Literary City Guide | Williamsburg - Brooklyn, NY
Tour Guide: Lara Southern
Raised in London by a Floridian and a Cape Townian, Lara returned to New York, the city in which she was born, after graduating college with a degree in English literature. Still figuring out what best to do with said degree, she can be found in her down time satiating her wanderlust with hotel reviews for A Hotel Life, and quenching her lit lust with book reviews for Bustle.com. (All photographs by Lara Southern)
Relationship to Williamsburg: Thousands of miles from my hometown and with a family based largely overseas, Brooklyn is, for me, at least, my new home away from home, an eclectic whirlwind of endless possibilities and experiences.
Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: The late and great Norah Ephron
Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: April Bloomfield and/or Rene Redzepi
Writing soundtrack: Depending on my mood – YoYo Ma, Sam Cooke, Sigur Ros (or, if I’m really on a roll, LCD Soundsystem).
Pen or Pencil: Pencil. Growing up in England, however, I did learn to write using an ink fountain pen, and have been searching for the perfect Parker to get back into it.
Coffee or Tea: Oof, so hard. I love both! Coffee in Brooklyn is amazing but I must admit that I love a good cup of South African Rooibos and nothing reminds me of home like a cuppa PG Tips (English Breakfast).
Paperback or Hardback: Hardback. Environmentally unfiriendly and a pain to lug around but they acquire that addictive musty aged scent that I couldn’t live without.
Spoonbill and Sugartown. Just off of the Bedford Avenue L train (and opposite the wonderful and whimsical Bedford Cheese Shop), Spoonbill and Sugartown offers a collection of used, rare and new books on art, design and a variety of design fields. Find a corner amongst the delightfully eclectic clientele and dive into something you likely wouldn’t find elsewhere.
Word in Greenpoint. Head straight to whoever is behind the counter that day. Unbelievably warm and incredibly knowledgeable on what they have to offer, the staff here write out detailed (and often hilarious) recommendations and pin them across the bookshelves. You’ll be sure to leave with more than you intended.
Greenlight Bookstore. Perfect if visiting with the kids as they host weekly sing-alongs and story times each Friday. Peruse the shelves of this gorgeous, bright space as your little ones sit rapt as owner, Jared strums on his guitar.
Brooklyn Public Library. This is a must see, if only for the awe-inspiring façade. More than just a book nook, they host free tango lessons, language courses and a culture series every other week. You can even place your vote there on election days.
The New York Public Library. So, though it may be cheating a little, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful oasis of books. Just a hop skip and a jump on the subway or East River Ferry, and you can find some of the most epic spaces on earth in which to dive into a good book and be inspired.
The Othmer Library. Tucked away in the heart of the Brooklyn Historical Society, Othmer is home to a plethora of archives and manuscript collections documenting the history of Brooklyn and Long Island. A slice of serenity in the heart of the bustling borough.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Word Bookstore. Beyond their phenomenal selection of books, this captivating store hosts multiple readings and events each week, both in house and otherwise, for all ages. Seminars and classes are also offered, such as “Gotham Writers Workshop” and “Screenwriting with Raven Burnett.”
Pete’s Candy Store. Pete's hosts Readings every other Thursday, featuring aspiring young literary stars along with established authors. Past speakers include Jennifer Egan, Joanna Smith Rakoff and Jonathan Ames.
The Old Stone House. This renovated Dutch farmhouse from 1699 now serves as a museum on colonialism and the American Revolution, one can attend monthly readings and author discussions. The events, such as “Writing War: Fiction and Memoir by Veterans” run by Peter Capatano of the NYTimes, are thematic and cover a wide range of fascinating topics.
Sprout Home. A pint sized flower store with some of the most exotic and beguiling buds you’ll ever come across. The beauties behind the counter are experts at creating whimsical, seasonal arrangements (and making you feel as if you created them yourself!).
Brooklyn has notoriously served as the home and inspiration for some of the nation’s most beloved writers. Tour the homes of the likes of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Patti Smith and more. The Brooklyn Heights neighborhood is a fabulous place to start.
Booze and Food Tours. Brooklyn is host to artisanal, well, everything, but they have long been known for their spectacular range of breweries. The Brooklyn Brewery offers weekend tours along with delicious grub to accompany your pint. Other top brewers include Kings County Distillery. If you’re more of a sweet tooth, Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory is the place to go.
Brooklyn Bowl. More than just your average bowling alley, and host to Blue Ribbon fried chicken, some of the best you’ll find in the city. When not occupied by either a local band or big names like Biz Markie or Deertick, one can often find local DJ legend QuestLove throwing down some new tracks.
For an out of the ordinary movie going experience, head to Nitehawk Cinemas. New York’s first “cinema eatery,” this intimate three screen cinema combines two of the local obsessions with food and film, serving gourmet concessions, handcrafted cocktails and full meals table side during your movie. The menu is nuanced according to the films on offer that season, with creations such as “Blue is the Warmest Cheese” fondue, and the tequila spiked “Girl on Fire.” The Rose Cinema at BAM (The Brooklyn Academy of Music) offers special screenings along with their other theater and music performances.
“Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff.” Betty Smith, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’
Blue Bottle Coffee. The majority of this open, pristine industrial space is occupied by a coffee bean roaster, filling the entire block with the heady aroma of supremely sourced beans. Each drip coffee is brewed to order and well worth the wait, as are their meticulously poured cappuccinos. No slouch in the pastry department either, you can find a bevy of beautiful treats that change with the whims of the chef. Their savory sweet olive oil and rosemary shortbread and seasonal fruit buckles are actually constructed to compliment certain ground blends.
Toby’s Estate Coffee. Like Blue bottle, this Aussie outlet puts out more than just brilliant coffee. Playing host to Roberta’s superlative sticky buns, they make a mean scrambled egg breakfast sandwich and a delightfully light pistachio-agave cookie.
Bakeri. Dressed in Rosie the Riveter regalia, the lovely ladies behind the picturesque antique pastry counter of Bakeri in Williamsburg mean serious business. Not only do they bake each loaf and pastry fresh in the wee hours of the morning, they simmer their own jams and even churn their own butter! The minuscule interior is often abuzz with expectant customers, noses pressed up against the glass cabinet of goodies. To find respite from the din, take your lemon cake or cheese studded bread pudding out back to their garden and pair with one of their perfectly poured cappuccinos served exclusively with delicious local whole milk, for the perfect fall mid-afternoon break.
A PROPER MEAL
Roberta’s. You simply cannot come to Brooklyn and not have pizza – it’s unofficial borough regulation. There is an abundance of fantastic pizzas on offer, from by the slice Grandma style at Best Pizza, to the superb whole pie creations on offer at Paulie Gee’s. If you’re not in the mood to wait out the line at Di Fara, (trust me, there will be a line), for the quintessential hole-in-the-wall experience that will blow your mind, look no further than Roberta’s. Behind an admittedly uninviting façade in the heart of Bushwick, you’ll find a treasure of a restaurant, serving up some of the best food the country has to offer in a manner so artfully prepared you’ll forget where you are. Everything on the menu, from the aged meats to the pastas, is exceptional, but do not leave without a taste of the “Bee Sting” pizza – Tomatoes, mozzarella, soppressata, chili and a drizzle of honey – heaven.
St Anselm. For the perfect steak to rival that at any of the hoity toity Peter Luger’s ilk, at a fraction of the cost, look no further. Sit at the beautiful bar and gaze into the open kitchen as they sear your butcher’s chop to order. Grab as many of their seasonal and delicious sides as possible, or sneak in for one of the most decadent patty melts you’ll encounter to satiate some late night munchies.
Marlow and Sons. Originally an oyster bar behind the equally delightful (and tiny) Diner, Marlow and Sons has grown into a laid-back, laid back haven for those who want seriously delicious far without the serious environment. The menu changes daily, with a different delectable crostini on offer every evening. Two items are staples, however, and with good reason – the brick chicken and the salted chocolate caramel tart. Yes, it is just as good as it sounds.
La Superior. You’d be forgiven for not spotting this place first (or third) time around. With just enough room to seat twenty, you’ll recognize this space from the aromas emerging from the kitchen and from the enormous line of plaid-clad foodies anxiously awaiting some of the best tacos in town. The Masa chips are fried to order and are excellent. Don’t be put off by some of the more unusual taco fillings on offer – the lengua taco, beef tongue, is succulent deliciousness and the mushroom tacos more than hold their own against meatier counterparts.
Gwynnett St. Again, an unassuming exterior on a main street off the Graham Avenue subway stop holds in its innards an ode to all that is wonderful and new in the food world. You may wish to hold off on eating due to the sheer beauty of each dish, they are literal works of art. Just try not to devour too many orders of their fresh baked whiskey bread and leave room for dessert!
OddFellows Ice Cream Co. Directly across the street from my apartment, this adorable ice cream shop offers a fantastical menu of ever changing flavors served by the loveliest people in old school candy striper uniforms. The chef, Sam Mason, ran the pastry program at the wonderful WD50 restaurant and, along with classics such as chocolate and Mint Chocolate Chunk, flexes his creative muscles and injects whimsy into all of his flavors such as Miso butterscotch cherry, Rose Raspberry with Pink Peppercorn and, my personal favorite, Cornbread.
Momofuku Milk Bar. When chef mastermind, David Chang, wanted to add desserts to his Momofuku empire, he found the perfect pastry chef in pintsize Christina Tosi. Folding childhood treats into grown up goodies is her talent, so much so that her innovative creations such as her “cereal milk soft serve” and “corn cookie” have become NYC staples. Her infamous ‘crack pie’ is named thus with very good reason. Proceed with caution.
Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop. When nostalgic noshes done right are what you’re craving, nothing will satisfy like Peter Pan’s old fashioned glazed donut.
Iris Cafe. Hands down the most delectable, ooey-gooey sticky bun experience you may ever have. Delicious to the last drop. Bring napkins.
Depanneur. This spot brings new meaning to the phrase ‘corner store’ offering up artisanal goods from around the borough and beyond. For anglophiles or homesick Canadians, you’ll find a taste of hoe with goods in stock such as Cadbury’s Chocolate buttons, Elderflower cordial and Walker’s crisps. For those in search of the perfect picnic basket, look no further. Crammed with locally made preserves and sweets such as Anarchy in a Jar jams and Jeni’s Splendid Ice cream sandwiches, these purveyors will help you put together the perfect picnic basket.
Lara's 5 Favorites
1. Favorite view: My apartment faces South, letting me face the fabulous trifecta of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges from my desk. Best time is as the sun sets over Lower Manhattan, and the lights on the bridges start to flicker on.
2. Favorite place to write: When the weather is warm or dipping into Fall, I love to sit on the North 6th Street Pier by my apartment and look onto the cityscape – for downtown views I head to the even quieter, Grand Ferry Park. On Sundays you can find me seated in one of the leather armchairs at Sweetleaf or sipping tea in the Back garden of Roebling Tea Room.
3. Favorite museum: In Manhattan, The PACE/ MacGill Gallery plays host to some spectacular Photography exhibitions and is always beautifully curated. In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Museum is obviously a fail safe bet (enjoy a stroll in the Botanical Gardens afterwards!). In Williamsburg, in particular, the Brooklyn Art Library is a truly wonderful little hole in the wall museum. Their Sketchbook Project, in particular, an interactive, crowd-sourced traveling collection of exhibition of handmade sketchbooks from across the globe, can absorb hours of a lazy Sunday.
4. Favorite coffee shop: For their coffee, I have to say Blue Bottle Coffee. The majority of the shop is occupied. In the summertime, nothing is more refreshing and rejuvenating on a hot Sunday afternoon than their chicory laced New Orleans iced coffee.
5. Favorite thing about Williamsburg: The people. New York can be a tough place, filled with ambition and potential heartache, and the bustling Manhattan streets can occasionally feel stifling, weighed down by the weight of desperate dreams. Brooklyn is slightly different. The borough is brimming with diversity, cultural, creative and otherwise and is experiencing a flush of renewed . Truly a place for the creative, Brooklyn has been undergoing a renaissance period of ideas. There is an openness to innovation and inspiration here, and a collaborative enthusiasm for taking an idea and bringing it to life unlike that of any other neighborhood I’ve come across. Brooklyn provides the space that Manhattan cannot, and yet still houses the hidden gems found on every street corner that makes New York so special.