Out of Borough Experience: Hunter’s Point, Long Island City


The view from Gantry Park is pretty spectacular.

The Hunters Point section of Long Island City is just over the Pulaski Bridge from Brooklyn, and just one stop on the 7 train from Manhattan, but feels a world away from the bespectacled throngs of Williamsburg and Greenpoint and the be-suited crowds of Midtown. The neighborhood’s population has been growing like crazy over the past few years, but the overall vibe has remained humble and laid back.

Hunter’s Point is a smaller neighborhood tucked into the southwest corner of Long Island City–it starts at Newtown Creek and extends north to about the Queensboro Bridge, and runs from the East River, east to Jackson Avenue. Real estate agents and condo developers also like to call it “Queens West.”

The neighborhood has long been home to artists, many of whom have set up spacious studios in the old industrial buildings that still dominate much of the area. PS1 sits near the heart of Hunter’s Point, and arts events are a big draw for visitors and locals alike. Food is another major attraction. In the tiny footprint, you’ll find at least three French restaurants, five Italian joints, a couple of great hamburgers and some spectacular patios for beer drinking. You can easily spend a day in LIC, grabbing lunch, heading to a museum or open studios event, to the waterfront to chill and then out for dinner, or just a glass of wine or a backyard beer, but it’s also a great place to drop by or meet friends. It’s on the way home from Astoria for many Brooklynites, and would be an ideal spot to grab dinner after the Total Astoria Immersion this Saturday.

Although the subway (7 to Vernon Jackson, G to 21st St/Van Alst, E and V to 21st St/Ely) and bus (B62 from Greenpoint, Williamsburg and other points Brooklyn) crawl up the main boulevards all day, there is no more pleasant way to get to Hunter’s Point than the breezy top deck of NY Waterway’s East River Ferry. The ferry drops you off on the southwest end of the neighborhood, in the middle of a construction site that looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape but will one day become NYC’s largest development of affordable housing, with 5,000 units. Head out of the gates, and walk a short two blocks up to Vernon Boulevard where you have a variety of options for exploration.

If you didn’t bring your bike on the ferry, Spokesman Cycles (49th Avenue and Vernon) will rent you one for $35 a day or $7 an hour. They also sell a frequent renter card–$99 for five full day rentals. Helmets and locks cost extra, so it’s smart to bring one or both if you have them. Six CitiBike bike stations are also slated for the area, once the bike sharing program launches in late summer. Though they’re a little north of the neighborhood, the Socrates Sculpture Park (3205 Vernon), and the Noguchi Museum Roosevelt Island (9-01 33rd Road, at Vernon) are only about a 15-minute bike ride away, straight up Vernon Boulevard. On Wednesdays throughout the summer the Sculpture Park shows outdoor movies focusing on international films. (If you’re the type who has days off during the week, lunch, followed by some time in Gantry Park, a beer and then a movie might be an ideal afternoon jaunt.)

Tournesol's oh-so-French wheels.

On summer Saturdays, Warm Up at MOMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue) is a natural focus for an LIC day trip. Every year, and this is season 15, the music-and-art houseparty grows more popular. The action takes place in PS1’s pebble-lined courtyard, where this year you’ll find M. Wells serving up meaty snacks (no word on whether they’ll trot their infamous horse bologna sandwiches from the Great GoogaMooga back out), as well as a temporary “urban landscape” designed by HWKN. There’s always plenty of thumping bass for dancing come evening. The Warm Up 2012 runs Saturdays from July 7 through September 8.

If you’ve had your fill of Warm Up, or if you want to pre-game before the dance party heats up, the best place to be is the willow-shaded back patio at nearby LIC Bar (45-58 Vernon). Quality live music [Ed. Note: including sets by the singer-songwriter/author of this piece!] plays from 5pm on every Sunday, and from 8pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. The service is friendly, the beer is cold and on Sundays they sell freshly grilled burgers–it’s like a neighborhood barbeque.

On the burger front, the West Village’s famous Corner Bistro opened its second location in 42 years on Vernon Boulevard, Hunter’s Point’s main drag, early this spring. In a time of fussy food and fussier cocktails, the simplicity of a $7 cheeseburger and a $5 beer can really make your day. Unlike the downtown location, expect to get a table right away if you saunter in for a heavy lunch.

After a beer and a snack, you’ll want to stroll about for a bit. Vernon offers a few shops to stop in, but a shopping mecca LIC is not. There is one store though that you won’t want to miss–Just Things (47-28 Vernon). There are always treasures hidden among the doo-dads and what’s-its that local little old ladies put on consignment here, as well as a pretty decent selection of vintage clothes in the back.

Definitely plan to spend some time during the day at Gantry Plaza State Park (at the water, from 50th Avenue to 46th Road). The waterfront park is lined with huge black cranes–called gantries–that once lifted boxcars off of barges and onto the rails of the Long Island Railroad. You’ll not find a better view of Midtown, especially the UN building, or a more romantic spot at sunset. Like so many of New York’s new public spaces, there’s a multitude of seating options, fountains, playgrounds, picnic meadows and even a few bright orange hammocks. Bring a few magazines to read, grab a cone from one of the omnipresent ice cream trucks that park nearby, and while away a peaceful hour or two in the park and on the cheap.

Manducatis Rustica is like a neighborhood community center.

The dinner options will keep you coming back to the neighborhood long after your initial visit. You can’t talk about food in LIC without mentioning the shockingly great array of traditional southern Italian fare. Local girl Gianna Cerbone trained in the kitchen of her family’s restaurant, Manducatis (13-27 Jackson), and now has her own spot, Manducatis Rustica (46-35 Vernon). Cerbone strives to serve as many local ingredients as possible and the pizzas are off the hook, as is the house-made gelato. Where Gianna’s place feels like a bustling living room, just up the street  Testaccio (47-30 Vernon), has a more cosmopolitan vibe, and specializes in Roman cuisine. They often serve porchetta–whole roast pig–call to ask when they’ll be porking out next.

Hunter’s Point has almost as many French restaurants as Italian, and they’re definitely worth the ferry fare. Tournesol (50-12 Vernon) is perpetually crowded–likely because it serves flawless, and very well priced, steak frites béarnaise. If you order your meat black and blue–rare to the point of mooing–expect an appreciative nod from your authentic French server. If you show up to Tournesol at 8pm on a Saturday night, don’t stress about waiting for a table. You can pass the time in their sister establishment next door, Domaine Bar A Vins (50-04 Vernon). You’ll usually find only one beer on offer, but quite a few delicious rosés. Happy hour features $1 oysters during the week.

The Waterfront Crab House (2-03 Borden Avenue) is also great place to close out the day, or to have lunch when you get off the ferry. Although it’s in a bit of an isolated spot now, near the ferry, (the last Brooklyn-bound ferry leaves at 8:25pm on weekdays, 8:54pm on the weekend, so plan ahead, or hail a cab–you’ll find plenty on Vernon) this intersection used to be the heart of turn of the century Hunter’s Point. If you’ve tired of Edison bulbs, zinc-topped bars and sparse modern interiors, duck into the dimly lit, heavily upholstered wonderland that is The Waterfront Crab House. The walls groan with boxing memorabilia and celebrity head shots from the ’80, and the peel-and-eat New Orleans-style shrimp are a spicy must-order menu item. There’s also an omnipresent claw-foot bathtub next to the hostess station, ever filled with peanuts in the shell, ready to be scooped up by the handful. Even better, old school bartenders still do buybacks if they like you. So if you miss the last ferry, you can always order another couple of whiskeys and hail a ride home, either on the B62 or in one of the cabs that troll Vernon Avenue in the evening.

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