We'll concede that some aspects of life in Brooklyn may seem strange to outsiders.
The New York City borough has become an icon of “coolness,” but it's more than that—getting off the L train in Williamsburg or the F train in Park Slope sometimes feels like disembarking in an entirely different country. The natives dress differently—just look at that statement eyewear and those exotic leg warmers—and behave in strange ways, bringing their children into bars and eating vegetables grown on rooftops.
Still, easy as it might be to mock this lifestyle, it's actually quite admirable. Behind the parade of odd businesses and peculiar pursuits (an all-mayonnaise shop, rock 'n' roll classes for kids) is a wellspring of imagination and an abiding commitment to excellence. Read on for examples of bespoke, artisanal and otherwise Brooklynesque things Brooklyn does best.
You Are What You Eat
When Brooklyn Porridge Co. opened in November, the public reaction was near-unanimous that the place belonged in Park Slope. Sure, the idea of a seasonal shop that serves only hot cereal is funny. Having said that, such narrow focus evinces just how much owners Emily Hannon and Karyn Seltzer care about porridge. You know how trips to the grocery store are sometimes fraught with suspicion? How you need to squint at the ingredient label and make sure nothing suspicious has been slipped into what you thought was an innocent food staple? Emily and Karyn have done all that caring for you at this shop, which operates only in the cold-weather months (an Uncle Louie G.'s stands in the same spot during the spring and summer). Their ingredients come from such suppliers as Bob's Red Mill (oats), Culture (yogurt), Think Coffee and Brooklyn Cured (meats). Plus, unless you hate umami, you know you've always wanted truffle oil in your porridge.
There's more single-minded excellence at Empire Mayonnaise's Vanderbilt Avenue storefront, where consumers can find numerous exotic varieties of Empire's titular condiment—lime pickle, bacon and sriracha, to name just a few—and can know that every flavor is non-GMO and made with cage-free eggs. The fancy versions can add gusto to any sandwich, while the “classic” condiment comes closest to the platonic ideal of mayonnaise; imagine the peace of mind you'd have when making your tuna salad with the stuff. Also a leading light in the one-product-focus category: Brooklyn Flea vendor Brooklyn Soda Works, which pours bubbly concoctions that forsake phosphoric acid, high fructose corn syrup and phenalalynine for the likes of fennel seed, seasonal fruit and sea salt.
Then there's Eat, a Greenpoint establishment that's drawn attention for quirks such as nights when all customers must eat in silence and in-restaurant yoga classes. Those nods to mindfulness, though, are a natural extension of the attention the restaurant pays to its food, all of which is made from local, organic ingredients, many purchased at farmers markets. It's wholesome stuff, which the kitchen staff reliably turns into tasty meals.
Even groceries in Brooklyn have a distinctly local flavor. Of late, much attention has been lavished on the new Gowanus Whole Foods Market, where the chain's usual supply of natural and organic food is bolstered by such additions as knife-sharpening, a rooftop bar with skyline views, vinyl LPs and bike-parking and -repair services.
Kids 'n' Play
If you've ever been to family-filled Park Slope or Carroll Gardens, you know that the neighborhoods' parents regard every decision involving the next generation—no matter how minute—as crucial. The children must be taught exactly how to get cool and stay that way. To that end, there's the twice-weekly Babies + Bier playgroup at Die Stammkneipe/Der Schwarze Kölner … yes, a beer garden with a play area and story time for kids. Before you scoff, consider that German beer gardens are easy places in which to teach little ones about measurements (a half-liter equals 16.9 fluid ounces!) and foreign languages (“That's not a pretzel, liebling. It's a brezel!”). But finding a cool place to hang out is only one part of promoting the rock 'n' roll lifestyle: there's the rock 'n' roll, too. So if your child has already done Music Together, had her fill of Baby Loves Disco or graduated from baby DJ school, it's probably time to enroll her in rock camp at the Brooklyn Music Factory. There, your 6-year-old can learn “Satisfaction” and “Beat It” on bass and perform them at week's end with fellow grade schoolers in front of an adoring audience. The Factory will soon have a high-powered competitor, the Rock and Roll Playhouse, which gets special cred from its owner: he's also the founder of Williamsburg hot spot Brooklyn Bowl (see also “Brooklyn Versions” below).
Some Brooklynites want to direct their kids toward something more technological than a school of rock; that's what the Brooklyn Robot Foundry is for…that, and preparing for the 30th anniversary of Short Circuit (just two short years away). Classes and workshops might teach the young ones to build the perfect Rube Goldberg machine; there's open play, too. But perhaps what kids really need to fill the shoes of their superhuman parents is at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. Novelist Dave Eggers' novelty shop is not all it seems: past the particle shooters and invisibility-detection goggles, a movable bookcase hides the kids' writing workshop and tutoring center of 826NYC—proving that as cutting-edge as the borough can get, sometimes the mantras of parents' parents ring true. Teach your children well, indeed.
What’s in Stores
Brooklyn's character, wit and unfettered coolness come through in locals' dress. Particularly in Williamsburg, mainstream fashion simply won't do. The results: stores that are, in every sense of the word, different. Many Kings County shops cater to those who'd rather stand out than fit in. The manifestation of this can be seen firsthand at Brooklyn Flea, where customers peruse an array of vintage clothing, jewelry and furniture. Also distinctive are the duds at Bird—a hipster-curated boutique with locations in Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg. The selection is small but reflects its customers' discerning tastes. Look for wares from stylish brands, like the attitudinal jewelry of local designer Pamela Love, separates from beloved French fashion house A.P.C. and bags and accessories from the Canadian duo behind Want Les Essentiels de la Vie.
Fashion-forward Brooklynites also love decorating their fingers with whimsical, dainty, stackable rings from Catbird, where a simple one-millimeter-wide ring can cost anywhere from $28 to $1,200. Somewhat less pricey are the offerings at Black Gold in Carroll Gardens. This is a place where, for a few bucks, you can score a hard-to-find record or a mug of fair-trade, organic java. Sip as a mounted deer head stares back, as if evaluating your choice—naturally, the store also specializes in taxidermy.
Browsers (though not buyers; you can scan anything that interests you) looking for one-off or out-of-print books will find bliss at Reanimation Library, which is just as magical as its name implies. A fair number of volumes in this noncirculating collection are in the how-to realm and touch upon a variety of subjects, including psychology, geography, oceanography, geology, biology and physics. Small-press titles and independent zines can be checked out at (and from) Mellow Pages, a minute, unassuming library that encourages community-based borrowing, browsing and sharing. The Bushwick indie operation specializes in esoteric works from tiny publishers, many of them by local authors and presses. The library, which was inspired by a similar bookstore in Seattle, recently drummed up some publicity by claiming that ExxonMobil had offered them a $50,000 donation. They later admitted it was a hoax.
Brooklyn Versions of Regular Things
No form of recreation is so bland and familiar that it cannot be Brooklynized: transformed into a comparatively glamorous, sophisticated and, some might say, ridiculous version of itself.
Take bowling. A staple of every suburb in America, the bowling alley is traditionally a place to eat chicken fingers, drink lukewarm beer and, of course, roll 10 frames. Brooklyn Bowl is far from NYC's, or even Brooklyn's, first upscale bowling alley—The Gutter, for example, helped pave the way—but it may be the first to combine the tried-and-true game with a fully functional concert venue that's hosted the likes of Skrillex, The Roots and Guns 'n' Roses. The sound is clear, and there's a certain charm when reverberating guitar intermingles with clattering pins. As for food and drink, the on-site restaurant serves food from local favorite Blue Ribbon, and the bar pours a full menu of wines, cocktails and craft beers.
A trip to the movies gets a similar treatment at Nitehawk Cinema, where every seat comes with a table and waiters roam the aisles taking orders. Popcorn here can be topped with truffle butter and citrus salt, while Jujyfruits take a back seat to full meals like kale salad, cheese and dry-cured ham plates and various film-inspired dishes, with ice cream sundaes for dessert. Perhaps most important, the Nitehawk is NYC's first movie theater with a liquor license, and serves an impressive array of adult beverages.
Even shuffleboard, which many young New Yorkers may know primarily from trips to visit grandparents in Boca Raton, Florida, is not immune to the whims of ambitious, creative Brooklyn nightlife magnates. Gowanus's Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club combines the retirement-community mainstay with a roster of hoity-toity food trucks and, according to the New York Times, drinks “served in Ball jars”, in a 17,000-square-foot former factory. In fact, do yourself a favor and read that whole Times article, including the origin story; suffice to say, piñatas, barbecue and a convertible Mustang are involved.
Yes, America is moving toward a specialist economy. As ever, Brooklyn is at the vanguard, spawning experts in all fields: the obvious (beef jerky), the less so (shrapnel-resistant “ballistic underwear” for military use) and the somewhere in between (rooftop beekeeping). Many representative places bear an individualistic stamp, like Elizabeth Streb's “popaction” at Streb Lab for Action Mechanics. Defying gravity like Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked, Streb has institutionalized her brand of dance, gymnastics and counterintuitive movement both for performance and instruction—she'll teach you what she knows. Decidedly less sweaty, Taro's Origami Studio provides a serene workshop for creativity under the watchful eye of Taro Yaguchi. Melding technology and old-world skills, Yaguchi provides instruction largely through video lessons—folks follow on the iPads provided at the studio. You probably haven't had this much fun folding something since you got your hands on a copy of Paul's Boutique (if you're a Brooklynite, chances are you get the reference).
One thing about experts: rather than mass-producing goods, they take their time. Like at Cut Brooklyn. The shop doesn't usually have too much inventory—sometimes you'll walk in and find a couple of motorcycles and a cat rather than a colorful array of the meticulously crafted knives that Joel Bukiewicz hand-forges. They sell out fast, and can take the better part of a day (or more) to make; that's why the store is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you haft to have one, check the website first and reserve the knife of your choice.
Helping lubricate all this creativity is a cocktail culture sans peer, with modern speakeasies and the like serving cultured cocktails in classy confines. There's Maison Premiere and Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg; Clover Club in Carroll Gardens; Fort Defiance in Red Hook (this reporter saw a miraculously opalescent aviation mixed there) and a host of others, crafting French 75s, absinthe (!) and, of course, the borough's namesake cocktail (rye, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and amaro-like Amer Picon) for contemporary times. At one such establishment, Rye, where behind the grand oak-and-mahogany bar mixologists use house-made syrups and oversize ice cubes to augment their whiskey-centric libations, a trusted source sighted a customer reaching into his blazer to customize a cocktail with a tincture of his own. Now that's the true expression of the Brooklyn way.