Deprivation is the mother of New York restaurant hype. Pies ’n’ Thighs, the city’s most eagerly awaited Southern-fried grease trap, has kept Williamsburg in Pavlovian limbo since the start of 2008, when its first incarnation—a drunk-food closet at the back of a bar—was shut down to prep for a more spacious and permanent home. Last month, after endless delays, it finally debuted in a former bodega near the Williamsburg Bridge.
The new version, run by the three chefs behind the original—Carolyn Bane, Erika Geldzahler and Sarah Buck, who met working at Diner—is a full-fledged restaurant with prompt, personable waiters and beer and wine service. Still, the place retains the DIY, seat-of-the-pants spirit of the dive that it sprang from, with food specials scrawled on sheets of paper, chairs and tables that might have been salvaged from a public school, and overhead lights so bright, dining there feels like sitting in detention.
The food, not the venue, is clearly the draw. While the down-and-dirty Southern fare—honest, cheap and often delicious—is certainly in line with Brooklyn’s all-American moment, it’s an audacious departure from the borough’s judiciously sourced, seasonally orthodox, self-righteously ethical ethos.
Yes, the chickens are antibiotic- and hormone-free, but you won’t find the name of the farm where they came from on the menu. The catfish, meanwhile, is a generic farmed product. The hot sauce is Frank’s Original RedHot—$3 a bottle at C-Town—the grits Quaker Instant, the pickles B&G deli classics.
As a result, Pies ’n’ Thighs feels as authentic as any venerable Dixieland food shack. While the sides and fried fish and fowl taste like they might have been passed down from mother to daughter (they weren’t; none of the partners are from the South), the leathery barbecued brisket and pork are in need of more tinkering. But the fried chicken—simply brined, floured and fried—is among the city’s most succulent, with a greaseless, extra-crispy crust. The fried catfish is also exceptional, coated in an expertly seasoned layer of cornmeal. These ladies may not be pitmasters, but they sure know their way around a fryer. Among the superlative sides, the baked beans—thick with molasses and studded with brisket scraps—and buttery cheddar-swirled grits are the standouts.
But perhaps the tastiest thing on the menu isn’t a meal or a side, but a snack: a classic buttery biscuit—a $5 handful—enclosing a small pounded chicken cutlet coated in an irresistibly trashy emulsion of honey-butter and hot sauce. It’s available daily starting at breakfast, when you’re more likely to find cops than hipsters among the early risers (at dinner, the pendulum swings in the other direction).
The pies that account as much as the chicken for the restaurant’s cult following are displayed in a glass case just under the register. These sweet classics—Nilla-wafer-studded banana cream, bitter chocolate pudding with whipped cream topping—are such old-fashioned American staples, you can picture Jerry Mathers’s Beaver swiping a slice from the window.
In the end, a good deal of the cooking lives up to the hype. But the sub-par barbecue and the setting—harsh lights and cramped seats don’t invite lingering—may leave you wondering if the buildup to opening might have been better spent. For now, the new Pies 'n’ Thighs, like the old one, might be best experienced as a takeout spot.
Drink this: Though the wine served in juice glasses is generically drinkable, the lemonade is just right—not too tart, not too sweet.
Eat this: Chicken biscuit, fried chicken, fried catfish, baked beans, banana cream pie
Sit here: While all seating’s the same here—uncomfortable, tight and brightly lit—on warm, sunny days, Washington Plaza, the park just around the corner, makes a fine spot for a Pies ’n’ Thighs picnic.
Conversation piece: The long slog en route to reopening—plagued with building-code violations, revolving-door landlords and exacting inspectors—might have sapped the resolve of a less tenacious crew.
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