There was a time when Manhattanites wouldn’t dare cross the bridge to Brooklyn. Nowadays, however, no visit to New York is complete without a trip to the seriously hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg.
You can hail a cab or walk over the Williamsburg Bridge, but the easiest way to reach this happening Brooklyn neighbourhood from Manhattan is on the L train. It’s the most entertaining mode of transport too. Unlike New York’s other subways, the commuters on the L have a distinctive look. They’re young, fashionably dressed and covered in tattoos. The men sport Amish-style facial hair and everyone wears spectacles.
There’s a sense of restlessness on the train – an eagerness to get to Bedford Ave, the first stop in Williamsburg, just one station outside Manhattan, so that the fun can begin. In fact, Bedford Ave, especially over weekends, has often been described as an outdoor catwalk. Along with hipsters, musicians, artists and people who look as if they’ve just walked off the set of Girls are members of the prominent Hassidic, Latino and Polish communities.
Over the past decade, this semi-industrial neighbourhood has been gentrifying at a fairly rapid clip: factories have been converted into hip loft apartments and hotels, while modern glass buildings have sprung up along the waterfront. A strong foodie presence has been introduced with the opening of some of the best restaurants and neo-rustic bars in the borough. Plus there’s an interesting collection of indie boutiques, vintage stores, bars, art galleries, live music venues (the Music Hall of Williamsburg is a firm favourite) and the unique Nitehawk, a cinema-cum-restaurant.
The larger spaces and modern buildings are attracting many young families with children (full disclosure: I live in Williamsburg with my own young family). Yet even with the stroller set slowly beginning to take over, the edge remains for now. The ‘hood has long been home to established and emerging graffiti artists exhibiting street art that continues to peer out from walls, billboards and abandoned commercial and industrial lots.\
Where to stay in Williamsburg, New York
Wythe Hotel (80 Wythe Ave: 718 460 8000)
A 72-room hotel converted from a textile factory that dates back to 1901, the Wythe oozes turn-of-the-century industrial rustic charm from its exposed pine beams and cast-iron columns. In order to make it taller than its original height, the architects cleverly topped the original brick structure with a glass cube. The rooms feature beds made from reclaimed wood from the original building, concrete floors and colourful damask wallpaper and offer breathtaking views of Manhattan.
King & Grove (160 North 12th St: 718 218 7500)
King & Grove Williamsburg is well situated, overlooking McCarren Park. Even more ideal, especially in the sweltering New York summer, is the fact that this 64-room hotel boasts one of New York City’s largest outdoor swimming pools – filled with salt water to boot. While the decor isn’t as cool as the nearby Wythe Hotel, the rooms are comfortable. And Upper Elm, the rooftop bar (with retractable roof), also offers fabulous views of the city skyline, music and cocktails.
Where to eat in Williamsburg, New York
Bakeri (150 Wythe Ave: 718 388 8037)
This Norwegian-inspired café offers goods like brioche with candied orange, hazelnut and chocolate chip cookies with rosemary and sea salt, and zucchini and blueberry flowers set out on pretty chipped china in vintage display cases. On a long wooden table are freshly baked loaves of Fjord bread (a mostly wholegrain loaf made with spelt, rye and oats), vollkorn (a dense, malty loaf made with organic rye flour and sprouted rye berries, topped with seeds that stay fresh for days) and baguettes. The counter girls, dressed in blue 1940s-era Rosie the Riveter jumpsuits and red headscarves, serve exceptional coffee using beans from Counter Culture Coffee. Owner Nina Brondmo also runs Sweetwater Restaurant around the corner, so the lunch offerings – sandwiches on house-baked bread – are delicious too.
Marlow & Sons (81 Broadway: 718 384 1441)
This dimly lit, wood-panelled space where locals congregate at communal tables is a good choice for brunch, lunch, dinner or late suppers on Friday and Saturday nights from 11pm to 1am, when there’s oyster happy hour. If you’re not in the mood for briny food, order the to-die-for chocolate and salted caramel tart instead. The bar’s a great option too: try an old-fashioned whisky cocktail like the Shadowfax (whisky, Earl Grey, lemon and egg white) or the Junior Executive (rye whisky, house bitters and orange).
Smorgasburg (East River State Park at Kent Ave and North 7th St)
The Smorgasburg outdoor food market on the Williamsburg waterfront, which takes place every Saturday, rain or shine, sees about 115 vendors serve up exciting fare. Cuisines on offer range from Milan to Mexico and Korea to Kerala. Favourites include lightly breaded fried anchovies served with smoked paprika aioli and lemon, bacon-topped cupcakes and ice cream served between two enormous chocolate chip cookies.
Maison Premiere (298 Bedford Ave: 347 335 0446)
Williamsburg’s most romantic dinner locale began life as an oyster and absinthe bar. Inspired by hotel lobbies of yore and the French Quarter circa the 1890s, the place was packed nightly. Nevertheless, the owners wanted to expand their culinary offering, so they built a kitchen in the basement and hired a former Alain Ducasse prodigy to introduce more seafood-focused small plates like the black cod, half-roasted, half-steamed in foil and scattered with raw green almonds. If you don’t want to wait for a table, make a reservation for the tasting menu, which begins with a two-tiered tower of oysters and shellfish.
Where to drink in Williamsburg, New York
The Ides Bar (Wythe Hotel, 80 Wythe Ave, N 12th St: 718 460 8000 )
For a gobsmacking view of the East River and Manhattan, head to Ides Bar on the sixth floor of the Wythe Hotel at sunset and take your drink, made from local small-batch spirits, out onto the terrace. This is also a great bet for a nightcap – the crowd will have thinned out and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings will be twinkling in the moonlight.
Hotel Delmano (82 Berry St: 718 387 1945)
During the day, upscale cocktail-centric bar Hotel Delmano lives a double life as a much sought-after location for fashion shoots. It’s easy to see why: opulent chandeliers and old, smokey mirrors set a glamorous yesteryear scene. The cocktail menu’s equally retro, with back-in-the-day favourites like the Rattlesnake, made with rye, absinthe and egg whites and served on an antique tray. The bar staff, dressed in suspenders and wingtips, add to the ambience.
Where to shop in Williamsburg, New York
Catbird (219 Bedford Ave: 718 599 3457)
If you’re looking for unique gifts, Catbird has them in spades. This boutique stocks one-of-a-kind jewellery (including non-traditional wedding rings), fragrances, unique objets d’art for the home (think real spiderwebs set in glass) and gorgeously tactile letterpress or embroidered cards. It also has a small collection of handmade découpage plates and paperweights by New York master John Derian.
Mast Brothers (111 N 3rd St, Brooklyn: 718 388 2625)
For the headiest aromas and platters of chocolate to taste free of charge, head to this artisanal chocolate factory that creates bean-to-bar slabs in small batches. Founders Michael Mast and his elder brother Rick source cocoa from small farms in Ecuador, Madagascar and Venezuela to produce bars wrapped in gold foil and thick Italian paper with vintage-inspired prints in flavours like black truffle, almond and sea salt, or the Brooklyn blend.
Brooklyn Fox (200 Bedford Ave: 718 388 7010)
Lexi Isadora has been dressing the cool girls of Williamsburg since 2007, when she opened a lingerie store with the same name around the corner, on N 5th St. The newer Bedford Ave emporium, however, is where you’ll find cute dresses and separates from local designers like Mara Hoffman, Cynthia Rowley and Norma Kamali, as well as hip imports from Karen Walker and Alexander McQueen. A well-edited collection of bags and shoes adorns the back wall.