The most exciting restaurant to open in New York City in recent months isn’t in the West Village and it doesn’t have a snooty receptionist, starched tablecloths or a celebrity chef. Momo Sushi Shack serves sublime Japanese food to an already slavish following in what looks like a concrete garage, albeit an artfully gentrified one. It sits on the corner of a deserted industrial block but, despite appearances, it’s actually at the epicentre of the budding scene in Bushwick, north-east Brooklyn.
Next door, in a breeze-block bunker identifiable by a distressed curtain emblazoned with an “R”, is Roberta’s, a gourmet pizzeria that justifiably commands waits of an hour or more for a table. Out back is an herb garden that supplies Roberta’s ingredients and a few blocks away sit the warehouses that host semi-legal parties with trapeze artists and fire-eaters. This is New York’s new bohemia.
“I’ve lived here for 12 years and I’ve been watching the area develop,” says Phil Gilmour, owner of Momo Sushi Shack. “Opening up my restaurant here made sense, and the rents are one-seventh of what they are in Manhattan.”
The food scene in Bushwick is the most obvious indicator of the upswing in its fortunes, from the gastropub fare of Northeast Kingdom to the tacos at the unpretentious Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos that send the regulars into raptures. “The buzz surrounding Roberta’s was enormous because when it first opened, in 2008, it felt like a diamond in the rough,” says local food writer Scarlett Lindeman. “It started making awesome pizza with a sustainable slant and became a poster child for a new Brooklyn aesthetic – young, artistic, interested in food and craft and with enough cash to drop $17 on a 12in pizza. Now the opening of Momo Sushi Shack shows that the waves of gentrification have rippled out from [neighbouring] Williamsburg.”
Bushwick is 15 minutes from Manhattan on the L train but – in outward appearance at least – its three square miles have more in common with the graffiti-patterned, low-rise cinescapes of Walter Hill’s 1979 film The Warriors. Bushwick doesn’t advertise its attractions – some of the most popular parties and events are at Brooklyn Fire Proof, an arts community space on Ingraham Street marked only by a blazing mural out front. Hidden-away art galleries, such as English Kills and Sugar, exhibit the kind of edgy emerging urban art that has disappeared from SoHo and Chelsea.
The streets in the north of the area can seem deathly quiet, apart from the odd skateboarder with dreadlocks piled high, gliding across a block from right to stage left. A few years ago this area was, as locals say, “sketchy” (and the riots, looting and vandalism in Bushwick that followed the 1977 citywide blackout are the stuff of nightmares), but now it’s much less so. The cheaper rents that Gilmour mentions have attracted young creatives, long since priced out of the Lower East Side and the western parts of Brooklyn. Walk into Café Orwell in the afternoon and it’s full of twentysomething hipsters, all working on identical titanium MacBooks while Sufjan Stevens’ music plays over the gurgle of the espresso machine. Later that night, they’re sipping cocktails in the Narrows, a sleek new deco-style bar, and, after midnight, in Kings County, a petite, candle-lit rock dive that requires night vision to navigate.
Kim Fraczek is a jewellery maker who left Manhattan for Bushwick six years ago. “I moved here because I found an enormous, light-filled loft where I could build a studio and a home. And I love the creative people around me,” she says. Fraczek’s loft is in an old knitting factory, whose rooftop is a regular venue for late-night parties, and her bedroom overlooks the hot tub of the New York Loft Hostel, the sole hotel in the area, a decidedly modernist and recherché take on backpackers’ accommodation.
While the knitting needles left Fraczek’s building years ago, they are part of offbeat pursuits at the Yarn Café – a coffee shop and wool retailer for a new generation of knit lovers. It’s a part of what locals term “the hipster mall” on Flushing Avenue that also includes Index Ltd, an appointment-only vintage furniture store trading in hefty, chic, industrial pieces with a well worn patina, and Better than Jam, a local design co-op that specialises in screenprinted fashion and accessories. Bushwick has a junky, magpie aesthetic, as if many of its attractions have been put together from the bombed-out remnants of a fallen city, then strewn with fairy lights. At the Wreck Room on Flushing Avenue, the booths in the back of the bar have been fashioned from recycled car seats. At Goodbye Blue Monday on Broadway, a different band plays every night amid what looks like an exploded junk shop. The space has morphed from antiques shop to café to bar and to gig space. Once a month it hosts the Bushwick Book Club, which invites songwriters to compose tunes inspired by one particular book – creating something new from something old.
Foraging for curios and essentials for your unfurnished loft at Green Village Used Furniture and Clothing is something of a Sunday afternoon ritual. All human waste is here, on an epic scale: golf clubs, suitcases, Disney memorabilia and weird 1970s kitchen gizmos, all piled precariously up to the ceiling along narrow pathways. One wonders how, should anyone ever want to buy them, the cracked Formica sideboards that make up the structure of each path could ever make it out of the shop without a major deconstruction of what might count as the most arresting art installation in the city.
Looks aside, Bushwick feels reminiscent of 1980s downtown New York City – a touch of youthful pioneer spirit mixes with hedonism and white middle class anarchy. It’s still possible to open a weekend-only gallery or shop here, and abandoned warehouses beg for reappropriation. “There are always under-the-radar events,” says Jeremy Sapienza of the BushwickBK.com blog. “That’s the nature of a place with so many illegal living spaces and venues. It’s a continuation of what has always gone on in NYC.”
There are still very visible layers of an older Bushwick. Head towards the M subway line, along Knickerbocker Avenue, and you’ll frequently encounter Hispanic block parties along with remnants of the area’s Italian past, most ornately in the form of Circo’s Pastry Shop, with its ice-cream cakes in the window and gorgeous 1940s neon sign over the door. “The vast majority of the neighbourhood isn’t industrial at all,” says Sapienza. “It’s packed densely with apartments and small homes; it’s not just an unpopulated wasteland newly discovered by creatives.”
It’s the longstanding diversity as much as the imported cool that makes Bushwick so vibrant. Walk down Morgan Avenue on a Sunday morning and you’ll pass through noxious meat-packing smells, past rainbow-coloured graffiti friezes, and the Latin wails of worship and percussion from the pentecostal La Peña de Horeb church. Then you can have brunch with a Slammin’ Egg Burrito and a Bloody Mary at the Life Café.
But, like so many areas of the city that have since become part of the tourist trail, Bushwick represents a certain kind of day trip that won’t exist forever. As restaurateur Phil Gilmour says: “Bushwick’s air of industrial cool will remain for maybe five more years. Then Starbucks will move in.”
Better Than Jam, 1095 Flushing Avenue, www.betterthanjamnyc.com
Brooklyn Fire Proof, 119 Ingraham St, tel: +1 718 456 7570; www.brooklynfireproof.com
Café Orwell, 247 Varet St, tel: +1 347 294 4759; no website
Circo’s Pastry Shop, 312 Knickerbocker Avenue; tel: +1 718 381 7199 www.circospastryshop.com
English Kills Gallery, 114 Forrest St, tel: +1 718 366 7323; www.englishkillsartgallery.com
Goodbye Blue Monday, 1087 Broadway, tel: +1 718 453 6343; www.goodbyeblue.com
Green Village Used Furniture, 276 Starr St, tel: +1 718 599 4017; www.gogreenvillage.com
Kings County, 286 Siegel St, tel: +1 718 418-8823; no website
Life Café, 983 Flushing Avenue, tel: +1 718 386 1133; www.lifecafe.com
Momo Sushi Shack, 43 Bogart St, tel: +1 718 418 6666; www.momosushishack.com
The Narrows, 1037 Flushing Avenue, tel: +1 281 827 1800; www.narrowsbar.com
New York Loft Hostel, 249 Varet Street, tel: +1 718 366 1351; www.nylofthostel.com
Northeast Kingdom, 18 Wyckoff Avenue, tel: +1 718 386 3864; www.north-eastkingdom.com
Roberta’s, 261 Moore St, tel: +1 718 417 1118; www.robertaspizza.com
Sugar, 449 Troutman St, tel: +1 718 417 1180; www.sugarbushwick.com
Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, 271 Star St, tel: +1 718 456 3422; no website
Wreck Room, 940 Flushing Avenue, tel: +1 718 418 6347; www.wreckroombrooklyn.com
Yarn Café, 1087 Flushing Avenue, tel: +1 718 381 0920; www.brooklynyarncafe.com