Our daughter Joanna moved to Brooklyn a few years ago. To former New Yorkers of a certain generation, Brooklyn is tinsel on the outdoor Christmas trees, Chinese restaurants lighted by fluorescent bulbs and fourth-floor walk-ups with worn parquet flooring. It’s the place generations of immigrants escaped — first to Queens, then to Long Island, and maybe even eventually to terrain outside the range of decent pizza and pastrami.
Old-school Brooklyn is still there. But there’s another Brooklyn, too, and we wanted to know it better. Our usual trips to New York were Manhattan-centric, with Broadway shows, museums, restaurants and shopping. I mean, why go to Brooklyn?
Well, Salted Crack Caramel ice cream at Brooklyn’s Ample Hills Creamery, for one thing. On the first day of our first time visiting Brooklyn 2.0, our daughter insists that we celebrate with a sugar rush. The line for ice cream at the Gowanus store stretches out the door; inside, it winds around the central counter, where employees rush to scoop ice cream into tall waffle cones and offer up samples (as many as you want!) of flavors like Nonna D’s Oatmeal Lace, Peppermint Pattie and Butter Pecan Brittle. There are people I know (ahem, am married to) who have no shame in trying a half-dozen flavors before picking one or two. I succumb to Crack Caramel and it’s as good as I hoped, a blend of butterscotch-sweet and salty in a creamy, crunchy party in my mouth. (If I get back there before the end of March, I’m tempted to go to the dark side and order ice cream inspired by the Star Wars series. First Order — the stormtrooper bad guys — is salted dark chocolate ice cream made with cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate and some espresso.)
Inscribed on the walls of the shop are the words from the Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which inspired the store’s name: “What is it then, between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? Whatever it is, it avails not — Distance avails not and place avails not. I too lived — Brooklyn of Ample Hills, was mine.”
We take our cones and cups and head to the roof of the store, where Adirondack chairs and picnic tables are arrayed. We look out over the landscape of Gowanus, the neighborhood possibly best known for the toxic canal that was both a Superfund site and allegedly the place where the Mafia dumped bodies. No matter: Today, I am communing with the bard of Brooklyn and the canal is in the midst of a $500 million cleanup. I like to think that Whitman would have enjoyed both industrial Gowanus — its casket companies, lumberyards and auto body shops — and the newer version that includes comedy clubs like Littlefield NYC, which is also on our agenda.
The club is situated in a former warehouse, of course. And to get a seat for the evening’s entertainment, you need to get there early. To stay close, we grab a delicious dinner at Littleneck, a seafood restaurant not far from the club. Our meal of fried clams, lobster rolls and Old Bay-seasoned fries reminds us that in Brooklyn we’re really not far at all from the ocean.
Littlefield is the kind of place that hosts Punderdome (an evening all about making puns), an erotic live reading of “Star Wars,” and rising comedians like Aparna Nancherla, a regular performer in a Monday-night stand-up comedy set. On the day we show up, the lineup of comedians, introduced by comic Wyatt Cenac, are only moderately funny, but that also might be because we lingered too long over our lobster rolls and were forced to stand on the edge of the room for a couple of hours.
With the ocean still in mind, the next day we decide to be a little less hip. Okay, way less hip. We head to Coney Island, Brooklyn’s summer playland. It’s a beautiful day, and we wander along the honky-tonk boardwalk, taking in sunbathers, kite-flyers and amusement park riders. I adore roller coasters, especially the classic Cyclone, built in 1927 and one of the most famous and longest-running roller coasters in the world. I persuade my husband, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend to take a spin. We wait in a slower line that lets us sit in the first car. I mean, if you’re going to do this thing, really do it.
The ride’s 110 seconds are rickety and screamingly fun, even though I wondered if my earrings would fly off my head or my vertebrae might compress me a few inches. For the record, one of us raises her arms at the last dip. There are cameras; one has proof.
Although our stomachs are still unsettled, we peek into the original Nathan’s Famous. The hot-dog place celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. Be warned: Indulging in a chili cheese dog with beer-battered onion rings and old-fashioned lemonade before the roller coaster might lead to unfortunate results.
We cap off our Brooklyn tradition-thon by swinging back to the borough’s gorgeous Brooklyn Bridge. The popularity of the 1883 bridge’s bike and pedestrian lanes — in 2017, an average of 13,196 pedestrians a day on weekdays and 32,453 on weekends — has led to some calls for restrictions, or at least more of a separation between bike and pedestrian lanes. Even with the crowds on a sunny day, it’s worth it to look over the sparkling East River and the Manhattan skyline and read plaques that describe how as many as 600 laborers at once put together what was the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge.
The next day, we opt for something more highbrow. The best place to start is at Jolie Cantina, a French-Mexican fusion restaurant that serves a brunch of Mexican coffee and fresh churros, plus crepes, a chorizo Benedict and brioche French toast.
We debate a venturing out to do a little climbing at Brooklyn Boulders, the indoor climbing gym in Carroll Gardens, but decide that all those churros are weighing us down. Instead, we head to the Brooklyn Museum. From the outside, the museum has that neoclassical look that you expect from museums. But inside is some of the most groundbreaking art in the city, including Judy Chicago’s iconic “The Dinner Party,” the 1970s feminist work that sets a place for 39 notable historic women, including Emily Dickinson, Sojourner Truth, and Georgia O’Keeffe — using plates modeled after an intimate part of the female anatomy. And until early March, the museum will display “Untitled,” a 1982 painting by Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat that recently sold for an unprecedented $110.5 million at auction.
The museum is also on the edge of one of New York’s best parks. Prospect Park has miles of trails for walking, biking or inline skating and benches everywhere that overlook ponds and green fields. As of this January, the park is completely car-free. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Prospect Park Zoo and a 1912 carousel (which will reopen March 12) are all inside the park. In the summer, people flock to Prospect Park on weekends for free concerts. During our visit, we randomly follow its pathways, which means that we find ourselves in the southwest corner of the park instead of the north — we wanted to get to the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Library. But that just means more of an appetite for the next meal.
The only problem with dining in Brooklyn is that the wealth of choices can be a little intimidating. We opt for a spot that is delicious, multicultural, and offers stunning views: Celestine, in the DUMBO neighborhood (which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). When we can tear ourselves away from the windows that open up to the Manhattan skyline, we tear into a Mediterranean menu and make a meal of the mezze and starters: hummus with sumac and pickled vegetables, baba ghanouj, house-made yogurt, roasted cauliflower and Moroccan bone-marrow dumplings.
As we eat, a violent rainstorm sweeps in, and while we are glad we aren’t sitting right next to the floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a little extra entertainment for no extra cost. We also feel as though, despite having not becoming hipsters, we’ve had a pretty good sampling of what ever-changing Brooklyn is all about.
Bruno is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @brunodebbie.
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New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge
333 Adams St.
Recently renovated, this Marriott offers some rooms with views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. The lobby bar and breakfast cafe specialize in local treats like coffee from Brooklyn Roasting Company. Rooms from $352.
85 Smith St.
Situated close to downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn House of Detention (with a cocktail lounge called Misdemeanor), this modern boutique hotel offers a substantial free breakfast buffet. Rooms start at $101 for a standard queen and $244 for suites that include bunk beds.
Ample Hills Creamery
305 Nevins St.
Cups and cones from $2.75 to $8.75. Popular flavors include “Ooey Gooey Butter Cake,” which features chunks of St. Louis-style Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, and “PB Wins the Cup,” which includes homemade peanut butter cups. Open noon to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
288 3rd Ave.
This tiny spot fills up quickly, but the oysters and other fresh seafood are worth it. A clam roll is $17; lobster roll $24; and cocktails $11-14. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
1310 Surf Ave.
Yes, you can get Nathan’s hot dogs in supermarkets, along the New Jersey Turnpike, and at Yankees Stadium, but this is the first one and it’s the home to the annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. Hot dogs from two for $4. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to midnight Friday; 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
241 Smith St.
Brooklyn’s first Mexican-French bistro sells churros, instead of bread, at brunch and Mexican coffee sweeter than pie. Open noon to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday; 4 to 10 p.m. Monday. Entrees from $14-24.
Luna Park on Coney Island
1000 Surf Ave.
Besides the Cyclone, Luna Park offers other roller coaster rides, plus go-carts and rides that swing, sweep, and spin riders. Or visitors can try their hand at games like Whac-A-Mole or ride a nearby carousel. Friday nights are for fireworks. Opens March 24 for weekends; daily after Memorial Day. A ride on the Cyclone is $10.
575 Degraw St.
Besides indoor climbing walls for a variety of abilities, there are climbing classes for beginners, plus yoga and fitness classes as well as summer and winter camps for kids. Open 7 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, weekends 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
200 Eastern Pwy.
At 560,000 square feet with 1.5 million pieces of art, this museum demands hard choices: Egyptian antiquities, African art, American art, and European art are all well-represented, including some stunning Monets. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Open other days 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursdays to 10 p.m. $16; free for ages 19 and under.
This park makes it easy to forget you’re in the heart of Brooklyn. With miles of winding trails, a lake, a botanical garden, a zoo, and a band shell that hosts free concerts in the summer, it’s easy to lose entire days in this oasis. Open 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Free.