-Wood Cemetery is a favorite spot among in-the-know Brooklynites looking to escape the bustle of the City? Unlike at the borough's popular parks, there are no bikers, rollerbladers and joggers whizzing by you here (recreational activities are, understandably, prohibited). Green-Wood Cemetery's 478 acres—which span the neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Greenwood (or Greenwood Heights, or whatever folks might be calling the area between South Slope and Sunset Park)—are dotted with meandering trails, serene ponds, century-old (or even older) trees and artfully restored buildings, from the grand 1860 Gothic Revival gate that greets you as you enter the cemetery to the more recently redone limestone chapel (built circa 1911) and 1876 caretaker's residence and visitor's cottage, with its multitude of sharply slanted roofs and its cast-iron ornamentation. A popular spot with bird watchers, Green-Wood is, incidentally, home to a vibrant community of wild green parrots, which nest in the spires of the entrance gate.