We all have a street. The one we always seem to gravitate to for coffee, first dates, window-shopping, and horse yoga. In our column Street of the Week, What Should We Do editors and writers share the stretches of pavement that mean the most to us, and what you should eat, drink, do, and check out if you decide to walk a few blocks in our metaphorical shoes (we need our real ones!). Next up: WSWD senior editor Jess Bender discovers an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood adjacent to the Brooklyn waterfront.
Whether you’re a true-blue Brooklynite or a well-traveled outer borough–er, you’re familiar with Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. They are home to some of the city’s most acclaimed bars and restaurants; the shopping scene is quintessentially cool; and the families that stroll their streets can double as stock photo models. But there was another neighborhood connected to both back in the day. Enter Columbia Street Waterfront District.
One of the smallest neighborhoods in the borough, the expansion of Robert Moses’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway separated the 22-block enclave from the rest of South Brooklyn in 1957. Its namesake stretch, unsurprisingly, takes up the majority of the district’s square footage. Despite its forced separation from the rest of western Brooklyn, Columbia Street Waterfront District has developed a close-knit community, with plenty of charming pockets (a whopping seven community gardens!), quirky characters (the idiosyncratic Cat King!), and even its own backyard jazz festival. What else does the waterfront district’s signature street have to offer? Well, we know a few good places.
Jalopy Theatre and School of Music
Living close to the not-so-blue waterfront may have you singing the blues…fortunately there’s a venue catering to just that. This rustic theater is renowned for getting back to music’s (grass)roots, giving credit to the banjo strummers, mean fiddlers, and lovelorn lyricists of yesteryear. And after the stage lights turn off, the action still continues most days of the week with workshops for the young (and young at heart) and instrument-building intensives for burgeoning DIY musicians. There’s even an in-house recording studio for wannabe Seegers and Dylans to lay down their own (perhaps future Nobel-winning?) tracks. 315 Columbia Street
Attached to the folksy venue is a well-worn drinking hole filled with enough stories to inspire dozens of bluesy tunes. Several remnants dating back to 1937 remain from its original life as Rocco’s Tavern, including dramatic back-bar cabinets and drink rails and wood floors that are a lot less rickety than they look. Concerts in the back draw considerable crowds, as do the cheap beer and N’awlins-inspired pub grub. Creole classics like shrimp po’boys and spicy jambalaya are must-orders, while confectioners’ sugar–coated beignets and mile-high biscuits make brunch exciting again. 317 Columbia Street
If you’re an MSNBC maven, chances are you’ve seen Mad Money’s Jim Cramer tweeting about this modern Italian eatery. That’s because his wife, Lisa Detwiler—along with chef Michelle Owen—is the woman who brought the former dive bar back to life. Originally catering to the dockworkers laboring at the waterfront, the Longshoreman now acts as a post-work reprieve for locals and lovebirds craving some carbs. We’re talking tagliatelle and gnocchi made fresh on the daily, brick oven–fired pizzas topped with wild mushrooms and pickled chilis, and a fresh focaccia basket you’ll want to refill multiple times. 215 Columbia Street
If you’re a Brooklyn artisan, you know the struggles of standing out in a sea of Etsy stores. Many local craftspeople have instead pivoted to showcasing their work inside this female-owned and -operated artist co-op. The mission of the founders, dressmaker Tessa Williams and jewelry designer Rachel Goldberg, has remained the same since they opened in 2004: Designers and artists should reap the profits from their work. And they do just that, taking home 90 percent of sales during their residencies inside the shop. The space also hosts workshops for casual crafters and letter-writing sessions for snail-mail devotees—or those passionate about complaining to Congress. 212 Columbia Street
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Regardless of the season, the coolest place to hang out in New York is a friend’s roof. For those of us unlucky enough to not have access to a high-rise escape, this Mexican joint is a feasible plan B. Alma’s pristine rooftop view of the Manhattan skyline is unrivaled, especially considering how it’s weather- and season-proof. (The rooftop is amply heated during colder months.) A menu of mean margaritas and meat-stuffed tacos is also worth the trip past sunset. 187 Columbia Street
Hot chicken Milanese. Ham hock pappardelle. Carolina Gold rice balls. This is the Italian-Southern mashup you never knew you wanted. Union Square Hospitality vets Chris McDade and James O’Brien lead the charge behind the scenes, blending McDade’s Georgia roots with O’Brien’s influences from the Garden State. Furthering their themed concept is a wine list composed of only varietals from Italy and the United States, as well as a backyard bocce ball court for summertime rendezvous. 127 Columbia Street
Freebird Books & Goods
We can go on and on about our love of New York’s indie bookstores, but this bohemian charmer is particularly special. Freebird’s stacks are packed with citycentric page-turners, and there’s even ample cozy seating for extended reading sessions. (Have we also mentioned that it is possibly the only literary haunt with a postapocalyptic book club?) Aside from selling well-loved used books, Freebird’s basement doubles as a temporary volunteering space for the nonprofit Books Through Bars, which provides reading material to the incarcerated across the country. 123 Columbia Street
The Hop Shop
When it’s beer o’clock, hop over to this casual bar. There’s a brew for every kind of drinker here, with 14 draft choices and 90-plus additional bottles available. Bingo nights, bad movie screenings, and Taco (and Taquito) Tuesdays are constant crowd-pleasers, as are generous happy-hour deals—$3 for Brooklyn-brewed beers!—and free popcorn. Like a good Brooklyn bar should be, the Hop Shop is also pet friendly and has a backyard space for prime puppy viewing. 121 Columbia Street
Ruby’s House of Crystals
Most of us have Spencer Pratt to thank for the use of crystals in our self-care routines. Brooklynites, fortunately, have Ruby to thank for theirs. The namesake of this peaceful store is a toddler, born in 2017. But the owners wanted to create a sacred, zen-ful space for their kin—not to mention the community. Stone bracelets, sage, and chakra healing wands are readily available, as well as all of the amethyst, rose quartz, calcite spheres, and sapphire your aura needs. 119 Columbia Street
Pok Pok’s departure may have been devastating, but the space has recently welcomed—what else?—a new Thai spot! Married couple Jeerathinan Ranthom and chef Krit Ploysomboon set their focus on the northeastern Isan region’s street food, building their menu around a variety of papaya salads, fried wings and meat skewers, shrimp fermented in beer, and sweet sticky rice. (Although it’s a real shame they didn’t use this opportunity to name the restaurant Krok Krok, we’ll forgive them for the hiccup, since the dishes taste unlike anything you’d order in your normal pad Thai takeout joint.) 117 Columbia Street