99 ESSENTIAL RESTAURANTS®
Photo by Dominic Perri
A first trip to Defonte's Sandwich Shop can feel slightly intimidating — here are counter workers with thick Brooklyn accents, working briskly and managing the crowd by slapping an order on the counter and then asking, loudly, if they can help the next person. It's up to you to determine whether you're next; your fellow patrons don't exactly form an orderly line. And most of them seem to have known exactly what they want before they walked through the door: a carton of meatballs for this woman; a hot roast-beef sandwich with fried eggplant for that man. This saves them from reading the menu plus the handwritten items on bits of paper taped around the joint. Many people, you'll soon notice, are ordering the potato and egg, which piles skilleted bits of both ingredients plus mozzarella between two halves of a hero. You can spot newcomers because they order their sandwiches large — a mistake unless you plan to feed a family or want something to take home. Most neighborhood regulars take their meals to go, but some stand at the counters, taking in old photos of celebrities while mopping their faces with piles of thin napkins. It's not hard to imagine dockworkers doing something similar decades ago. Defonte's is a multi-generation family operation. Nick Defonte, an Italian immigrant, paid $100 to buy the business in 1922. Back then it was a longshoreman hangout in Red Hook, a corner storefront that sold basic sundries, where workers would sit and play cards while awaiting a job assignment or to cap off a shift. For today's regulars, who work in nearby warehouses and at the artisan businesses that now call Red Hook home, Defonte's offers a glimpse of this neighborhood's past — and a bite of a once prevalent lunchtime tradition that's fast disappearing.
Photo by Bradley Hawks
359 Bedford Avenue
Winter hours: Wednesday to Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 11 p.m., Monday and Tuesday closed. Spring hours: Monday through Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 11 p.m.
Delaney Barbecue: BrisketTown officially opened in November 2012, but it existed long before Daniel Delaney signed the lease, sight unseen, on the storefront a couple of blocks from his apartment. The dream began as a lone smoker on a rooftop, then evolved into a Texas Barbecue Brisket supper club, a smoked-meat ordering service, a stall at various events and markets, and finally, bricks and mortar. “People have been so supportive,” Delaney says. “I mean, who crowdfunds a neighborhood restaurant?” Over the years, as Delaney Barbecue has moved from counter to table service, the food has evolved, too — though Delaney is still as focused as ever on the Texas barbecue ideal. “The sausage took months to figure out,” the owner says. “We moved from a two-hour hot smoke to a seven-hour cold smoke, a classic charcuterie technique, so that it never gets dry.” Don't miss the salt-and-pepper-crusted brisket, funky with deep, complex smoke, that gives the place its name and reputation, nor the juicy pork ribs, meltingly tender and sweet. Sides change seasonally: In summer the tomato salad is tossed with vinaigrette of beef fat, and in winter you might find honey-glazed cornbread. And be sure to save room for a slice of pie, made daily in house by Micah Phillips, formerly of Blue Hill, Fatty Cue, and Compose. “The chess pie haunts me,” says Delaney. “There's an Oreo crust, a chocolate buttermilk custard with mint, and a dark chocolate glaze scattered with cocoa nibs and sea salt. Stupid good.”
Photo by Dominic Perri
1424 Avenue J
Winter: open daily, noon to 8 p.m.; summer: daily, noon to 5 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.
Half a century ago, Domenico DeMarco opened the doors to Di Fara Pizza, a petite Midwood pizzeria in an unassuming corner storefront where Avenue J and East 15th Street intersect. New York's patron saint of basil-snipping works with enlightened Zen, kneading dough into imperfect shapes and taming the flames that roil beneath his metallic beast of an oven. This is quintessential Brooklyn (and New York City) pizza with blistered crust; rounds (or "regular," here) are made from mild, slightly yeasty dough, while squares are chewy and thicker. The winning formula for Di Fara's pies: mozzarella, a sprinkling of grated hard cheese, and lively San Marzano tomato sauce. But it's the ritual of it all that's captivated generations of New Yorkers and world-traveling pizza fans; the way DeMarco tends to each pie, anointing it with herbs, more grated cheese, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. All this folklore and fanfare has led to serious waits during primetime hours and occasional closures due to private parties. You can always get there early and join numerous others waiting for DeMarco (and the five of his seven children who run the shop with him) to unlock the doors. Our favorite power move, however, is to place a pizza order at Di Fara and walk around the corner to sibling Italian comfort food restaurant MD Kitchen. Because what makes a two-hour wait for bread, sauce, and cheese better? Shrimp parmigiana heroes.
Photo by Dominic Perri
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday to 1 a.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight
What would Brooklyn dining be without Andrew Tarlow? The man practically invented the modern Brooklyn restaurant, going on to construct an empire of concepts that dispensed with tradition and applied fine-dining characteristics to casual environments. Here are restaurants where the music plays loudly, the aesthetic is industrial, and everyone wears flannel and jeans — but where the ingredients are meticulously sourced from local producers and the kitchens operate under farm-to-table and nose-to-tail mantras even if their plating is best described as "rustic." This was a novel approach when Tarlow came here, opening Diner in a Kullman car (a trailer-like box many diners were once built in) beneath the Williamsburg Bridge on the last day of 1999. That's a fitting date, if you're into symbolism: It ushered in a new era in Brooklyn restaurants. The food here has always been straightforward and skillful, and the menu changes daily. You might find a half-chicken on the list, or duck leg, or some braised beef. Produce follows the season. There's usually a soup and salad of the day, and if you stop in for breakfast or lunch, you might get frittata or porridge or a burger. Desserts are usually standards, like lemon meringue or flourless chocolate cake. Wine, beer, and cocktail selections are both unusual and excellent, as befits an assiduously trained staff. Remarkably, even as this type of restaurant has become so ubiquitous in the borough as to be mocked as twee, Diner continues to feel novel, and you're as likely to find neighbors here as you are culinary tourists. One caveat: Diner accepts no reservations — another policy that has spread to many Brooklyn restaurants. Be prepared to wait for a table.
Photo by Dominic Perri
1108 Bedford Avenue
Monday to Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 6 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 6 to 10:30 p.m.
When Do or Dine opened in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2011, it may very well have been the king of fun dining in New York City. A certain lawlessness permeates the dining room and the backyard, where co-owner Justin Warner says some drinkers once perched with a keg of beer back when the place was still BYOB. The punny menu is littered with dishes like a foie gras doughnut, Nippon nachos made with wonton shells, and "chicken and woffals," a play on chicken and waffles that matches the waffle to cornish game hen liver. Founders Warner, Perry Gargano, Luke Jackson, and George McNeese (Warner's co-chef) never really wanted a restaurant. They wanted to open a neighborhood bar, but because the liquor-license process moved so slowly, they began serving food in an effort to draw people in for a lax BYOB setup. Besides the keg drinkers, the place initially attracted serious wine collectors. Flexibility meant the restaurant became a neighborhood joint in an area that was once starved for good restaurants. "We were a haunt," Warner says. "People were here day in and day out. There were neighborhood regulars who were like, 'Thank God we can get something great in the neighborhood.' And then there were service-industry regulars who would come in and slap hands." Noting that diners are now looking for comfort food over wacky creations, Do or Dine has begun to change. McNeese says the way he thinks about dishes has evolved: "In the beginning, we'd start with a pun and try to make it edible; now we start with the food." But Do or Dine is still a neighborhood restaurant, and it's still worth a trip to Bed-Stuy if you're looking for a meal that's fun.
Photo by Dominic Perri
How good can a doughnut be? March yourself into Dough to find out, and enjoy a few moments of slack-jawed incomprehension as you chew a yeasty, salty-sweet dulce de leche, or a seasonal treat like bittersweet chocolate with Earl Grey or a doughnut coated in tart, blood-orange frosting. Sweets maven Fany Gerson — whose wildly popular La Newyorkina vends the Mexican frozen pops called paletas — launched Dough at the Brooklyn Flea after months of experimenting with her recipe. She sold her sticky breakfast pastries to a line that would grow every week until she finally landed a small storefront in a quiet section of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2010. From there she disburses a dozen or so glazed and filled doughnuts at a time — some of them new experiments inspired by whatever global flavor Gerson has recently become fixated on, and all of them baked and finished throughout the day — plus doughnut holes and French-press coffee. In the summer you can occasionally find kids mowing down doughnut sundaes outside the front door, and you should join them: The only thing better than these doughnuts is these doughnuts with ice cream. Dough recently sprouted a satellite location in Manhattan, but it's worth making the trek to this remote outpost where it all began. Regulars include longtime Bed-Stuy residents, who buy by the dozen and make it as far as the door, if they're lucky, before digging into the box.
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