There was a time when opening a business in Manhattan was synonymous with making it, and outer-borough purveyors cast a longing gaze across the water with dreams of expanding to the big city. And sure, that may still be true to some degree, but more and more, restaurants that made their mark in Manhattan are seeking a foothold directly across the East River.
Williamsburg has become one of the hottest food destinations in the city, and its status as the nexus of the culinary cutting edge is creating a reverse migration from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
Whether it’s a second branch of a stalwart or a new concept from a well-known chef or restaurant group, new versions of Manhattan restaurants have been cropping up in Williamsburg over the past year or so, and with particular intensity this fall. A small city’s worth of options from fine dining like Isa and Betto, to cheap eats like San Loco and Vanessa’s Dumpling House have created a virtual East Village East in North Brooklyn.
For some restauranteurs the commute is all about economics. Jeremiah Clancy, proprietor of the beloved 15-year-old East Village comfort food emporium, Mama’s Food Shop, started scouting for locations in Brooklyn when he found himself without a client base shortly after the downturn. “The recession really hit the East Village pretty hard and we saw our clientele dropping,” he said. “It pushed the last notion of young people out because the rents were so high.” After a successful run as a pop-up at Veronica People’s Club this past summer, Clancy will open a Williamsburg storefront at the end of October. “The vitality of the city has moved across the river. And by no means am I bad-mouthing this city because I love it. I chose to move here 18 years ago. But it’s hard to run a business there.”
For Zak Pelaccio, something of a pioneer in the Manhattan-to-Williamsburg restaurant land-grab, Brooklyn’s appeal was at least part nostalgic. “I’ve been in and out of that neighborhood since the 90s,” he said. “I started there, so it’s more like I’m returning. I love it.” Pelaccio opened Fatty ‘Cue in March of 2010 on South 6th Street, just a few blocks away from the site of his now defunct first restaurant, The Chickenbone Cafe, on South 4th (which is now the bar, Dram). He just opened a Manhattan branch of Fatty ‘Cue this summer, so Pelaccio is really more of a borough-agnostic river hopper than a transplant. Plus, where, other than tucked in under the Williamsburg Bridge, are you going to find a place to put the enormous smokers that call the Brooklyn ‘Cue home?
For some restauranteurs the move to Brooklyn was inspired by the need for a change of scenery. Jason Denton, the man behind lower Manhattan institutions ‘ino and ‘inoteca, opened Betto, a high-end Italian restaurant on a side street in Williamsburg this past July.
“As a New Yorker you get stuck in your neighborhood,” Denton said. “Once I started going out [to Williamsburg] on a regular basis, I realized it was hot. I had so many great meals out there and wanted to be part of the landscape.” That landscape has become so fertile over the last decade that it’s become a destination in itself. “It’s not as much of a stretch as it used to be–it’s much more accessible.”
So accessible that sometimes it winds up being more convenient for Manhattanites to dine across the river. “We’ve noticed a lot of people from the LES store that don’t want to wait the two-and-a-half hours to get seated there. They walk up to 14th street and get on the L and will have be done with their meal by the time they’d have gotten a table in Manhattan,” said Michael Chernow, co-owner and general manager at Meatball Shop, which opened a Billyburg branch this summer.
It’s wasn’t convenience, or even cheaper rents that drew Chernow to Brooklyn–it was the people. “Inevitably when you go from Manhattan to Brooklyn, [you think] rent is gonna be less expensive so you think you’ll be able to get a bigger space for less,” he said. “In actuality, for a main thoroughfare like Bedford that’s not true. You pay a premium for being on a heavily foot-trafficked street in New York City. Ultimately I love Brooklyn because it’s a neighborhood. There aren’t that many neighborhoods left in Manhattan and Brooklyn is still filled with neighborhoods that represents community and family.”
Christina Tosi, head baker at Momofuku Milk Bar, which opened a Williamsburg satellite earlier this year, wholeheartedly echoes Chernow’s assessment of Brooklyn’s homey vibe. “You really have the ability to maintain a relationship with the food you make with a business in Brooklyn,” she said. “In Manhattan it’s easier to loose that–you are instantly forced to become a business person, beyond just a chef, if you really want your business to succeed. In Brooklyn, you get a few extra minutes to stop and smell the cookies as they come out of the oven.”
Welcome to Brooklyn, where you have time to stop and smell the crack pie.
Here’s a round-up of Manhattan originals with recently opened or in-progress Williamsburg analogues.
91 South 6th, between Bedford and Berry
Opened: March 2010
Manhattan sister restaurants: Fatty Crab (West Village/Upper West Side), opened 2005/2009
Momofuku Milk Bar
382 Metropolitan, at Havemeyer
Opened: November 2010
Manhattan stalwart: East Village, opened 2008
555 Driggs, between North 6th and North 7th
Opened: January 2011
Manhattan stalwart : East Village, opened 2001
138 North 8th, between Berry and Bedford
Opened: July 2011
Manhattan sister restaurants: ‘ino (West Village, 1998), ‘inoteca (LES), Corsino Cantina (West Village, 2009)
170 Bedford, between North 7th and North 8th
Opened: July 2011
Manhattan stalwart: Lower East Side, opened 2010
Café de La Esquina @ Wythe Diner
225 Wythe, between North 3rd and Metropolitan
Opened: August 2011
Manhattan sister restaurant: La Esquina (Nolita), opened 2005
348 Wythe, between South 2nd and South 3rd
Opened: September 2011
Manhattan sister restaurants: Freeman’s (LES), opened 2006; Peels (LES), opened 2010
Vanessa’s Dumpling House
310 Bedford, at South 1st
Opened: TBD–slated for October 2011
Manhattan stalwart: Chinatown, opened 1999, various other locations
Mama’s Food Shop
310 South 4th, at Rodney
Opened: Late October
Manhattan stalwart: East Village, opened 1995
Wythe, between North 7th and North 8th
Manhattan stalwart: East Village, opened 1983