There’s a version of Brooklyn that exists today only in the movies. It’s the one where kids play stickball in the street, grannies in housedresses rest their elbows on pillow-padded windowsills, and people sit on their stoops for hours, occasionally getting up to go chat with a neighbor on another. Visit Brooklyn these days and this scene is next to impossible to find, but that Brooklyn was real once. I know, because I lived there most of my life.
Of course, it wasn’t all quite so charming. One of those stickball kids from my block in Carroll Gardens used to yell the same greeting every time he saw me and my sister. "Yo! You fuuuuuuckin’ liberals!" Then he’d jump on his bike and chase us, threatening to whack us with his broomstick bat. We’d flee to the safety of our stoop and taunt back, "We’re on private property, you can’t get us." And, for whatever reason, he’d respect that and ride off.
It’s hard to square my feelings about my home borough with how it’s changed. Some things are better, like having good coffee within walking distance of just about anywhere, and the fact that you’re now far less likely to get your head beaten in on the street (in broad daylight, in fact, and so badly that your eardrum ruptures and you can whistle air out of it, to the amazement of your friends).
But then, some things are worse. A lot of strong communities, many of them enriched by immigrants, have become shadows of themselves, drowned out by Brooklyn, the Brand. It’s also a heck of a lot more expensive. So much so that, after more than 30 years of living there, I decamped for Queens.
Whenever I go back, I’m amazed at how the borough’s transformation doesn’t seem to let up. There’s a lot of really good, fun stuff there that wasn’t before, but it often feels too much the same: the same huge beer gardens popping up in former industrial lots, the crop of awesome but nearly indistinguishable third-wave coffee shops, the same cocktail bars executing the same twist-garnished Old Fashioneds, the same farm-to-table-restaurants-with-craft-beers-on-tap (though, if we could get just one of those in Jackson Heights, I’d be stoked).
Which is why it’s good to remember that vestiges of the old Brooklyn remain, if you make an effort to notice them. In fact, in some areas, the Brooklyn of my youth is positively thriving, especially when you venture out of the gentrified neighborhoods closest to Manhattan. Well, except for the stickball...I haven’t seen anyone play a pickup game of that since the '80s.
To that end, here is my personal list of destinations for a truly old-school Brooklyn eating experience. Before diving in, I need to be clear about one thing: This is not a list of the "best" restaurants in Brooklyn, whether newer ones like Roberta’s or older ones like Totonno’s. Those lists already exist, in triplicate, in just about every publication in the land. No, these are the places that most remind me of the good decades I spent in one of the greatest cities in the world—because, yes, Brooklyn is a city unto itself, no matter its political designation—and all I can do is thank the heavens they’re still there, carrying the torch.
Jerk Chicken and Braised Oxtail at Peppa's Jerk Chicken
I lived most of my Brooklyn life in Prospect Heights, and I fell hard for the food of the West Indian community there. My family was friendly with a Jamaican chef named Patrick (memory tells me his last name was Smith, but I’m not certain) who ran a restaurant around the corner from my mom’s place. He eventually opened another spot, called Crispy Cream Quisine, on Vanderbilt Avenue, and he’d often be out there on the sidewalk with his offset smoker, cooking up big batches of jerk chicken, fiery-hot and fragrant from a complex rub of Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, and more. He and I would talk for a while, and I’d eventually head home with a dinner of the chicken, or sometimes a tray of fatty, tender, and deeply beefy braised oxtail in a rich brown sauce, which was completely irresistible.
Patrick passed away very suddenly many years ago, so his restaurants are gone, but you can still find plenty of sources for jerk chicken and oxtail in Brooklyn, though not nearly as many in Prospect Heights as there once were. One of my top picks for both dishes is Peppa’s Jerk Chicken on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, a worn and dim takeout place where they grill the bird over flaming charcoal briquettes while eager customers queue up, waiting their turns to grab smoking-hot pieces right as they come off the grate. Along with a hefty serving of rice and plenty of peppery jerk sauce to squeeze on top, a large order is more than enough for dinner and lunch the next day.
Jamaican Ice Cream at Taste the Tropics
If you haven’t eaten Jamaican ice cream, you haven’t fully lived. Jamaicans were creating innovative flavors before most other ice cream makers had graduated from chocolate and vanilla. Remember when everyone went gaga over Momofuku’s Cereal Milk ice cream several years ago? Well, the Jamaicans got there first, churning out Grape-Nut ice cream—yup, you read that right—way before it became the hot topic of the food world. And remember when it was trendy to make grown-up ice cream floats with stout beer in place of soda? Jamaican ice cream stores already had that beer-flavored concept covered, too, with their pleasingly bitter "Guinness" option in the freezer case.
Those flavors are all must-tries when you visit this ice cream shop on a corner in Flatbush, but my favorite has to be soursop, based on the floral, tangy tropical fruit that’s called guanábana in much of Latin America—mixed into a custard with cream and churned until frozen, it may be one of the greatest ice cream flavors on earth. (Honorable mention goes to Irish/sea moss flavor; more on that below.)
Roti and Sea Moss at Ali's Trinidad Roti Shop
When Columbus arrived in the Americas, he stubbornly decided to call the native inhabitants "Indians," despite the fact that he was nowhere near his intended South Asian destination. Centuries later, when actual Indians were brought to the West Indies as indentured servants, they took their cooking with them, and it has significantly influenced the food of countries like Trinidad and Tobago. The result: dishes with Indian roots, like curried stewed goat and roti, thousands of miles from their country of origin.
At Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop, you can get that stew and others wrapped in the namesake roti, an unleavened flatbread with a wonderfully elastic pull. Wrapping the meat inside the roti is how it’s sold as street food in Trinidad, which is how I always ate it at Brooklyn’s annual West Indian Day Parade, a raucous festival that bumps, booms, and bops down Eastern Parkway every Labor Day. Ali’s version, which you order at the Plexiglas window, then eat at one of the few tables or carry out, does not disappoint.
If you go, make sure not to miss the sea moss, a classic sweetened West Indian drink. Also called Irish moss, it’s thick and frothy thanks to carrageenan, a type of seaweed, along with condensed milk, nutmeg, and vanilla. (It also lends itself to one of Jamaica’s many great ice cream flavors; see above for more on that.)
Dim Sum at Pacificana
Back when I was the food and drink staff writer at Time Out New York, I pitched a story about going behind the scenes at a dim sum restaurant to find out exactly how they prepare such vast quantities of dumplings and other small plates to feed the weekend hordes. Most of the big dim sum halls I approached in the city refused to let me observe in the kitchen, but the folks at Pacificana, located out in the booming Chinese section of Sunset Park, greeted me with wide-open doors.
Let’s stop for one second to do some back-of-the-envelope math. Pacificana seats about 500 people, and on weekends the place is totally full. They can easily flip those seats two or three times on busy days, which means that, conservatively, they’re feeding over a thousand people each day. And I’d wager that each person, on average, eats at least three dumplings. (I eat several times more than that, but I’m not a typical customer.) That means that they have to prepare at least 3,000 hand-formed dumplings for each day of the weekend, and probably quite a bit more. And I’m not even counting all the other dishes they prepare for service, from chicken feet to freshly steamed rice noodle rolls and cauldrons of braised tripe.
Given that, what I was expecting was an army of cooks, cranking out siu mai and har gow all week long and stockpiling them in freezers in anticipation of the weekend rush. But what I found instead was a surprisingly small crew of skilled workers who made just about everything fresh to order. They’d pull balls of dough from a master stash, hand-roll each dumpling wrapper, stuff it, and close it with a series of fine pleats. They’d fill the bamboo baskets faster than I had imagined possible, then load them into giant blast steamers, and finally stack them on the carts that toured the dining room. When a cart ran low, they’d just whip up dozens more baskets in an unhurried flash.
Impressed with the quality of all their standard dishes, from the many types of dumplings to specials like roast pork with a crackling skin and tender meat, I’ve been going there ever since. If you’re feeling especially brave, try my two personal favorites: the aforementioned chicken feet, which are fried first, then steamed with black beans until the skin and cartilage melt right off the bones; and the tripe, which is squishy-tender in a ginger-y, anise-spiked broth. The bustling and expansive dining room is also one of the nicer ones I’ve seen in the city—elegant enough that my wife and I considered hosting our wedding there (until we learned that they wouldn’t do dim sum for a large party).
Red Sauce and Pizza at Gino's
At some point in the early aughts, my brother-in-law got turned on to this Bay Ridge red-sauce and pizza restaurant, and we liked it so much that we stopped visiting just about all the Italian-American places that were much closer to us. Back then, lines would form at Gino’s most nights, and, based on a recent visit, it’s just as popular today.
Gino’s doesn’t have the kind of old-school Italian-American atmosphere you see in films; it’s newer than that. Opened in 1964, it has a quirky mix of upscale decor (white tablecloths, marble counters) coexisting with a to-go pizza counter at the front, complete with pre-baked pies for by-the-slice orders. But that’s also why I like it: It’s not some set piece indifferently dishing up thoughtless grub just because it knows it looks cool. It’s a solid restaurant that real people go to for a good meal. That’s gotta be worth more.
Their penne with vodka was, and still is, pretty darned delicious, and I’ve found you can’t really go wrong with any of the other classics I’ve tried there, like tender and juicy chicken parm, and a heaping bowl of escarole sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic. I didn’t get a chance to eat a pizza on my most recent visit, but if they’re anything like they were years ago, you won’t be disappointed.
Smoked Fish at ACME
Drive along the BQE toward Queens and you’ll pass a large warehouse in Greenpoint with a fading sign up by the roof that says "Marshall’s," along with a big picture of a fish in a tuxedo, carrying a smaller fish. It was, for many years, an excellent smokehouse that mostly sold its goods wholesale. But to those in the know, it was also a place that offered retail sales to walk-in customers for a few hours each week. My mom used to drive me there to buy all the fish we needed for a Sunday bagel brunch, and I remember standing in that cold, cavernous entry room, empty save for a couple of employees in white work coats and several speed racks loaded with sides of lox, sable, and row upon row of golden smoked whitefish, hanging by their tails.
All that’s left of that Greenpoint Marshall’s now is the sign outside, but thankfully, ACME Smoked Fish, another wholesaler in Greenpoint, continues the tradition on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. ACME’s retail hours are way more popular today than I remember Marshall’s ever being—expect a sometimes-long line that leads to a short wait in a chilly refrigerated room—but boy, is it worth it. You’ll walk out with pounds of superior smoked fish for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere. You may even find some unexpected goodies, like a killer salmon poke I picked up when I last stopped by.
Chinese Fast Food Fried Chicken Wings at Any Fast Food Chinese Restaurant in the Borough
There’s a breed of independently run Chinese restaurant in New York City, most frequently found in less affluent areas and the outer boroughs, that's characterized by a fluorescent menu board displaying photos of all the dishes you’d expect—beef with broccoli, General Tso’s chicken. These are, in essence, fast food restaurants that specialize in Chinese takeout, though there’s usually some limited seating if you want to eat there. A lot of them used to have bulletproof glass separating the customers from the cooks, but many removed that protective barrier as the city became safer.
My advice: Get the fried chicken wings, under $5 at most places, even though there’s nothing remotely Chinese about them. This holds true for just about any of these places, since you’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't have a small fried chicken menu, along with other items, like fried plantains, that cater to neighborhood tastes. The wings are invariably jumbo-sized, with a crisp, lightly battered exterior and tender meat. They’re good on their own, but they become superlative when you grab that yellow squeeze bottle of vinegary hot sauce that’s always on the counter and proceed to douse them with it until they’re stained red and dripping.
Family-Style Italian at Frost
My plan for this story was to visit some of the restaurants from my childhood neighborhood of Carroll Gardens that I had been fondest of and include one of them in this guide. It didn’t go well. The ones that weren’t unexpectedly closed despite their posted hours of operation (unacceptable) were so thoroughly disappointing that I couldn’t bring myself to list them here. Nostalgia alone is not a reason to recommend something.*
* And, old-time Carroll Gardens restaurants, I’m putting you on notice. It’s real hard to make a case for what a shame it is for a neighborhood to lose its flavor when the flavor of its food is so half-assed and mediocre. You have to at least bring your B+ game. Shape up, or you’ll be sleepin’ with the fishes...and ya won’t be missed. Capiche?
So instead, Serious Eats Visual Director (and native Brooklynite) Vicky Wasik drove me to one of her family’s longtime favorites, Frost, on the Williamsburg–Greenpoint border. The place itself is one large, square room, surprisingly full for early on a Tuesday night, and with a casual vibe despite the tablecloths.
"Coming here is like Groundhog Day for me, it’s always the same. We’ve celebrated birthdays here, anniversaries, weddings, it all blurs together," she told me. She ordered some of her top picks for us, including thin slices of fried eggplant rolled around a creamy ricotta filling and doused with marinara, and big, breaded-and-fried butterflied shrimp Parmigiana, smothered in a comforter of melted mozzarella. (That might sound like they used a heavy hand with cheese...and they did, but it’s melted mozz, so I sure wasn’t complaining!) Another one of her favorites: a heaping bowl of rigatoni in a cream-tinged tomato sauce with prosciutto, peas, and mushrooms. It’s total comfort food.
Raw Clams and Fried Frog's Legs at Nathan's
Most Coney Island visitors who stroll over to the original Nathan's order a hot dog. I suppose that makes sense, given that that’s what it's famous for, but I don’t fully understand it. I mean, you can get a hot dog literally anywhere in New York City; why get one at the beach? Instead, I encourage you to throw caution aside and do what I always do: Order raw clams on the half shell, along with a platter of fried frog’s legs. Plus a cold beer, of course.
People always think I’m nuts for eating raw seafood from a place like Nathan’s, but I’ll tell you, those clams have always been live and fresh, and they’re shucked right before your eyes, so you’d know if anything looked off. Frankly, the same can be said of most of the clam bars along the boardwalk, too, which I’ll also happily eat at when I’m out there.
As for the frog’s legs, I consider it a kind of duty to support those foods that are holdovers from an era when a lot more people probably ordered them. The hot dogs aren’t going anywhere, but the frog's legs sure could be taken off the menu if we don’t keep the demand up. Beyond such philosophical motivations, they’re also legit good, plump little fatties. They taste just like chicken...if chicken spent a portion of its time living in water, like an amphibian.
Boardwalk Vodka at Coney Island
As long as you’re at Coney Island, you may as well wander down the boardwalk to one of the Russian restaurants with seaside seating. I won’t lie—these places don’t have the greatest food, but the people-watching more than makes up for it. Order some cold vodka, maybe some smoked fish or other low-commitment nibbles, and watch the parade of Brooklyn characters flow past. Maybe you’ll spot a washed-up Russian model at a nearby table, singing sad Slavic songs at the top of her lungs and terribly off-key, then yelling and laughing angrily at the wind. Is she crazy? you wonder. Or just impressively drunk? The waiters stop by her table every so often and talk to her convivially, as if nothing is out of sorts, confusing you even more. You swallow a glug of vodka and notice it’s warming up, getting harder to drink. An old, bald man rides languidly by on a bike, big-bellied and tanned to wrinkles from a lifetime spent shirtless in the sun, just as he is now. Behind him come families, teenagers, the destitute, lovers, bruisers, and thieves.
Old New York is alive and well at Coney Island, despite the city’s best efforts otherwise. Savor it.