If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in the former Dutch settlement of Bushwick in the year 2000, and awakened today, he’d be rubbing his eyes in astonishment at the startling developments in the demimonde of restaurant dining over the last 10 years.
Pies from Naples: While the city’s hallowed neighborhood slice—once available on every corner in town—has seen some decline, innovative new pizzas have covered the city like melted mozzarella. Our range of choices alone is amazing, but the single greatest addition to our pizza collection has been semi-authentic Naples-style pies, twirled at such places as Motorino, Franny’s, Baci & Abbracci, Fornino, Pizza Fresca, Keste, Saraghina, and Roberta’s, as well as Una Pizza Napoletana, which closed this year, showing that the trend may already be subsiding. These pizzerias serve single-person pies, yanked from smoky wood-burning ovens and featuring finely milled flours that render the crusts glove-like, with toppings that include imported tomatoes and Italian cheeses. Waking up in Bushwick, our sleeper doesn’t have very far to slog to taste one, either. How about Motorino or Roberta’s, Rip?
Ramen, ramen, and more ramen: The old-fashioned Greek diner, slinging eggs and burgers, has also fallen on hard times, and the ’00s have seen at least two of the city’s ancient streamlined diners dismantled and shipped to places like London and Arizona. Fortunately, other sources of cheap, plain meals have flourished in their stead. Noodles have become more important than ever; now, ramen is almost as popular here as it is in Japan. We’ve eaten a million miles of this slender Pacific spaghetti in the past few years, turned out by such obsessive Japanese chains as Setagaya and Ippudo—but remember that the charge was led by our own David Chang, who treated ramen as a trampoline to becoming downtown’s most ballyhooed chef.
Chinese noodles and dumplings: Neither have Chinese noodles lagged, as dumplings and hand-pulled noodle stalls, not content to remain in the city’s five Chinatowns, have infiltrated other neighborhoods. Eldridge Street remains the epicenter of this cheap-eats movement, spawning Super Taste, Sheng Wang, and Vanessa’s Dumpling House. Not to be outdone, Sunset Park is the site of a half-dozen of these places, which provide dirt-cheap and filling meals for less than $5. Though we’ve seen the number of dumplings per serving decline from five for a dollar to four, these dough purses still constitute the best dining deal in town.
Regional brews: Local—I mean, really local—beers have seized a significant share of the market, so that now you can get a Kelso Nut Brown Lager, a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, or a Sixpoint Sweet Action at destination beer bars like D.B.A., Blind Tiger, Spuyten Duyvil, and dozens of other neighborhood places. These beers are exceedingly well-made, and deserve to stand proudly among craft-brewed products from all over the country—indeed, all over the world. Rip would approve, because these brews are much closer to what filled the keg that he helped the troll-like Dutchman carry up the “Kaatskills” than, say, Bud or Miller.
Celebrity chefs: The anointment of chefs as the demigods of the decade has had mainly good results. With the pressure to perform on the rise, chefs are turning out better food than ever before, and the food itself is becoming more diverse. Accompanying this canonization has come a relaxed definition of what a chef is, adding a democratizing trend to the job category that may eventually result in more racial and sexual diversification. Nowadays, even the guy who fixes your sandwich or flips your pancakes considers himself a chef. And—as a rising tide lifts all boats—butchers, cocktail mixers, farmers, cheesemongers, restaurateurs, and—James Beard help us!—even cookbook editors have become celebrities, making possible the huge foodie lovefest that the Web has become.
The rise of neighborhood Thais: Old-fashioned neighborhood Cantonese restaurants are on the wane, and they’re fast being replaced by neighborhood Thais. Though a few of your favorite Cantonese dishes may still be on the menu, most of the offerings will be more rich and spicy, swimming in coconut milk, ginger, and holy basil. This trend toward Thai hit the West Coast long ago, and we’re just catching up. With its piquant salads, colorful curries, emphasis on freshwater farmed fish, and choice of beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, or tofu for nearly every entrée, Thai more nearly parallels the way most of us want to eat today. Meanwhile, for the truly Thai-obsessed, Woodside and Elmhurst offer a spate of regional Thai cuisines that make the neighborhood Thais seem bland by comparison.
Chile love: Speaking of piquancy, New Yorkers have learned to cherish chilies in a big way over the past 10 years. While the old Rip may never have tasted anything spicier than a dusting of well-ground black pepper—and that only on special occasions, due to costliness—these days a bewildered wander on his part down Bedford Avenue would reveal a wealth of spicy food. Now, Sriracha has become a necessary part of many restaurant’s table settings, and when you go into an Indian or Mexican restaurant and ask that your food be made spicy, the cooks often comply. Chile peppers—dried or fresh, red or green, tongue-destroying or merely sweat-inducing—are now readily available in supermarkets, at vegetable stands, and in specialty groceries everywhere.
More miscellaneous trends: There are many more trends I won’t bore you with, including the return of the French bistro to prominence; the rise of the cuisines of northeastern China in Flushing; the penetration of wine bars into many of the city’s more obscure neighborhoods; the popularity of invented cocktails; the general migration of the city’s higher-end food scene from Midtown to Downtown; the coffee-bar wars; the rise and fall of Japanese cream puffs; the continuing diversification of our ethnic food scene driven by new immigrant groups; and our continuing obsession with hamburgers and cupcakes.
And in conclusion: But one trend has proven to be more salutary than all the rest: the rising public concern with the sources and purity of our foods, and the formation of activist organizations to address problems like overfishing, global warming, sustainment of local agriculture, and both citywide and global hunger, reflected by individual actions as well as participation in organizations like Slow Food and Share Our Strength. It has lately dawned on us that food is more than just a hedonistic pursuit—as if we’d been snoozing for a decade, and just woke up.
For more of out restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road