With the Williamsburg Bridge spilling into its streets and the BQE bordering its eastern edge, you might expect South Billy to be both noisy and congested. What you’ll find, however, is a surprisingly tranquil, family-oriented neighborhood. The cool-seekers of North Williamsburg are largely absent from this area sandwiched between Grand Street and Division Avenue. So too are the tourists. Spanish signs hang from the storefront shops operated by the community’s many Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants near the Marcy Avenue subway station, while a burgeoning population of Hasidim, first to remake the neighborhood, also call it home. Less gentrified and more affordable than the North side, much of the area retains a modest, middle-class vibe.
At least for the moment. “Our customers are evolving and changing,” says Andrew Tarlow, who with business partner Mark Firth owns side-by-side culinary mainstays Diner Restaurant and Marlow & Sons. From his perch at Broadway and Berry, he has seen a transformation. Across the street stands the Gretsch Building, a former guitar factory that was converted a few years ago into 130 loft condos. And the French Second Empire–style landmark on Broadway and Bedford that once contained the Kings County Savings Bank now houses the vanguard Williamsburg Art & Historical Center.
Ambitious day-trippers might elect to spend 40 scenic minutes trekking across the Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side. Otherwise, take the J, M, Z line to the Marcy Avenue station, near the corner of Broadway and Havemeyer Street. Go west on Broadway, and turn right onto Driggs Avenue. Make another right on South 5th Street, and you’ll enter theContinental Army Plaza, presided over by a bronze George Washington on horseback. Big with in-line skaters, the park has plenty of benches for weary little wanderers. After they’ve recharged, lead them across the street to the La Guardia Playground.
Hungry? Continue along Driggs and turn right onto Broadway. Marlow & Sons has charcuterie and cheese plates, quiche and chicken liver pâté for lunch. Breakfast and tea are served all day. Up front, you can grab baked goods and salads to go or specialty groceries from Italy and England. In the rear, relax at picnic-style benches suited to little ones’ casual dining habits. Next door, Diner, carved out of a 1920s Kullman Diner car, serves grass-fed-beef burgers, omelettes and chocolate sandwiches, along with Rusty Nails, wine and beer. Both spots have outdoor seating.
If you’re pushing a stroller, you’ll appreciate the ramp leading up to Vinny’s Gourmet (35 Broadway between Kent and Wythe Aves, 718-218-9272). Vinny’s offers healthy, Italian-style sandwiches, burgers and organic egg concoctions. There are a few tables outside and many more in the roomy, spotless indoor dining area.
As local moms will tell you, the area could use a few more boutiques. One worth visiting, especially if you’re into inspired, way-out jewelry (gold vampire-fang rings, sterling earthworm bracelets), is Bittersweets (37 Broadway between Kent and Wythe Aves, 718-218-8595). The shop also carries Princess Fancypants and Donovan Smith and offers jewelry-making classes. Tots will love Ferdinand, a Dutch rabbit who has the run of the store. “He’s our petting zoo,” says owner Robin Adams.
Local resident Elizabeth admits she heads north of Grand Street to buy cooler clothes for her baby daughter. “This part of Williamsburg is less developed,” she says. “It’s going to take another year or two.” But Elizabeth and her husband, a painter named Eugene, don’t have far to go to enjoy the outdoors with their child. For that, there’s the Schaefer Esplanade, a public park at Schaefer Landing, on Kent Avenue at South 10th Street. Kids can practice their bike- and trike-riding skills on the boardwalk while parents take in the East River and Manhattan skyline views. Elizabeth is happy to see some notable new additions, like the Bridge Urban Winery (20 Broadway at Kent Ave, 718-384-2800), which specializes in New York whites and reds and, as accompaniments, marinated olives and tapas. She also appreciates how grown-up South Williamsburg is compared with the North. “It feels more sophisticated,” she says. Judging from the new parents and tykes filling up her building, it’s also just right for families. There’s a free neighborhood shuttle to various borough culture spots, including the Brooklyn Children's Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Prospect Park Zoo. Visit heartofbrooklyn.org for details.