Eugenia Borkowski at Olaf's, men's vintage, on Court Street near 4th Place.
Photo by Joshua Kristal
Is Court the new Smith? Certainly, it’s the new hot spot.
Court Street, just two years ago a sleepy strip of Italian food shops and stores run by elderly individuals selling fancy Easter dresses and faded house coats, has undergone a fast and furious renaissance. Almost overnight, an invasion of boutiques, trendy cafes, groceries and restaurants has blasted fresh air from one far end of Court to the next, transforming the street into a place to be, and be seen, in South Brooklyn.
For more than a decade, Smith Street was the prime location for dining and going out in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill. Now, locals, food tourists and, most notably, scenesters — beards, tats, tiny jeans and all — are heading to Court.
“Everything cool is moving down Court. The hipsters have migrated,” said Lauren Jaffe, 23, who lives in Bushwick and works at Olive’s Very Vintage, near 2nd Place, and Olaf’s, a brand new vintage men’s shop near 4th Place, at the Carroll Gardens end of Court Street.
Jaffe lived in Manhattan before moving to Bushwick. She’s now looking for an apartment in Carroll Gardens.
“We’ve made our way over here. It’s all in this neighborhood. I love it. I know a lot of people who want to live in this area,” Jaffe said.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the nexus of the universe.”
Jaffe renovates vintage bikes and furniture, and says she’s in love with Black Gold, the record/coffee/antique store near Prime Meats that is decorated with taxidermy, including a prize-winning stuffed hyena, and feels like an homage to Jack White.
“I love Frankie’s, love Prime Meats. Abilene is great,” Jaffe says. “I just want to live here.”
Call me crazy but when I moved to Carroll Gardens nearly five years ago, I would not have guessed Court Street would attract young, stylish kids.
Why so much change, so fast? I ask Lynne Guillot-Marquet. Lynne and her husband, the French pastry chef, Jean-Pierre, were pioneers on Smith Street, opening Marquet-Patisserie pastry and coffee shop in 1988 before trendy restaurants existed in Brooklyn. At the time, Court Street landlords didn’t want restaurants, because they were worried about grease, Lynne said. In 1993, Marquet-Patisserie moved to Court and Warren for what Lynn says is an ideal “foot traffic” location.
Suddenly, a spurt of restaurants in opening around the bakery.
“We’re going through a renaissance,” Lynne said. “We are Williamsburg with strollers.”
Back in the fall of 2008, a string of closings around Marquet — including Miriam’s, Margaret Palca Bakes and Jill’s, the vegan café, among many others — got folks worried. The economic crash made it feel like the sky was falling and the shuttered stores made the street feel bleak. What would happen to Court?
Fretting was unnecessary. Watty and Meg was the first to dive in, opening a beautiful wooden bar and restaurant at Kane and Court in early 2009, in the large and lovely old Caffe Carciofo space. Then came Café Pedlar, the coffee shop selling the Stumptown line, at Court and Warren. The shop, with its rich, Viennese style drinks, quickly became a gathering spot in the neighborhood, and a magnet for visitors. Following suit was Karloff, a café/coffee shop owned by a young Russian couple, and Strong Place, a bar and restaurant that draws a heavy after-work crowd, across from Cobble Hill Cinema. Brucie, an Italian restaurant in the old Cube 63 space, opened in late 2010 with a taste of the Williamsburg-vibe on the Cobble Hill end of Court.
And now, two guys from Chapel Hill, N.C., a laid-off architect and a musician/chef, are opening a sandwich shop at Court and Baltic that’s hoping to capitalize on the new vibe.
Owner Jacob Van Horn (right, above) was an architect for the massive SOM firm until he was laid off during the crash. The 36-year-old was living in Williamsburg, and decided to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. He partnered with his childhood friend from Chapel Hill, chef Rick Hauchman (left, above), who’s worked at the celebrated Roberta’s, in Bushwick, as well as The Commodore.
Van Horn and Hauchman have been obsessing over details for months at what will, by early February, be the Van Horn Sandwich Shop, featuring meticulously sanded wood floors, exposed brick walls and a tin ceiling.
They’ll serve pulled pork and a fried chicken sandwich, and other Southern-inspired light meals.
When Hauchman found out I had a child, he eagerly asked what kind of stuff kids want.
“We want to be kid friendly,” Van Horn said. They got excited about juice boxes, and straws.
“It’ll be affordable, simple comfort food. As local as we can get, and clean,” Van Horn says. The recipes are “old family” ones, he says. Eventually, the idea is to have a place open all the time, where folks can go in the morning for coffee and biscuits, and come back at night for drinks. Hauchman is a musician who’s played in a lot of bands, and there might be live music.
“I was the oldest person in Williamsburg,” Van Horn said. “I decided that I wanted to live in this neighborhood for a long time, and to be a part of it,” he says. “I’d like to maybe raise a family here.”
Indeed, a desire for family life and the economic bust seem to have much to do with the happenings on Court.
Sosie Hublitz, the owner of Watty and Meg, came to Brooklyn from Richmond, Va., where she owned a famous restaurant downtown, Millie’s Diner. She’s a single mom.
“I have a 10-year-old daughter. I wanted her to grow up in New York, to have a nice neighborhood and a nice home. The schools here are great. I moved here for her.”
Business is good, but tough.
“I think that Court Street is beautiful, filled with the lost Old World charm of New York and Brooklyn. The restaurants that have opened here, we have something in common, we want to cater to residents. The neighborhood has upped its game. People want quality food in a place that is comfortable for them, that is more sophisticated. There was an idea that higher rents could be pulled, and then the recession hit, and you don’t see the kind of spending you would have thought a few years ago. People are conscientious of how they spend their money. Expense accounts for eating out aren’t what they used to be.
“This is a family neighborhood, people go home and get up and go to work in the city. The streets aren’t bustling like in Manhattan until 2 a.m. There’s not a bustling lunch crowd. Frankies and Prime Meats do such a beautiful job, and they’re even slow for lunch. Lunch is a challenge.”
Hublitz will close for lunch through February, and then reopen the patio for outdoor seating.
Despite worries, new competition on the block is good, many say.
“I love to see quality restaurants popping up. I wish us strength in numbers,” Hublitz says.
“It’s better than the alternative,” says David O’Keefe, owner of the popular Layla Jones Pizzeria on Court, between Warren and Baltic. “I’d rather have the foot traffic and new restaurants, than restaurants closed for business.”
The momentum is promising. Of course, folks worry that what happened on Smith will happen on Court. On Smith Street, it was very inexpensive to rent spaces when Patois and a host of others opened in the early 1990s. Now, rents are high. Court proprietors hope the same doesn’t happen to them.
“I’d hate for landlords to jack up the rent and want to get a Starbucks in here. I really hope it stays small and simple and artsy. It would be cool if the landlords could be particular in who they rent to, to keep the neighborhood growing the way it’s growing,” said Jen McCullough, the owner of Olaf’s and Olive’s Very Vintage on the southern end of Court.
Olive’s has been open for 10 years. McCullough said she noticed the momentum of the hipster invasion on the southern end of Court, and pounced. She opened Olaf’s a week before Christmas 2010. It caters to the uber-cool men who frequent the area.
Plenty of fashion and food writers have commented on the Wes-Anderson-esque, hipster-turn-of-the-century vibe that invaded the Carroll Gardens end of Court Street when Prime Meats took over in 2009, along with Buttermilk Channel across the street.
Last year, a number of shops followed the buzz, with openings including: Olaf’s, Brooklyn Grocery, a well-loved gourmet food shop, Black Gold and Ruby Moriarty, a dressmaker who opened up in 2009 and carries Japanese bags, kids pajamas, ties for women, Indian bedspreads and other stuff.
“It started with a few little places. I think we’re feeding off each other. As the hipsters moved in, people started to see what could happen. It’s inevitable that it keeps growing, until Red Hook and Court Street meet in one big incredible bustling neighborhood,” McCullough said.
Cozbi Cabrera opened her shop on Court, featuring her handmade dolls collected by Oprah, and her own children and women’s clothing line, in 2004. Cabrera says that, back then, running a business on southern Court “was the feeling of being the only flag on a lunar surface.”
Now, crowds of people hang about waiting for tables at Prime Meats/Buttermilk Channel/Frankie’s 457, and shops like Cozbi say they are busiest between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
“There’s a spillover. When you go to those places, and there’s a two-hour wait, what are people going to do? They want to walk around and shop,” McCullough says.
Of course, there’s more. I forgot to mention the organic burger joint, Moo Burger Barn (is that a gross name for a burger joint?) opening soon on Cobble Hill’s Court, in the old Peking 2 location, and the shop, Store 518, selected by the mucho-popular blogger Lauren Sherman, of Fashionista, for the shopping blog Racked, as a “hidden gem” for NYC shopping… and the spot down on Court lower, Palo Cortado, near Nelson, that’s supposed to have insane Sangria…. (In other words, time to get a sitter and hit Court Street people!)
Places to hit on Court Street:
Watty and Meg
248 Court Street
S 10-4,5-10 | M-F 10-10 | Sa 10-4,5-11
234 Court Street
254 Court Street
Van Horn Sandwich Shop
231 Court Street
453 Court Street
no website yet
465 Court Street
S-Th 7am-1am | F-Sa 7am-2am
457 Court Street
S-Th 11am-11pm | F-Sa 11am-12am
524 Court Street
Sun to Wed 5 p.m.-10 p.m. | Th-Sa 5pm-12am
520 Court Street