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New York Daily News

Soho in Brooklyn

New York Daily News
Aug 10, 2003

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Soho in Brooklyn
Once down at the heels,
Atlantic Ave. experiments with urban chic

 

When Robin Weiss moved from California to Cobble Hill to open a pricey shoe store a block from her sister's upscale clothing boutique, she was convinced Atlantic Ave. had all the cutting-edge quality required to attract discerning shoppers. She's one of a number of visionary thirtysomething merchants who believe this still-funky stretch of Brooklyn thoroughfare, which cuts through Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, is poised to become a hot, hip scene.

A well-known destination for those seeking antiques and Middle Eastern food, Atlantic Ave. is seeing restaurants open every month. Boutiques now outnumber the bail bondsmen, and if locals have their way, the temporarily closed "behemoth" known as the Brooklyn House of Detention will not open its cells again.

Across the street from Weiss' sparsely filled store, named jelly, Suzan Silver can be found arranging exotic pillows, purses and wall hangings at her six-week-old shop, Silver Tao. The store is alive with international flair: A 100-year-old Japanese wedding kimono hangs on the wall, and Silver's desk is wrapped in a gold-threaded Indian sari. Also for sale is a Ch'ing Dynasty red wooden cabinet from nearby Silk Road Antiques - an emblem of the strong system of "networking and bartering on the block," Silver says. "Atlantic Ave. is not a destination yet. But there are some very dynamic entrepreneurs here, mostly women."

Charlie Smith is one of them. The owner of a vintage-clothing shop, Scarlet Ginger, she sees a similarity between Atlantic Ave. and London's trendy Chelsea district. "It reminds me of home, New Kings Road in London that's lined with beautiful antiques stores and the odd design store in between," says Smith in a bright English accent.

There are also longtime Middle Eastern establishments, including at least a dozen restaurants offering delicacies from countries such as Lebanon and Yemen. Dennis Halaby of Damascus Breads says the area's demographics have shifted dramatically since the old days: "At one point, this neighborhood was a Little Arabia swarming with Middle Eastern restaurants and stores."

Charlie Sahadi, owner of Sahadi Importing, says that when property values started to soar 30 years ago, many residents of Middle Eastern heritage sold their houses and left. He kept his store where it was, and today shoppers of all nationalities head there to stock up on olive oils, cheeses, nuts and grains. Sahadi says he learned that his "Middle Eastern customers love specialty foods, and specialty-food customers love Middle Eastern food. People are more interested in trying other cuisines today."

Standing between a distressed mirror and the old metal bar at his new French bistro, Bacchus, co-owner Redha Boutaghou says the past year has seen a big growth spurt. "I see Atlantic Ave. getting better and better," he says. A cafe is almost ready next door, and a restaurant is nearing completion across the street.

Julie Ipcar, who has lived in the neighborhood her entire 33 years, says she opened her Flying Saucer cafe for selfish reasons. "You gotta build what you need," she said, an adage that applies to her second business, Last Exit, a bar anchoring the opposite end of Atlantic Ave.

 

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Unlike other parts of Brooklyn, the rents are still good in Boerum Hill, and Ipcar sees "landlords getting much pickier about who they rent to." Rents on commercial spaces are attractive (the average is $21 per square foot), and there aren't too many left, according to Sue Wolfe, a real-estate broker and vice president of the Atlantic Ave. Local Development Corp.

But more are being created. A major face-lift is underway at Atlantic and Court St., where the municipal parking lot is making way for a project including 250 rental apartments, stores and a YMCA with swimming pool. Ground has been broken for a 10-story building of condos and stores at Smith and State Sts.

One of the greatest challenges is making the heavily trafficked street pedestrian-friendly. "We want people to walk the avenue from one end to the other," says Wolfe.

A walk along the avenue reveals a variety of moods and cultures. Just west of the shrouded, fenced-off, century-old IRT subway kiosk on Flatbush, Atlantic is gritty and quiet; businesses are a mix of Islamic bookstores and halal meat markets. At Third Ave., a bright, boxy Walgreens is a surprise. At the old Ex-Lax building, which houses co-op apartments with terraces and roof gardens, the feeling changes, and purple signs proclaim "Discover Atlantic Avenue."

There's a pervasive sense of nostalgia as you pass places named A Matter of Time, Circa, In Days of Old, Olde Good Things, Time Trader and Breukelen, a gift shop with the borough's 17th-century Dutch name. David Marshall's business is booming at the Antique Room because Victorian furniture is in style. Marshall, who has lived above his palatial showroom for 30 years, says people have always headed to Brooklyn's antiques row for discounts. "They still feel like they're going to find bargains," he says.

On a sunny Sunday, as young couples browse among his brass beds and Italian crystal chandeliers, Dany Williams watches the world from a tapestry-covered stool outside his shop on the block - from Bond to Hoyt Sts. - that's most densely packed with antiques stores. People used to come to Atlantic Ave. with a single purpose, he says: antiques. Current customers have a different experience in mind. "There's a boutique-y, SoHo thing going on now."

 

The new lineup

 

Boutiques and antique shops

 

  • Antique Room, 412 Atlantic Ave., (718) 875-7084. "La cr de la cr of Victoriana" is how David Marshall describes his museum-quality 19th-century furniture. Be sure to check out the elegant garden.

     

  • Breukelen, 369 Atlantic Ave., (718) 246-0024. Brooklyn artists are represented amid South African wooden bowls, hand-blown English glass, raku spheres and shag area rugs. "A lifestyle store" is owner Thomas Gibson's term for the space he shares with another discriminating gift shop, Bark.

     

  • butter, 407 Atlantic Ave., (718) 260-9033. Clothes by modern designers like Marc Jacobs and Martin Margiela. Sibling store of two sisters who also own jelly, 389 Atlantic Ave., (718) 858-8214.

     

  • Circa Antiques, 377 Atlantic Ave., (718) 596-1866. A good place to start searching for high-end 19th-century (mostly American) beds, tables, dressers, armoires and lighting, besides picking up a historical walking guide for Atlantic Ave.
  • A Cook's Companion, 152 Atlantic Ave., (718) 852-6901. Pots, pans, gadgets and cookbooks. After Labor Day, it's moving to 197 Atlantic Ave.

     

  • Dany, 358 Atlantic Ave., (718) 237-0710. A colorful mix of styles and objets d'art.

     

  • darr, 360 Atlantic Ave., (718) 797-9733. A former buyer for the Japanese department store Takashimaya, Hicham Benmira, has stocked his small store with Asian-styled tabletop and home accessories. A shop called sir, at the same address, showcases designer Joanna Baum's deconstructed clothes; (718) 643-6877.

     

  • Melting Pot, 492 Atlantic Ave., (718) 596-6849. Handmade batik, done on the premises, decorates pillows, scarves, tote bags and baby quilts.

     

  • Rico, 372 and 384 Atlantic Ave., (718) 797-2077. An art gallery at one address, a sleek, contemplative home-furnishings store at the other, both overseen by designer Rico Espinet.

     

  • Scarlet Ginger, 376 Atlantic Ave., (718) 852-8205. Remodeled vintage clothing and hand-painted furniture made by a clever Englishwoman named Charlie Smith. Dress, shoes and jewelry rentals are in the works.

     

  • Silver Tao, 394 Atlantic Ave., (718) 422-7700. An offshoot of Kimera Designs (366 Atlantic); Suzan Silver's pillows, purses and wall hangings are custom-made from ethereal, exotic Indian and Chinese fabrics.

    Restaurants and bars

     

  • Bacchus, 409 Atlantic Ave., (718) 852-1572. New French restaurant and wine bar with garden. Decorative touches: an antique grape press, wine-bottling apparatus and a wide-planked pine floor. On the menu: terrines, boudin, steak tartare and coq au vin. Cash only.

     

  • Brawta Caribbean Cafe, 347 Atlantic Ave., (718) 855-5515. Still drawing a crowd after 10 years, for things like pan-fried porgy, jerk chicken and conch roti with plantains, steamed cabbage and rice and peas. Try sorrel, sea moss and peanut punch.

     

  • Caravan Restaurant, 193 Atlantic Ave., (718) 488-7111. Moroccan, Middle Eastern and French dishes, with $15 dinner prix fixes of shish kebabs, tagines, curries and couscous.

     

  • Downtown Atlantic, 364 Atlantic Ave., (718) 852-9945. Four-month-old restaurant offering American-style steaks and seafood. Cheesecake, cookies, cupcakes and tarts are baked in-house. Weekend brunch, live jazz Friday nights.

     

  • Flying Saucer, 494 Atlantic Ave., (718) 522-1383. Located on a quiet block, this is a comfy hangout with a garden for reading, meeting friends or unwinding over tea and coffee drinks, grilled sandwiches, soups, salads and quiche.

     

  • Magnetic Field, 97 Atlantic Ave., (718) 834-0064. Free (for the moment) jukebox, live music Saturdays. Deejays Monday, Thursday, Friday, late Saturday. Brooklyn beers, $2 until 8 p.m. Sunday, then $3. Zany UFO wallpaper.

     

  • Meson Flamenco, 135 Atlantic Ave., (718) 625-7177. Tapas, steamed mussels and seafood paella at a convivial bar for sangria-sipping and listening to live music Fridays; flamenco dancing some Saturdays.

     

  • Montero Bar & Grill, 73 Atlantic Ave., (718) 624-9799. A legendary gathering place.

     

  • Moroccan Star Restaurant, 148 Atlantic Ave., (718) 643-0800. A mix of Moroccan, Middle Eastern and French food that includes lamb couscous and pastilla (phyllo stuffed with chicken, raisins, almonds and walnuts).

     

  • Peter's Waterfront Ale House, 155 Atlantic Ave., (718) 522-3794. The Kobe-beef burger is a popular special, along with ribs, French-fried onion rings and a long list of brews.

     

  • Stir It Up, 514 Atlantic Ave., (718) 643-3716. Homey new West Indian restaurant.

     

  • Shinjuku Japanese Restaurant, 177 Atlantic Ave., (718) 935-1300. Modern sushi bar with dining area and tsunami rooms that opened their doors July 4. Kitchen-made hibachi and a "love boat" loaded with maki, sushi and sashimi are specials.

     

  • Soul Spot, 302 Atlantic Ave., (718) 596-9933. Tiny place for big appetites craving Southern-fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, fish and grits, fried catfish, oxtail and curry goat. For dessert, there's coconut cake, bread pudding and peach cobbler.

    Specialty food shops

     

  • Damascus Breads and Pastry, 195 Atlantic Ave., (718) 625-7070. Pita bread, pyramid bread, spinach pies and zaatar bread are all made at this 72-year-old bakery.

     

  • Heights Chateau Wines, 123 Atlantic Ave., (718) 330-0963. Recently moved to this more spacious, stylish store.

     

  • Sahadi Importing Co., 187 Atlantic Ave., 624-4550. Superbly stocked with gourmet ingredients, Middle Eastern foods and condiments.

    Events

     

  • Atlantic Antic, Sunday, Sept. 21, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.: Annual street fair, now in its 28th year.

     

  • Brooklyn Historic Railway Association: Explore the hidden depths. Tour an early rail tunnel under Atlantic Ave. It dates from 1844 and was rediscovered by Brooklyn archeologist Robert Diamond. For information and September tour dates, call (718) 941-3160.

    Getting there

     

  • Subways

    A, C, G to Hoyt St.
    F to Bergen or Jay St.
    4, 5 to Nevins St. or Borough Hall
    2, 3 to Hoyt St.



     

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