While I’m standing outside The Owl’s Head, a new wine bar in Bay Ridge, an inebriated middle-aged man passes me. “I can’t go in there,” he says with a wry smile. “I tried to order a Bud and they threw me out.” He pronounces it “troo.”
He doesn’t lack for alternatives; probable apocrypha has it that the neighborhood’s stretch of Third Avenue holds a Guinness record for bars per square mile, or per capita, or something. But those spots tend toward the sorts of places you’d cruise for chicks with a frat brother or wine and dine the head of the chamber of commerce. There are old, well known, sometimes wonderful places (and their more recent counterparts), but none reflect even a little the new Brooklyn sensibility centralized in the borough’s northern precincts; an iconic lunch counter, Hinsch’s, only recently, under new ownership, began grilling veggie burgers. They’re not places that appeal deliberately to the young, the hip, the creative.
Until, perhaps, now.
“The difference has been our atmosphere,” Owl’s Head co-owner John Avelluto tells me. “Low music, no television, and a cozy space allow for conversation to take place.” But to really understand The Owl’s Head, how it distinguishes itself from its neighbors, you first have to understand Bay Ridge.
Anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests that young Brooklynites are moving farther south. More kids in funny clothes stay on southbound R trains past 59th Street—the border of Sunset Park, the hitherto terminus of hipster expansion. (Not that they’re welcome; hatred of hipsters is strong in southern Brooklyn.) But it’s not just them. It’s also Bay Ridge’s sons and daughters who grew up and stayed in the neighborhood, Millennials now settling into careers and marriages. At a wooden table in The Owl’s Head, lighted by battery-powered tea candle, my girlfriend tells me she also knows of several young couples who have moved to Bay Ridge—creative professionals drawn to affordable rents in a nice community.
Nice, maybe, but boring. There is a movie theater, but little else in the way of culture, little to do besides drink heavily in one of the many bars or walk through the mile and a half of waterfront parkland. A mix of working and upper classes, which gets tonier the closer you get to the shore, Bay Ridge is considered a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. By day, it’s full of seniors enjoying half-sandwiches and cups of soup; by evening, traces of them hardly remain—those who work or go to school during the day might never even know they’d been there. The nightlife stirs, especially on the weekends, attracting visitors from Staten Island and neighborhoods east in their finest muscle shirts, blasting the finest electronic music from their finest car stereos. These are the remains of the neighborhood’s once dominant Irish and Italians (and Greeks and Russians). But the neighborhood also has a thriving Middle Eastern community, whose cafes dot Fifth Avenue like the bars do Third.
Perhaps tellingly, The Owl’s Head is on a side street, steps from Fifth Avenue, nestled like a gentrifier closer to the dynamic immigrant population. Its attitude is North Brooklyn—for starters, it’s a wine bar. But there’s also its artisanal sensibility, with foods made from locally procured ingredients, like the cheesecake topped with Mast Bros. chocolate. (“It’s just the perfect texture,” I’m told. “And so fresh. It just melts in your mouth.”) Tin ceilings run into exposed brick; old soul and jazz buzzes from an iPod. If you ask for water—or, really, accept their offer for a glass of water—it comes in a mason jar, and mason jars are a classic indicator of hipsterness. (Though Ho’ Brah, the neighborhood’s buzzy new taco joint, serves its beers in mason jars, yet is decidedly not hipster, brah.)
“My regulars include young to mid-career artists, union workers, parents and foodies,” Avelluto tells me. “Our clientele has been incredibly diverse.” He appears suspiciously North Brooklyn: bearded, pairing a suit (no tie) with a knit cap. He has been portrayed in the local press as a member of the vanguard of the hipster invasion of Bay Ridge. But his voice slips into a classic Brooklyn accent every sixth or seventh word. As he wrote in a comment on a local blog, “Born in Gravesend, went to Brooklyn College for both undergrad and grad, both my uncle and father were founders of [a social club] on Court Street (which I am currently a member of), carried the Madonna in procession of the Maria SS Idoloratta, and I’m still considered a ‘hipster invader.'” He has lived in Bay Ridge for a while, he tells me; he went to high school at Xaverian, blocks from the park from which the bar takes its name. (The other owner, Steve Weintraub, is from Baltimore and lives in Bushwick;
they’re both artists he’s an art dealer, and Avelluto is an artist and the co-creator of the neighborhood’s Storefront Art Walk.)
Though old Brooklyn, Avelluto runs a wine bar that embodies something that still feels kind of new: not the external invaders imposing their ways of life on humble blue-collar families, but the natives building out from the status quo—locals themselves changing with the times, a new generation of Brooklyn-born young adults who have come to believe they can drink wine and converse without betraying the mores of their friends and families, who can crave something new in addition to that which exists, not in lieu of. Who seek to develop, not to destroy, to create, make additions, and improve upon the cultural landscapes of their pasts. This is Brooklyn’s hipster within.
Still. Back outside The Owl’s Head, a family passes. “Oh, there’s where the wine place is,” a woman says, perhaps having read the article in The Home Reporter. The four admire it through the windows. “It’s cute,” a younger woman agrees. But they don’t go inside. Change, after all, takes time.
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