Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, what we now know as Bay Ridge was something of a resort area. In its pre-Brooklyn days, the village, then known as Yellow Hook (before the yellow fever epidemic wrecked that color’s brand), attracted wealthy industrialists seeking a respite from New York life.
You can’t blame them: Even today, there’s something peaceful about Brooklyn’s southwesternmost corner. After you emerge from whatever fresh hell the notoriously unreliable R train just put you through, you’ll notice that the air off the river is fresh. The buildings are low. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, stretching out to Staten Island, soars above the horizon.
Today, Bay Ridge is a neighborhood of immigrants. The first to arrive around the turn of the twentieth century were Scandinavians, whose influence can be seen at Leif Ericson Park or during the annual Norwegian Day Parade. After the arrival of the subway in 1916, Italians and Irish families populated the area, followed, in the mid-twentieth century, by Lebanese, Syrian, and Greek immigrants. These days, the neighborhood is also home to Latino and Chinese communities and is renowned as the heart of Arab New York, boasting the largest population of Arabic speakers in the city. Lately, more families have started migrating from elsewhere in Brooklyn, as well.
On the tree-lined commercial avenues, mom-and-pop businesses give this enclave the feel of a small town. Delis, diners, greengrocers, falafel shops, and pizza joints, many of which have stayed within the same family for generations, abound. A steady calendar of festivals and parades — like the famed Ragamuffin Parade, featuring kids in Halloween costumes marching down Third Avenue — bring people out to celebrate community in the streets. The entire west and south of the neighborhood is bounded by the New York Bay, so a nature lover can duck out to the waterfront in minutes. For a taste of small-town Brooklyn, take the R train to the end of the line and just start walking.
Once the private estate of a wealthy politician (Henry Cruse Murphy, newspaper scion, mayor of Brooklyn, and champion of the future Brooklyn Bridge), Owl’s Head Park now serves as a place where families from all parts of the community gather to picnic and play. The park’s gentle slopes offer the area’s best sledding come winter. At the park’s north end, teenagers play basketball or skateboard at the Millennium Skate Park. Leafy oaks and beeches stretch out above the winding paths and frame a wide overlook that just might be the best spot to catch a sunset in Brooklyn. It’s a little oasis above the busy Belt Parkway below. Enter at 68th Street and Colonial Road, nycgovparks.org/parks/owls-head-park
You could spend an entire day hugging the water in Bay Ridge, walking, running, or biking down the Belt Parkway Promenade all the way to the neighborhood’s southernmost tip (and beyond — but why leave when you just got here?). For an excursion that’s almost as dreamy, walk down Shore Road, cutting in and out of the vast stretch of park lining one side, or admiring the eclectic mix of lavish homes lining the other. At the American Veterans Memorial Pier on 69th Street, you can cast a fishing pole or just take in the view, which stretches from Staten Island, across New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty, to Lower Manhattan. Since last summer, a ferry from Wall Street has docked at the pier, saving visitors the hassle of braving the R train. Shore Road from 69th to 101st streets, nycgovparks.org/parks/american-veterans-memorial-pier
In the days before Christmas, the line to Cosentino’s stretches around the block, as Italian Americans begin to plan for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But the shop does a steady business year-round, according to owner Mike Cosentino, thanks to a mix of health-conscious newcomers and old-timers whose families have been regulars since Cosentino’s grandparents opened the business in 1920. The store has witnessed a lot of change in the course of that near-century. When Mike took over forty years ago, his busiest hours were in the morning, when housewives would do their shopping; now, he says, more shoppers swing by on their way home from work. But one thing hasn’t wavered. “Fresh fish is our calling card,” he says. “You might pay more for better quality, but it’s worth it.” 6922 Third Avenue, 718-745-4710
The Arabic word balady roughly translates to “native” or “local,” a term that helps encompass the range of goods at what is now the biggest halal market serving Brooklyn’s largest Arab community. Colorful produce greets you when you enter, and the aisles are stacked high with everything from Medjool dates to Palestinian olive oil and Egyptian tea. Spices, nuts, olives, and pickles are available in bulk. Meats and cheese glow in display cases toward the back. The highest shelves are packed with cooking equipment and bath and beauty items, while baskets dangle from the ceiling. Every Ramadan, members of the Masoud family, who own the store, serve a large iftar feast on the sidewalk outside for hungry neighbors breaking their fasts. 7128 Fifth Avenue, facebook.com/baladyfoods
Donuts are a family affair at this cozy, old-school bakery on Fifth Avenue. Mike Neamonitis opened his eponymous shop more than forty years ago, but now you’re more likely to catch one of his offspring behind the Formica counter, serving up fresh breads, bialys, muffins, and 35 types of donuts, a dozen of which’ll set you back eight bucks. The most popular variety is probably the marble cruller, a glazed vanilla-chocolate twist, according to Neamonitis’s seventeen-year-old grandson, also named Mike. The only employees who aren’t related, he adds, are the bakers, who work through the night to make sure pastries are hot and ready by 4 a.m., when the first customers start coming in to get their daily fix. Most mornings, Neamonitis swings by too. 6822 Fifth Avenue, mikesdonuts.com
While Bay Ridge has no shortage of excellent Middle Eastern food, Tanoreen owner and chef Rawia Bishara blends dishes from around the Levant with some that may be unique to this corner of Brooklyn. The more standard fare — grilled meats, smoky baba ghanouj, fragrant stuffed grape leaves — is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but this place also does things to brussels sprouts and cauliflower like you wouldn’t believe. Platters of lamb sausage, chicken flatbreads, and a spicy shepherd’s pie will momentarily immobilize you (in the best way), while a cocktail enlivened with za’atar, an herbal spice blend, will help the golden dining room twinkle. On a typical Saturday night, Bishara herself wends through packed tables to check in on diners and make sure everyone is having a good time. 7523 Third Avenue, tanoreen.com
In Bay Ridge, you can swing a cat on any corner and hit a pub — or you can just go to Skinflints. The tile floor and century-old stained-glass windows are relics from the bar’s genesis as an ice cream parlor. With dark wood paneling, beaded lamps, and twinkly lights, the space is like something time forgot, nostalgic without getting creepy about it. Skinflints is known for its burgers — served on English muffins, and cheaper than anything you’ll find in Manhattan — and on warm days, you can head out onto the back patio to enjoy the sunshine (or the dulcet sounds of Fifth Avenue traffic). 7902 Fifth Avenue, 718-745-1116
A version of the Cheers theme song could be written about the only independent bookstore in Bay Ridge: It’s a place where truly everybody knows your name. “It’s like working in a bar without dealing with the drunks,” confirms Erin Evers, who runs the store’s monthly book club. Kids come through for story hour and writing workshops led by local teachers, and the crafty can pick up supplies or join a knitting circle. Sometimes bookstores are good for guilty pleasures, too. “I love trash TV,” said one customer looking forward to an upcoming meet-and-greet with a Real Housewife. These readings are often fundraisers for a local cause — and always a chance to run into your neighbors. 8415 Third Avenue, bookmarkshoppe.com
When old-timers want to gripe about the ghost of gentrification future, they’ll sometimes mention, in hushed tones, the wine bar tucked away on 74th Street. But owner John Avelluto is hardly some hipster interloper. A prominent local artist, Avelluto learned the tricks of the restaurant trade from his father, who ran an eatery uptown serving the cuisine of his home region, Puglia, which you might know as the heel of Italy’s boot. The drinks menu at Owl’s Head is unique but unpretentious (and affordable). “We like to give more stage time to marginalized farmers and craftspeople,” says Avelluto. Community groups often hold meetings within the warm, low-lit space, which is also host to regular readings and the Bay Ridge Poets Society’s monthly open mic. On Thursday nights, a portion of all proceeds goes to LGBTQ causes. 479 74th Street, theowlshead.com
There’s some argument about exactly where Bay Ridge ends and other neighborhoods begin (65th Street? 59th? Is the easternmost border the Gowanus Expressway or somewhere slightly beyond?), and Bamboo Garden exemplifies this beautifully. This dim sum restaurant presides over a corner of Eighth Avenue, the main corridor of Sunset Park’s Chinatown. But once upon a time, it was a disco — indeed, the very disco where John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, boogied down in Saturday Night Fever, the movie that once was (and maybe still is) Bay Ridge’s biggest claim to fame. The dining room may no longer resemble a dance floor, but you can chow down on dumplings, shumai, and egg tarts while ceiling chandeliers sparkle like disco balls. 6409 Eighth Avenue, 718-238-1122
The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.