A little over a year ago, early in my pregnancy with Jasper, my husband and I made the big leap to move away from our life in the Northeast to the mountains of Western North Carolina. Before we started splitting our living arrangements between NJ and upstate NY, I was residing in a little railroad apartment in the ever-growing riverside enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Due to a variety of factors I hadn’t been back to visit the Big Apple in quite some time, but earlier this week I took Jasper to my old hood where he made his big NYC debut during a 24 hour mini-tour of Williamsburg.
Bordering the East River and one [perhaps painfully delayed] stop on the L train from Manhattan lies the neighborhood of Williamsburg. The community has gone through a renaissance in recent years, starting with an inundation of hipsters and rapidly growing into one of the most popular places to live in Brooklyn. A confluence of well curated local businesses flow from its Northside down the Bedford Ave corridor to the newly revived southern partition and I thought I’d share some of my favorite spots with all of you.
For the Creative, an Inspired Stay — The Wythe Hotel (80 Wythe Ave)
Before I lived in NY, I would always stay at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, inspired by the creative, rockstar history and the eclectic mix of personalities (and ghosts) co-mingling the hallways. Alas, when it closed its doors in 2011, another opened theirs in a historic building on Wythe Ave — the Wythe Hotel.
I decided to get in bed with my creative side for a night at the Wythe Hotel. A modern industrial hotelier concept, rooms are outfitted with exposed brick, wooden beams, and large geometric tile. Furniture is locally made, some with reclaimed materials, speaking to the locavore and lover of ole in my soul. High ceilings, big windows, and roomy bathrooms are the antithesis to its Manhattan counterparts, so you can actually hang out [and breathe abundant amounts of oxygen], enjoy the view, and shower without feeling claustrophobic. Going above and beyond, your Wythe hosts also offer an array of artisan products in anticipation of any potential need for a late night spirit or a desire to journal your dining adventures. When I called to inform them that my little baby boy would be joining me, they were very accommodating, providing a sturdy crib [despite the fact that Jasper outright refused to sleep in it]. One of their rooms is even named “Baby Queen” — of course I immediately consider this relatable to babies and parents — blame it on the mama brain.
Piloting a new wage philosophy, the entire hotel, including its bar and restaurant are gratuity free. Though this will indeed raise prices at these establishments, it will in turn pay a better living wage for employees. Unfortunately many kitchen staff work their proverbial butts off and don’t necessarily receive fair compensation in the restaurant scene. This kind of scheme seeks to align businesses to better take care of these “back of the house” employees. Now speaking as a girl who waited tables and tried her hand at bartending to pay the bills in college, front of the house employees could feel quite a bruising to their wallet if only paid on an hourly basis since the potential weekly revenue from the tipping system (especially in bigger cities) is significant. Therefore, this model being rolled out by the Wythe is also incorporating a revenue sharing system for these employees to further incentivize and reward their hard work collectively. I’ve heard some spots in Asheville are going to try out this same concept, so I hope to investigate further soon on how this idea will play out, including the shift in dynamic of attracting patrons who support such fair labor endeavors.
Breakfast of Sophisticated Champions — The Reynard (80 Wythe Ave)
Located on the ground floor of the Wythe Hotel, the Reynard is the perfect spot to gather with a few close friends for an upscale breakfast. The story goes that Reynard the [red] fox was the first animal cunning enough to take from man, rather than do his bidding. A trickster, a magician of sorts, he may have worked his magic on the chef for I am particularly particular [I mean really] about my scrambled eggs and they came out just right. Pairing my eggs with tasty local sausage and homemade bread to die for (always trust an establishment that sources from a place called she-wolf bakery) made this place knocked it out of the park. The choice was hard since everything sounded spot on. Word on the street says it is also a go-to for lunch or dinner with the menu touting simple, yet sophisticated french-esque offerings.
Bean me up — Blue Bottle (160 Berry St)
Fun fact, I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was almost 30 years old and as a new mama, I. need. it. desperately. So in search of my morning fix, I sought out a sweet little brick building on the corner of Berry Street, home to the Oakland, CA-based artisanal coffee purveyor, Blue Bottle. Its Williamsburg location serves as a cafe, kitchen, roasting and storage outpost, and training facility and from first glance it looks like a science lab of sorts with contraptions you likely haven’t never seen before (and used to make coffee!). Upon first glance, the Oji-style iced coffee drippers look like enormous hourglass timers without the sand and tick tock to bring you an outstanding cup of iced coffee. I ordered my usual, a latte with whole milk. I immediately got the typical hipster response, “you mean almond milk?” I smile and said “no, I mean whole dairy milk” and proceed to make a joke that I must be one of the only people left in this neighborhood who still drinks milk from a cow. The barista just laughed and nodded his head, like “yeah, probably.”
One thing I don’t miss about the Northeast is the “cold fish” attitude of some of the cafe/restaurant staff, so it was refreshing to be greeted with friendliness and a sense of humor from the people at Blue Bottle. And this should be the case of the people that represent a company proclaiming values of reuse, recycle, and responsibility in their manifesto. Their coffee mantra is local and fresh – believing that all coffee absorbs its local character (water, air, and neighborhood) and should be sold within 48 hours of roasting to the consumer. Well the Williamsburg latte was outstanding and as a coffee obsessed person, one thing you notice about a well curated espresso drink is not only the flavor, but also the importance of a goldilocks temperature. The aficionados at Blue Bottle Artisans are doing serve it up at just the right degree of warmth (not overly hot, which can mask the flavor and aromas), so you can see they have an understanding the nuances in artisanal brewing. With financial backing from Silicon Valley magnates, I’ve heard it could be in the cards that Blue Bottle giving Starbucks a run for its money [woot woot!] by expanding its presence. I most certainly hope this is the case as then I wouldn’t have to search high and low for great coffee when I travel.
Red Flag: Uber Impersonating Illegal Cabs
You’ve gotta respect how people living in one of the most famous cities in the world try to make a buck. Coming from someone who has had many a disagreement with taxi drivers in her life, Uber is such a great business model to emerge amongst the chaos. I love that I can take an Uber from my home in Asheville to downtown (avoiding any parking hassle) for mere dollars. I recently heard that despite efforts of the taxi unions, there are now over 14,000 Uber drivers in NYC. Whew, that’s a lot of competition.
So now we’re talking about livelihoods and survival people and creativity wins. Let me just share with you this small anecdote of one particular kind of creativity we encountered on this last trip. Emerging from Radio City Music Hall after my sister’s graduation from Pratt Institute, it was a madhouse to find transportation downtown. We had a bunch of people and a baby. We needed a car asap! So while one of us attempted to sift through the messiness of the Uber app and requested a black car, not soon after a black SUV emerged with an Uber sign mounted in the window as do many of Uber’s black cars in New York City.
Had it not been so crowded and hectic, a warning bell would have gone off in my brain that this was way too easy and double checked our app. But instead I climbed into the large vehicle anxiously awaiting our departure from the madness of the Time Square area. The Northeast mentality conditions you to be wary of anyone overly friendly, but living in the South for about a year now has worn away at those rough edges and shown me that friendliness can indeed be a daily occurrence. So when he began inquiring, rather excitedly, about my sister’s graduation [and not asking questions about where we were going], I should have known it was a distraction method. Out of nowhere he shared that his Uber app was no longer working and he could not locate us nor us locate him. RED FLAG!!! Then came the big money ask, claiming it was a “surge price” period, he wanted between $80-115 for the ride to the Bowery. Keep in mind, this would usually be a $15 cab ride, maybe $20 max; also insisting that we pay in cash (you don’t even have to do that in a NY taxi). Not to belabor the point any longer, but if it talks like a scam and walks like a scam [like chasing after you when you pay $80 instead of $115], it is probably a scam. Beware of these illegal cabs impersonating Uber drivers when making your way through the City.
For a Progressive Lunch — il Buco (47 Bond Street, Bowery)
Though not in Brooklyn, I felt it was a must to include il Buco to my list. Articulating simplicity and authenticity, the interior of il Buco exudes the quaintness of a rustic Italian country cottage where you can enjoy a long, leisurely meal with your companions and not even notice a famous person sitting at the next table. In my days living in Europe, I relished in the sacred tradition of meals that lasted hours on end. Great friends communed together in the spirit of eating, drinking and being merry. This is that kind of place – with farm fresh flowers adorning communal farm tables – one that welcomes you to sit with one another and converse about any topic under the sun. The menu is both Italian and Spanish in nature, making seasonal delights the main show. I opted for the torchio — homemade pasta with pancetta and local ramps [hallelujia spring!] and it did not disappoint. Wine is my thing and the list was extensive; however I didn’t get a chance to check out firsthand the cellar that I’ve heard whispers about. The story goes that Edgar Allen Poe (plug for my home state of MD!) was a frequent visitor of 47 Bond Street and the candle-lit cellar inspired his short story “The Cask of Amontillado.” It can be reserved for dinner…ghost stories anyone?
A Sweet Spot — Bakeri (150 Wythe Ave)
Pre-Jasper, I never had a sweet tooth; however when I became pregnant all bets were off. I ate the hell out of anything and everything cake, cookie, and dessert related. It could have been shameful, but instead I gave myself full permission (because I was pregnant of course). Then my baby boy was born…I really thought the cravings would subside, but they did not, only wavering a bit. Needless to say, enter present day and I still need to get my daily dose of dessert (thank god for the weight loss benefits of breastfeeding).
Bakeri has been around for quite some time, back to the days when I lived two blocks away. With a plethora of baked goods, both sweet and savory, one could stock up for all three meals of the day. Feeling generous, I grabbed a couple of items for my trip home (because airport food is not my thing): a large apple cider flower, a gruyere and leek galette, and a piece of pineapple cake for my husband (when was the last time you saw pineapple cake anywhere?!?). The interior is small, but adorable and a perfect place to read a book while you snack on their treats. And did I mention that their bakers have the cutest uniforms ever – denim onesies and handkerchief bandanas for the win!
Get Your Green On— East River Park (90 Kent Ave)
One of the reasons I moved away from New York City was the need for green space. I cannot live in a concrete jungle and need nature outside my doorstep (and one single tree or a section of grass will not cut it). So even when I visit the City, my soul needs my body to escort it to a park to sit in observation and meditate (ok…try and meditate). A metaphysical check-in of sorts (or just purely zoning out). At the north end of Williamsburg is East River Park, here you will find plenty of benches lining the water where you can hang out and see a beautiful view of NYC’s skyline. On a nice day, you could throw down a picnic blanket, while the kids romp around the playground and if you’re feeling adventurous, jump on the ferry for a journey to Manhattan. Weekends and summers bring special events such as farmers markets and major concerts, so check it out!