The best thing about hanging out in Bay Ridge is simple: water. With a winding harbor-front esplanade and a huge, uncrowded pier offering panoramic bay views, the neighborhood has some of the most peaceful waterfront property in the whole city. Even inland, the low buildings and family-centric streets make for a calm neighborhood that feels like a small town in this crazy city. A diverse mix of Italian, Irish, and Arab communities bring the perfect variety of shops, eateries, bars, and old-school Brooklyn that make Bay Ridge totally worth a ride on your bike or even the R train.
In a brunch-crazed city, it’s rare to find a well-reviewed restaurant that’s not mobbed with mimosa craving locals on weekend mornings. But that’s just what we discovered in Saint Germain’s, a quaint French bistro on Third Avenue, dubbed the “restaurant row” of Bay Ridge. Since opening in 2004, the eatery has found a dedicated following for its delicious French classics like croque monsieurs and steak with frites. They brunch special is $16.95 for one hot drink, one cold drink, an entrée and a dessert – a real bargain considering the portion sizes. The savory crepes, particularly the spinach and goat cheese, are mouthwatering, and the eggs Copenhagen with smoked salmon and hollandaise sauce is a nice departure from your normal eggs Benedict. Throughout the meal, it’s hard not to stare at the dessert case filled with fluffy chocolate croissants, fresh fruit tartlets, and golden crème brulees.
For you shopaholics, Bay Ridge boasts an impressive array of stores. The strip on 86th Street between 4th and 5th Avenues looks like an outdoor mall with stores like Gap, Claire’s and Nine West, but don’t avoid the stretch. Its anchored by the mother of all discount department stores: Century 21. Housed in a plain concrete box store, it’s not as glitzy as its sister in Manhattan, but it is way less touristy, which means you get the same deals without the same crowds.
If you’re more interested in specialty shops than digging through piles of designer duds, stick to Third Avenue. Classic Impressions, a gift shop that opened in 1987, is like an independent Hallmark, selling popular brands like Papyrus and Aromatique as well as local products. Aptly described by its owners as “curiously unique,” Hom offers tarot card readings, weekend brunch, Oprah-endorsed candles, wind chimes, antique lamps and more. It seems strange, but somehow the meshes and even manages to be quite relaxing. The BookMark Shoppe is a great local bookstore run by two best friends. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, the ladies are happy to order any title you like and have it for you within three days.
A number of gourmet food shops and small cafes also live along the bustling Third Avenue. The Family Store serves up wonderful Mediterranean cuisine. Owner and chef Sam Dabas has no formal training, but instead uses the recipes and techniques he learned from his mother. The in-store menu changes daily, and regulars rave about the crab cakes, lamb shanks and tabouleh. Up until last year, Robicelli’s operated a food market, too, but now they just sell their shining stars: cupcakes. We live in a cupcake obsessed world, and baking geniuses Matt and Allison Robicelli are only furthering the addiction with sweet and savory flavors like chicken and waffles, a vanilla waffle cake topped with buttermilk fried chicken, and The Elvis, a banana cake with peanut butter buttercream and brown sugar candied bacon.
Whether you decide to munch on hummus and pitas from the Family Store or indulge in a dozen Robicelli cupcakes, get it to go. Why sit inside when you can enjoy your food with a view? At 79th Street, there is a path through Shore Road Park that leads you over the Belt Parkway and onto the esplanade. Lined with benches, the vast walkway is a great place to feel the bay breeze and snap photos of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Downtown Manhattan skyline. Stroll north along the water to the 69th Street Pier, a popular spot for fishing and the location of Brooklyn’s 9/11 memorial. Just north of the pier is Owl’s Head Park, a peaceful patch of greenery with rolling hills that offer – you guessed it – lovely views of the harbor.
For a more serene place to enjoy the view, head to the northern most part of Shore Road Park. Here you’ll find the Narrows Botanical Gardens, a garden designed and cared for by Bay Ridge residents. In 1995, two life-long Bay Ridgers decided to reclaim the overgrown and neglected section of the park. Today, the enclave has a garden dedicated to plants native to New York, a turtle sanctuary, a butterfly garden, several different tree groves, and a lawn overlooking the bay. The lawn also hosts outdoor movie nights and an art series by Gallery 364.
Like many of Brooklyn’s outer neighborhoods, Bay Ridge was one of the first exclusive suburbs. A walk down Shore Road, where many of the mansions still stand, is like a lesson in architecture. While a large number of the wealthy homes were torn down in the 1940s to build apartment buildings, the street still has homes of every variety: from sprawling ranches hardly seen in the Big Apple and Victorians styles with corner towers and wrap around porches to stucco Spanish Colonial revivals and whimsical stone cottages.
You’re sure to be a bit warm after a walk on a hot summer day, but never fear — Bay Ridge has some of the best places to get your favorite cold delights. The rich, flavor-packed old school ice cream at Anopoli Ice Cream Parlor is like paradise in a bowl… or a float or a sundae or a shake. While they have a big, shaded backyard, sit inside at one of the bright green booths so you can savor every last bite without your frosty treat melting into a goopy mess. For a more traditional Brooklyn snack, head to Hinsch’s for an egg cream. At the 65-year-old establishment, they make their own chocolate, which they generously pour into the frothy beverage. Plus, in our Best of Brooklyn Egg Cream Bonanza, Hinsch’s came out on top, though it sadly closed after over 60 years in business.
But don’t spoil your appetite because the Bay Ridge has some of Brooklyn’s best kept secrets for dinner. In a neighborhood packed with Italian restaurants, Zio Toto stands out. This cozy place serves perfectly charred and chewy brick oven pizzas, and all your Roma favorites like gnocchi with fresh pesto. But the real gem on the menu is the Nutella Paradise dessert pizza. The menu at Casa Pepe, a thirty-year old establishment, offers authentic and creative Mexican and Spanish dishes created by two chefs – one from Mexico, the other Spain – who have been working together for four decades. For starters opt for the guacamole, prepared table side, and the grilled chorizo. As for entrees, the dishes inspired by both cuisines are preferable: the salmon in a spicy diablo sauce served with mussels, shrimp, and saffron rice, and the double cut pork chop grilled with ancho pepper adobo served with garlic laced mashed potatoes. Whatever you get, make sure to order a jug (or two!) of sangria for the table.
If you’re in the mood for a more laid back meal, Skinflints is the place to go. Lifelong fans of this place swear by the burgers, served on English muffins. The sandwich menu has your ordinary bread-and-meat options like a Reuben, French dip and BLT, but there’s something extraordinary in sitting at the bar, chomping on your fish sandwich and knowing that the guy next to you has been doing the exact same thing for most of his life. If a Bay Ridge crowd is what you desire, then hang around Skinflints and grab a few brews. One man, in between gulps of his beer, told us he hadn’t been to Manhattan in seven years! Crazy, perhaps, but it’s part of what makes Bay Ridge so lovable.
But for those who want to sip cocktails, Blue Zoo is Bay Ridge's hottest nightclub. This tribal-themed lounge filled with glowing fish tanks brings a city vibe to Third Avenue with pricey martinis and attractive bar tenders. You may have to wait behind the velvet rope to gain entrance on weekends, but that just makes it so much classier, right?
While the neighborhood lacks music venues, a few of the bars are good for live entertainment. The Kettle Black hosts different bands — local and national — every Saturday from 5-9pm, and the tiny Full Moon Saloon manages to squeeze a band into the corner every Friday. Full Moon is definitely popular among the locals, so even if you pop in and there's no band, stick around. There's some competitive dart playing and a nice backyard, plus, you might just find the entertainment you're looking for in the eccentrics chatting it up with the bartender.
This post was updated Spring 2012.