Philly’s got the cheesesteak. San Francisco is known for sourdough (and rather unfortunately) Rice-A-Roni. Boston’s claim to fame is cream pie, chowdah, and baked beans. But it’s hard to find another city in America quite as indelibly intertwined with its food culture as Brooklyn. From the red sauce restaurants in Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst to the dim sum palaces of Sunset Park to the Guyanese steam tables in Flatbush, each established cuisine serves as an edible timeline of its individual neighborhood, encapsulating not only the immigrants that passed through, but also the communities that reside there now...and every cultural, geographical, political, architectural, and economic shift in between.
But Brooklyn’s most iconically recognizable contributions to the American food canon are undoubtedly these following four dishes—hot dogs, pizza, cheesecake, and bagels. And what’s old is definitely new again in the local dining scene, with tried and true warhorses like DiFara’s, Totonno’s and Grimaldi’s (pizza), happily co-existing alongside young guns like Roberta’s, PeteZaaz and Motorino. So whether you prefer to take your taste buds on a tour of old-world Brooklyn this summer, or would rather indulge in a little haute cuisine, one thing’s for sure, the borough’s best bites have never been on better display.
Old School: Nathan’s
This Coney Island stalwart has been serving frankfurters the same way since 1916. The extra-long all-beef dogs snap nicely when you bite into them, have an appealing sweet and smoky flavor, and bear up perfectly to gobs of spicy, deli-style mustard, piles of sauerkraut, or (gasp!) Heinz ketchup. Although many (many) franchises have followed, nothing beats a visit to the original location on Surf Avenue. Yes, the area has seen better days, and you might end up guarding your sand-kissed dog from one-eyed seagulls or roving drunks, but somehow, that only adds to the appeal.
1310 Surf Ave., (718) 946-2202
New School: Bark
Imagine actually knowing what’s in your hot dog! Bark performs this small miracle by disclosing a full list of its scrupulously sourced suppliers. Hartmann’s Old World Sausage makes the private-label dogs, Heritage Farms USA provides the Berkshire pork products, and kraut and condiments are all prepared in-house. It also doesn’t hurt that the puppies are basted with homemade smoked lard butter. The humble wiener never had it so good.
474 Bergen St., (718) 789-1939
Old School: L&B Spumoni Gardens
Generations of Brooklynites continue to flock to this family owned, 70-year-old pizzeria in Gravesend for homemade spumoni, ices, and the infamous Sicilian-style pies. The dense and deeply browned crusts are topped with cheese and then sauce, and finished with freshly grated Romano and a lug of good olive oil. Summer is definitely the best time to indulge in a full or half sheet of squares (only novices go for the round) in the open-air courtyard. There’s also an excellent sit-down restaurant in addition to the pizza parlor, but unless you have an “in” with the owners, better prepare yourself for a serious wait.
2725 86th St., (718) 449-1230
New School: Speedy Romeo
After years of doing the fine dining thing in Manhattan (helping launch multiple restaurants for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, no less), the next phase of Justin Bazdarich’s career was to open this cheeky woodburning pizza spot in Clinton Hill, inside an old auto body shop. And although a certain amount of his white tablecloth sensibility is on display (menu items include whole branzino with roasted fennel and herb oil and Neapolitan donuts with market cherry jam), Bazdarich knows better than to get too precious in the pursuit of a killer pizza pie. Try the simple Marinara, topped with tomato sauce, anchovy, basil, oregano and sea salt, or The Dangerfield, paved with veal and pork meatballs, ricotta, béchamel and garlic chips.
376 Classon Ave., (718) 230-0061
Old School: Juniors
Only three individuals have overseen the production of Junior’s famous cheesecake in its 60-plus years of Brooklyn dessert dominance, with one “master baker” presiding over the entire process. The resulting cream cheesy wedges will never be described as light and fluffy, but that’s a great thing. Real cheesecake—seemingly impenetrable, obscenely and fantastically rich, and utterly satisfying—is meant to sit like a rock in the pit of your stomach for the better part of the day.
386 Flatbush Avenue Ext., (718) 852-5257
New School: BiteMe Cheesecakes
While portion control has never been our strong suit, we’re serious about never overtaxing our tastebuds. That’s why we applaud Smorgasburg’s BiteMe Cheesecakes for effectively downsizing Brooklyn’s favorite dessert, specializing in diminutive, two-bite treats that run the flavor gamut from Peanut Butter and Jelly and Sweet Potato Rum Crunch to Apple Bacon and Limoncello Meringue. That means (provided you’re similarly lacking when it comes to self-discipline), you get to graze through 10 or more unique BiteMe cakes for every solitary wedge of Juniors!
N 7th St, (718) 928-6603
Old School: Bagel Hole
We confess to a certain penchant for over-puffed, over-stuffed bagels, but if you’re looking for the real Brooklyn deal (read: modestly sized, dark and crusty, dense and slightly sweet), you can’t beat Bagel Hole. Established in 1985, this tiny Park Slope spot hand-forms, boils and bakes their old-style bagels on premises, making them far superior to other sorry steamed specimens the bakery dismisses as “rolls with holes.”
400 7th Ave., (718) 788-4014
New School: Shelsky’s Smoked Fish
This isn’t the kind of place where you order a simple “everything with a schmear.” Not when there are a number of off-the-wall Jewish gutbombs to be had, like The Tribute, a bagel or bialy topped with Horseradish Cream Cheese, Smoked Whitefish Salad and Wasabi Tobiko, the El Vincente with Lake Sturgeon, Plain Cream Cheese, Sour Pickle and Jalapeno, or the Peter Shelsky with Gaspe Nova, Sable, Pickled Herring with Cream Sauce and Onion and Scallion Cream Cheese. And any place that carries “Bentowitz Boxes,” a neatly compartmentalized assemblage of smoked fish, pickled vegetables bagels and soda, is definitely pushing the limits of decorum when it comes to the ancient art of old school appetizing.
251 Smith St.,(718) 855-8817