Manhattan has always led the way in food trends. But the winds of change are blowing stronger than ever. Operator and food writer Simon Wright describes what makes informal Brooklyn restaurants such a success and explains how to emulate their style
It's a decade since I first wrote about the New York restaurant scene for Caterer and Hotelkeeper. I've been back a few times since but the truth is I've only scratched the surface and I guess the reality is that I only ever will.
It's a feast of unfathomable depths, there are legendary names that I still haven't visited and whole sections of the New York menu that I've barely pierced with a fork. And, of course, it's a fast-moving spread. Every time I return something has changed, not just the odd opening here and there, but great leaps in direction - or perhaps they're not such huge jumps, more that I just catch the light shining on a different corner of the city's cooking.
Whichever way you look at it, on this visit, more than any other, there was new energy in the air, an electric crackle of change, much of it emanating not from Manhattan but from across the East River in Brooklyn. Maybe this isn't such a revelation - many London openings have been loosely shaped by winds blowing from that direction for a while.
Personally, though, I wasn't prepared for the ferocity of the breeze, for the feeling that tables were being overturned, that something was happening which might well change the nature of eating out. If you're of a certain age and disposition you might recall the rise of punk rock in the mid-1970s - brash, fresh, unstoppable and a blessed relief. Well it felt like nothing less than that.
On this trip I ate in a lot of good places but the ones that really excited me were those that had stripped the art of the restaurant back to its essentials. The ones that said "it's about the food and the drink", just like punk was about having a good song, a bundle of energy and the handful of chords needed to bring the tune to life.
There were places born of rampant, often youthful, enthusiasm and the love of food rather than the weary pursuit of Michelin stars, television notoriety or new and clever ways of making money. As it happens, many of them are clearly doing the latter, which in the current climate suggests that they must be doing something right.
It's not a fashion that will suit everyone - informality and casualness here are heading to levels that bring into question the very applicability of the word "service" (at last) and can induce TripAdvisor apoplexy. The relationship between customer and host is redefined to something along the lines of "this is what we offer, we love it and we'd be thrilled if you do too… if not, there's a place that does it differently down the street". If that's a trick you can pull off (and let's face it, you're much more likely to find a viable audience somewhere this densely populated) it seems to me a really healthy place to be.
What's happening in Brooklyn is part of a much bigger picture, one that sees some of the best eating available to us continuing to move to places which don't dedicate the majority of the cash we hand over to paying fearsome rents and bankrolling theatrical service. Here, good eating out means operators that are passionate about food and drink to the point of obsession and expect a little respect for their efforts; where the focal point of the energy and resources available is on the plate and in the glass.
Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg
â- Opened in 2007. It's relatively old news in Brooklyn but still packed.
â- Once an auto-repair shop, it retains the light industrial feel.
â- Slow-cooked, smoked cuts of pork and beef sold by weight with sauces on the side.
â- Self-service. Yes you queue for your "cue" and it's served on paper plates and butcher's paper.
â- Communal tables. No reservations.
â- Craft beers, character wines, 40-odd bourbons. The booze is taken seriously. Beer taps are constructed from knives.
â- No table service of any description.
You might eat… Hand-pulled Berkshire shoulder, house-cured pastrami.
What's so good about it? Imagine running a restaurant with hardly a member of staff front of house. There's somebody roaming around to clear up the mess but other than that on my visit there was one (highly knowledgeable) bar person with probably close to 100 people in the room. How do they manage that? Like this: you can buy your beer in demijohns of up to a gallon. The more you buy in one visit the cheaper it is - hence less trips to the bar, hence one barman. Clever. The meat is excellent and the sides were top-notch, too.
Pies ‘n' thighs
South 4th Street, Brooklyn
â- Fried chicken, catfish, collared greens, beans and great desserts.
â- Comfort food done well.
â- Excellent beer served in plastic pitchers.
â- Keeps many of Brooklyn's indie band members in part-time work.
â- No reservations. Always a healthy numbers of people hanging about outside or in nearby bars.
You might eat… Catfish sammy with fries, tartare, slaw, pickle and lettuce.
What's so good about it? The food isn't sophisticated in any way but it's put together with care and passion and it's delicious. It's significant that the food is cooked and served by pretty much the same kind of people who like to eat it and who have the same kind of disposable income available. Another example of people setting up and running the kind of place they like to eat at themselves.
Moore Street, Brooklyn
â- Started out with nothing but a pizza oven. The pizzas remain, having been successful enough to engender the acquisition of a gas oven and the subsequent addition of a host of simple, direct and beautifully balanced dishes to the menu.
â- The New York Times said: "There are no cloth napkins or tablecloths at Roberta's, no comfortable seats. Christmas lights provide mood lighting, and urban detritus and flea-market finds the art on the walls… an unlikely cathedral to such culinary excellence. It is no less a cathedral for that."
â- Out of the way location.
â- No reservations unless a group of you book the tasting menu.
You might eat… Soft shell crab with aÁ¯oli, shallot and mint, pizza.
What's so good about it? There's quite a bit of elaboration in the kitchen in terms of cooking techniques but nothing in the way of surplus bells and whistles on the plate. Basically it's a relaxed, fun place to be where the food has developed but nobody is asking you to get uptight about it.
Court Street, Brooklyn
â- Founded by two chefs named Frank - Falcinelli and Castrovano.
â- It was set up with the declared intention of serving deceptively simple fare - dishes prepared with the freshest possible ingredients and a high level of attention. Service would be attentive, but never pretentious. Wines would be food-friendly and great value, so there would be no reason not to like the place.
â- Rooted in traditional Italian dishes. Great ingredients shine through.
â- Simple but very well-informed service.
You might eat… Meatballs, home-made cavatealli with hot sausage, gnocchi with ricotta and marinara.
What's so good about it… It does pretty much exactly what they set out to do and it does it brilliantly.
Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg
â- Across the road from Fette Sau and owned by the same people.
â- Food revolves around a huge charcoal grill but extends well beyond steaks. Innovative ways with a classic method (sous-vide free zone).
â- Great wine list built on character and individuality. Wine on draft. No pouring.
â- Shares a back garden with the Spuyten Duyvil bar (outstanding craft beer list) next door.
You might eat… Wine-braised octopus, shoulder blade lamb chop with mint gremolata.
What's so good about it? Edges more towards the conventional restaurant format than sister Fette Sau, but still raggedly informal. Lack of pomp helps keep the price down on both the menu and the wine list.
How to run a restaurant new brooklyn style
â- Start with the raw material and don't compromise. Concentrate your energy and resources on putting out good food before all else.
â- Don't try and be all things to all people. Cook the kind of food you love and that you're convinced plenty of others will love, too. Work with other people who feel the same way about it as you do.
â- Forget about trying to please guidebooks.
â- Think hard about the kind of service you want to provide. What are the essential parts you want to offer? How much of your customer's spend do you want to devote to this? How about sticking to the essentials but serving great food and drink in a friendly, relaxed environment at a reasonable price - it might just work.
â- What matters the most - the wine or the glass you serve it in? Exactly.
â- As above, only for food as opposed to cutlery and crockery.
â- Start out with what you can afford. The people at Thighs and Pies saved up for two years to buy a lease rather than take out a loan.
â- It's not location, location, location. Of course it helps but it comes with a cost - somebody always has to be the first in a cheaper part of town.