Adventures in Upscale Brooklyn
Over a weeklong period, I searched out a side of Brooklyn that scarcely existed two decades ago. I visited boutiques and bistros, spas and cocktail lounges, dine-in cinemas and creative new waterfront parks. It was a quest that would not have been complete without at least one afternoon in Williamsburg.
Across the low-slung skyline I spotted my destination: the futuristic silver tower of the William Vale, which had opened just nine days before. Among the newest in a series of luxury hotels that have opened in recent years in the borough — including the nearby Wythe and the soon-to-open 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge — the William Vale is ostentatious even by the standards of “new Brooklyn.” Along with its standard $350-to-$500 rooms, each of which features an open-air balcony, it offers a “garden residence,” a 1,320-square-foot duplex suite with an enormous patio and an outdoor Jacuzzi. Starting rate: $6,000 a night.
The William Vale rises from its two- and three-story surroundings like an opulent monument surrounded by nondescript headstones. As I waited for the elevator in the lobby, which was splashed with abstract color, I made small talk with the host, a thin man in a handsome suit, his hair parted down the middle like a 1950s film villain.
“You’re from the neighborhood?” he asked as he escorted me to the 22nd floor. No, farther south, I told him. Flatbush. He looked perplexed. He lived in Upper Manhattan, he said. “In 15 years, I’ve probably been to Brooklyn only a handful of times.” Now he was commuting here. It felt like the revenge of the bridge and tunnel crowd.
At Westlight, the hotel’s Andrew Carmellini bar, I fought back my fear of heights and headed for the outer deck, peering across the East River to the full expanse of Manhattan. Servers wore vaguely retro navy blue dresses, and a Jason Schwartzman look-alike sported a wooden bow tie.
While not going out of its way to defy stereotype, the place was welcoming — more casual, and less affected, than its showy, sky-high setting would suggest. In a loftlike room lit by globe lights, I pulled up a stool at the slate-gray bar and ordered a $14 glass of Sonoma County sauvignon blanc, a fair price of admission for the dizzying views.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, another stop I made in Brooklyn was Crown Heights, a neighborhood that was still closely associated with the 1991 riots when I arrived in the city in the mid-2000s. Today, it exemplifies gentrification. Along Franklin Avenue, chic new restaurants, bars and boutiques open with such frequency that if even a few months pass between visits, I sometimes find myself disoriented. Was that slick sushi spot there before? When did this wine bar open?
Within blocks of one another, there is Aita, a low-key Italian trattoria with pasta that is praised in superlatives; an elegant Mexican restaurant with a Talavera-style tile bar and a pressed copper roof (Chavela’s); and Glady’s. The last of these serves a similar menu to so many old-school jerk chicken hot-plate places except that it has a chef-owner, Michael Jacober, who is a Per Se alum; an evocative Caribbean-hued dining room; and potent dark and stormy slushies with a fierce kick of ginger. As if overnight, one Crown Heights street has more fine restaurants than some medium-size cities.
On a weekday afternoon, I met a girlfriend at Café Rue Dix, a French-Senegalese bistro on Bedford Avenue, where we were greeted with a warm, unironic “Welcome to Africa.” We sat at a sidewalk table during a happy hour that draws regulars from the neighborhood for its signature cocktail, the Kale Hemingway (white rum, green juice, lime and maraschino, $9), house-made bread and Senegalese-style rice-paper spring rolls. The warm, comfortably weathered space does, somehow, feel both distinctly Crown Heights and vaguely Parisian, though this last impression may have been the late-afternoon cocktail talking.
I ducked next door to Marché Rue Dix, a “cultural concept store” opened by Nilea Alexander, the co-owner (with her Senegalese husband, Lamine Diagne) of Rue Dix. The shop had Chevron-patterned flooring and sold chunky sunglasses and funky coats, delicious-smelling candles and stylish African imports. Like the nearby and newly opened Crabby Shack, a bright and airy urban seafood spot, Rue Dix’s twin businesses gave me hope that at least some of the spoils of Crown Heights’ transformation might benefit black business owners.
Like the wave of gentrification that has washed from Williamsburg ever deeper into Brooklyn — north into what was once the Polish enclave of Greenpoint, east into Bushwick and south through Bed-Stuy — I Ubered from neighborhood to neighborhood. It was a luxury I normally afford myself only on the increasingly rare, late-night occasion of excess. But during my weeklong stint exploring upscale Brooklyn, I went out of my way to treat myself to such extravagances.
I booked an afternoon “Urban Oasis” 55-minute massage for $135 at Fort Greene’s Cynergy Spa, where a long, candelabra-lit hallway led to a room with gilded mirrors and a white noise machine playing ambient water sounds. Despite its location at a busy tri-street intersection, the place somehow managed to feel like a refuge.
Afterward, I dipped into Karasu, the hidden, izakaya-style bar behind the comfort food restaurant Walter’s, where a sophisticated, bedroom-size room featured a wall of Japanese whiskeys. Charles Mingus played overhead while I sipped a Nettai, a would-be snow cone of rum, orgeat, mandarin and yuzu ($14) through a metal straw. I hadn’t felt so relaxed in months.
Over the following days, I resisted impulse buys in Bed-Stuy boutiques like Sincerely, Tommy and Peace & Riot; drank rosé while watching vintage David Lynch at the cushy new Syndicated theater, in Bushwick, which has a full bar, a utensil-free “seasonal ingredient” food menu and in-theater table service; and with my husband, Tim, and toddler, Roxie, walked the length of Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, an area that reminds me more of Boston than Brooklyn and which is home to Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters.
Along the promenade, I couldn’t help but look up at the windows overlooking New York Harbor and wonder, what would it be like to wake up to that view? Or with the new Pier Six park, a model of postindustrial urban redesign, as your front yard?
During my week of big spending, I was especially excited for a lavish date night dinner with my husband. But deciding where to go proved difficult. I waffled over whether to really go all out at the widely recommended Blanca, a 12-seat prix fixe restaurant behind Roberta’s in Bushwick. At $195 per person, not including drinks, tax and tip, it would have cost over $500. Twice, I made and canceled reservations. Finally, I decided. I just couldn’t do it.
Instead, I booked a table at Olmsted for 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, an only-in-New York dinner hour and the only reservation I could get. When Tim and I arrived, the place — with a living wall, exposed bricks that had been painted white, and a backyard aglow with lights — was packed. Early Nineties Naughty by Nature (“O.P.P.? Yeah, you know me”) played as we were seated at a table beside the open kitchen, where a man with tweezers and comfortable sneakers carefully placed final touches on plates. The whole dining room smelled like the area around the Ebbets Field public housing complex, where the Golombeck spice factory infuses several city blocks with the scent of cumin and coriander, curry and paprika. It was a comparative bargain at $145 for two, including cocktails.
Everything was beautiful, from the delicate porcelain water glasses, two-toned and swirled like soft serve, to the bartender who wore long dreads and danced with the cocktail shaker as if it were a maraca. When the food arrived, one small plate at a time, it was beautiful, too. There was crawfish boil chicharrón in a newspaper cup, earthy chapati — small, flat disks served with cucumbers and labne — and a $12 rosemary cocktail of fire and acid. Amusing us both, Tim’s main was one giant slice of tomato. Having traveled from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket just up the street, it was served breaded and fried, schnitzel-style.
How is it, I asked. “It’s like a grilled cheese,” Tim said. “It has that … ” he trailed off, transported to some cozy food memory. “I love putting tomatoes on my grilled cheese,” he said, as if struck by a revelation, an 8-year-old boy excited about food for the first time. We both laughed. We laughed at the novelty of my week and the fundamental strangeness of being granted the opportunity to step into a life so different from my own.
But in the end, a week of excess was a reminder of one of the basic promises of New York life, which remains the ability to straddle multiple worlds and to get glimpses into those that aren’t your own.
If You Go
At the forefront of Williamsburg’s high-end hotel revival, the Wythe Hotel (80 Wythe Avenue; 718-460-8000; wythehotel.com) is housed in a 1901 waterfront factory. The 70-room (starting at $395) boutique hotel has an in-house art cinema, a Marlow & Sons sibling restaurant, Reynard, and the Ides, a “gratuity-free” cocktail bar where a draft pilsner will set you back $11.
The new kid in town, the William Vale (111 North 12th Street; thewilliamvale.com) claims the longest hotel pool in New York City, and has 183 guest rooms (from the mid-$300s) with floor-to-ceiling windows, open-air balconies, designer décor and contemporary art.
Not yet open, but now taking reservations for February 2017, the 194-room 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge (60 Furman Street; 1hotels.com/brooklyn_bridge) will be one of the few luxury hotels south of Williamsburg. Among its selling points are a restaurant by Seamus Mullen and a 3,475-square-foot rooftop patio with a plunge pool and fire pit. In a nod to Brooklyn’s waterfront history, the room designs incorporate reclaimed wood from the old Domino Sugar factory. From $350.
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