In walking distance order, near to quite near:
Aita – we so needed this. For the blind and palsied who can’t make it further than the end of the block; here’s the new restaurant at the end of the block. And it’s as small, sweet and tender as a Morrissey hooligan. Less portentous than some of the others, and the better for it. No need to practice lip pursing or eyelid-fluttering ahead of time. Italianate, but simple … braised beef cheeks, oxtail ravioli, spaghetti alla vongole, grilled octopus, things called fritto and misto and perfectly crafted cocktails. It’s tiny and friendly and stays open late. But not quite as late as it’s sister speakeasyesque bar, tucked almost invisibly one door up Waverly, where you can sip yourself into a human puddle into the wee hours.
Locanda Vini e Olii – Legendary outpost of the kind of hand-weaned food you might find at some abandoned Slow Food snob heaven in Matera, Basilicata on a Wednesday night in November. Good food; good in that way whereby being tasty (or not) is somehow rendered a vulgar irrelevance. Fine. Il più fine. Pastas you’re afraid to pronounce: fazzolettini, pizzoccherifa, maltagliati. Served seriously. None of Romans’ scrummagy, old goat bones or Aita’s rapid charred octopus. Shhhh. Wine pairings. Cavernous goblets with paper thin rims, a dribble of breathy Nebbiolo somewhere at the bottom. Ripe cherry-nosed with notes of dog’s cock. Nod knowingly as you fork the fettunta, releasing the aroma acciugatta. Probably close your eyes, perhaps purse your lips. And yet -‘può essere vero?’ - am I departing with the sensation that something I claimed to have happened, didn’t? Not pretentious in itself, but sanctions one’s pretensions if one is aching to preten(t).
Little Brother – aptly, is gum-smackin’ kid sibling to The Smoke Joint, doing roughly the same but with different tattoos and a few blocks closer; thus rendering it a rare, viable to go option. Various creatures great and small, raised with an open palm and read unthreatening bedtime stories before being slaughtered, bled, smoked and served up in $7 sandwiches. Good standard beanish, mac ‘n cheesey sides. Take it all next door to Hot Bird which (unusually, for a bar) allows the consumption of extra-curricular food with its chilly south-of-the-border beers.
Chuko – stripped down, ramen-chic from Morimoto veterans on Vanderbilt. Pork cutlet banh mi (Vietnamese for ‘darling little piggy bun’) or raw kale shuffled with kale tempura dressed sesame-sweet, followed by the ubiquitous ‘special’, kimchee ramen with soft poached egg, all served with enthusiasm by an impish dryad with glittering notes of chipmunk. Chopsticks make fine backscratchers. Update! The dirty secret (no booze) is behind us! Sapporo, and lovely round-mouthed sake in a can! Now we can pop in for early ramen before driving to Bovina and make it only as far as Sloatsburg before pulling over to pass out for an hour.
Roman’s – The Marlow Brand’s Italian outpost on DeKalb, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbour, twinkly. Different menu every night gives everything a ‘well, we thought we’d give it a shot’ quality. And to be fair, some shots stray from the bullseye. One or two miss the target completely and end up taking out an innocent schoolgirl on Vanderbilt Avenue. But for each paleolithic, sinewy dog’s bone, there are myriad fiddleheads in rich chicken broth or crostini of nettles, green garlic and ricotta. Also things rabbity and marrowy, along with the sour and the bitter cocktail pairings. And in the end, who can complain when your (perfect) jolie-laide Gainsbourg waitress is leaning in with practiced indifferent familiarity to warn you off the ramp-stuffed quail. I once had a Risotto Milanese with a veal shank in it the size of a toddler’s femur.
Walter Foods – vaunted Williamsburg import dares to brave the over-windowed corner of DeKalb and Cumberland that brought others to their knees. But this is Walter Foods of raw bar and filet mignon french dip fame. Of facially hirsute waiters in aprons and bow ties, who seem as likely to burst into barbershop harmonies as serve you an absinthe infused Old Fashioned. Yeah, it’s that menu. Will prohibition-chic last longer than prohibition? The shaved brussels sprouts sport hazelnuts instead of pancetta, and the artichoke dip is different from Freemans, honest guv’nor. Still, tasty as fuck and tough to fault it.
The Smoke Joint – goes for that ‘we’re just some inked-up dudes with Cuban beards called Matty and Caleb who got us some oil cans and smoked our friend’s Malachi’s pig’ vibe. Pull up a recycled school chair and tuck into what people-who-know say is among the best pulled pork, short ribs, Brooklyn wings with mac ‘n’ cheese and baked beans in New York. Then next door for Old Overholt, rounding out the Brooklyn-hipster-who-knows-the-difference- between-South-Carolina-and-Texas BBQ experience.
James – overlook the air of food-snoot and burrow like a star-nosed mole into confit of pork belly and cauliflower soup with smoked trout; not to mention pressed young chicken, three words which cause hives of longing to break out simultaneously across all planes of one’s physiognomy. James was unbeatable when it had the waitress with the Renaissance face and the body of a line-caught herring. But it’s still really good. The bourbonish, blood orange James Revenge deserves a small medal.
Bar Corvo – 5th Avenue’s hallowed al di la sprouted a towhead sibling on Washington Avenue, and it’s another immediate A-lister. Northern Italy meets Crown Heights; thus Grand Army Plaza arugula with hints of the Rialto Fishmarket; like trailing your hand over the side of a gondola on the Gowanus Canal and coming up with octopus confit in mint, lemon and hot red peppers. The star of the show lurks amongst the appetizers, soaring out like a boy in a cassock doing Pie Jesu: warm farro salad with cauliflower, brussels sprouts, goat’s cheese and hazelnuts. Booze, great, everything, lovely. Only if you want to worship at the shrine of seppia and oxtail over soft polenta will you have to visit its smouldering older sister in Park Slope. Which you have already done, right?
Franny’s – on the unlikely autostrada of Flatbush, Franny’s was once our equal, but has left us in its wake. The beaming grins and easy familiarity have given way to Gioconda smirks and a quizzical stare that says ‘have you come about the dishwasher job?’. It’s wonderful though, once the shame of being Everyman has eased. Just the smell of the place is knee-buckling. The wood-roasted pancetta, wood-roasted flowering greens, wood-roasted pork sausage all conspire to suggest that life in general would be better wood-roasted. Each crostino is the Earl of Crostini. And the waferish, charred-airbubble pizza renders that stuff you get in Napoli the crepe sole of a damp house-slipper. Simpler the better, just the roasted dough, salt, oil, or maybe a dab of tomato.
The French House – all right, not strictly a neighbour, inasmuch as it’s three-and-a-half thousand miles away from Bell End. But in spirit, and in the fact that it frequently blinded the likes of Francis Bacon, Brendan Behan and Lucian Freud. And that Dylan Thomas accidentally left the manuscript of Under Milk Wood there, under his chair. But this is no White Horse Tavern. The French’s heart still beats; it’s still a first-rate place to get ruined, under the indifferent gaze of its hardy perennial barmaids.
Chez Paul – classic ornery palace of Parisian indifference on rue de Charonne (11th), replete with all the necessary elements required to turn intimidation into bliss: bone marrow with grey salt on toast, chateaubriand, pommes dauphinoise almost furry, doing the backstroke through burnt cream and cheese. Arrive alone, they’ll grunt and stick you behind the hat stand, an embarrassment. Yet they’ll keep checking and coming back; and as you gradually dissolve into the fog of fat burgundy, will even begin to chuckle their reluctant love. Wander home, alone, skunked, blissed, listening to the mermaids singing, each to each.