Welcome to Meatopia! On Williamsburg’s blossoming carnal id
On a typical evening in South Williamsburg, you’ll see a half-dozen black town cars pulled up outside Peter Luger Steak House on Broadway at the shoulder of the Williamsburg Bridge, along with the odd Range Rover from which a business guy in a button-down shirt guides a woman in heels down from the leathery back seat, punching text into his BlackBerry with one thumb and using the other to steer her, by the small of her back, into the restaurant.
A few doors down and across the street, a younger clientele files into Marlow & Sons for Brick Chicken sandwiches and ribbons of fleshy prosciutto piled on small plates, and into Marlow & Daughters, its sister butcher shop, where whole animals from local farms in the Hudson Valley are butchered into old-school style hunks and laid down under display glass.
Next door, 30-somethings linger on the rickety red-painted wooden benches outside of Diner, waiting for a table in the refurbished 1920’s boxcar diner where they will feast on pork chops and steaks paired with beet greens and scallions.
A bit east of here on South 4th Street, just under the shadow of the BQE overpass, and not far from fried chicken temple Pies 'n' Thighs, Jason Marcus, a chef who honed his skills at Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park, is running his recently opened Traif—Hebrew for “non-Kosher”—and is serving plates of smoked pork belly, braised short rib sliders, braised Berkshire pork cheeks a l’ancienne and sauteed sweatbreads to a crowd of locals lined up on bright-orange colored cushioned stools at a long bar and gathered at delicate round tables on the brick-floored patio in the back of the restaurant.
Around the corner, on South 6th Street between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street, the whole street smells like smoked meat, thanks to Fatty ‘Cue, which uses giant Ole Hickory smokers to slow-roast every animal from pigs to fish.
Meat is having a moment in Williamsburg, where a critical mass of restaurant-going locals (and a lesser number of reverse-commuting Manhattan foodies) seems to be immune to the greens-and-beans trend that Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman cultists have beamed across the city for the past few years.
“There are a lot of meatheads,” said Zak Pelaccio, the chef at Fatty ‘Cue, about his neighborhood.
Pelaccio, a French Culinary Institute graduate, built the beginnings of his South Williamsburg following while working with local meats and specialized ingredients at Chickenbone Cafe. The sandwich bar morphed into a gourmet destination on the ground floor of a South 4th Street building that also houses a rehearsal space for bands (Dram, a haute mixer-bar, now sits in its space). He said it wasn’t by design that he ended up back in Williamsburg after working some of Manhattan’s most well-trafficked multi-star restaurants, including French Laundry, Daniel and Union Pacific.
In 2008, Pellaccio said, “a former manager of 5 Ninth had a buddy that had a bar that was running into the ground. And he said, ‘My buddy wants to get rid of this bar, maybe you could do something with it.’ So my partner Rick [Camac] and I came and checked it out and we said, ‘Huh, this could be cool.’”
He was standing with Robbie Richter, his pit master, in the back room of Fatty ’Cue, between weathered walls and exposed brick trucked in from Pellaccio’s upstate farm—a space designed by his wife, Jori Emde. “So I called Robbie and I said, ‘Are you ready?’”
Richter, a Queens native who has competed at hundreds of BBQ competitions across the country, was working the smokers at Hill Country at the time. “And he said ‘Yeah I’m ready,’” Pelaccio said.
Fatty ’Cue’s opening was stalled for a year because Pelaccio was preoccupied with opening the Upper West Side outpost of Fatty Crab. Then Fatty ’Cue’s construction permits needed to be renewed, which took months to arrange.
By March 23, they opened the doors to the three-level restaurant with warm, dark-wood paneling and cooper walls. The team plans on continuing to add on to the place, starting with turning a concrete slab in the back into a place for family-style barbecues, with buckets of PBR and skewered whole pigs rotating over coals.
Meat is back in style everywhere at the moment, but nowhere else in the city has an entire restaurant-neighborhood so completely embraced the slaughterhouse as Williamsburg has. It’s the steakhouse-and-barbecue religion elevated to self-consciousness, and, right now, Williamsburg is its Canterbury.
Arguably Williamsburg as a meat-destination neighborhood is also old news. Peter Luger’s was built in 1885, six years before the Williamsburg bridge was constructed, and when the waterfront was bustling with breweries, sugar factories and shipyards. Irish, Austrian and German immigrants congregated in the neighborhood. One of them was Carl Luger, who opened up a saloon on Broadway, by the waterfront. He called it Carl Luger’s Cafe, Billiards and Bowling Alley.
Once the bridge was built, the steakhouse became a regular destination for Wall Street executives, a way to unwind with beer and whiskey and carnage at the end of their workweek.
Sol Forman, one of the steakhouse’s frequent customers, owned a metal giftware factory across the street from Luger’s, and he did all of his business lunches and dinners there. When the original Peter Luger (who would sample every steak dismissed by his clientele and then typically refuse to serve up another one) died in 1941, the restaurant declined. The neighborhood filled up with Hasidic Jews, whose kosher rules forbade the eating of Luger’s special buttery steaks, and his son was forced to shut the restaurant down in 1950.
Forman, who had been eating at Luger’s for 25 years, wanted to keep the restaurant open for his business lunches. He was the only bidder when the restaurant was sold off, and he re-opened it with air-conditioning, Luger-branded credit cards and fish on the menu (bold moves at the time). A rave review from Craig Claibourne in the Times pumped traffic into the newly opened restaurant, and suddenly visiting the neighborhood from Manhattan—even if it were only a matter of taking a cab to Luger’s and back—became a trendy thing.
As Betty Fussell wrote in Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, the dinners at places like Peter Luger’s were meant to hearken to “a communal feast celebrating superabundance and topsy-turvy, as in Roman Staurnalia or the medieval Land of Cockaigne, where nuns go bottoms up, servants beat their masters, the world flips upside down, and skies rain cheeses and pies and everything your animal gut desires.”
That strain of Gargantuan carnivorousness survives in places like Fatty ’Cue. It also survives in Diner, which Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow developed and opened 12 years ago, and which has since spawned a whole family of like-minded restaurants in the neighborhood.
"I don't think we had any grand vision of changing the neighborhood," Tarlow told Bon Appetit last year. "You could stand outside the restaurant in those days and not see a single person walk by. But we fed the neighborhood—all these people like us who lived in lofts without kitchens."
Diner’s direct farm-to-restaurant sourcing started when Tarlow’s father-in-law began organic farming in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“He introduced us to the community of Amish farmers there, and suddenly we really had access to better product,” former Diner chef Caroline Fidanza told Thoughts on the Table before leaving Diner last summer to start a simpler, less fleshy menu of sandwiches at Saltie with two former Diner and Marlow friends.
Diner, and its spinoffs Marlow & Sons and Bonita, always paid lots of attention to organic vegetables and local and seasonal green fare. But the idea of applying the same standard to meat quickly followed. Tarlow and Firth’s restaurants put an emphasis on their “whole animal” program, based on a belief that a restaurateur and his staff should know exactly where their animals were coming from, and how to cut, prepare and cook every part of a cow, a pig or a chicken.
Marlow & Daughters, the latest outgrowth of the Diner genome, is the sourcing hub for the cluster of restaurants. Each animal comes in whole, and then is butchered and labeled with hand-written signs so the butcher knows which farm it came from and when it was procured. Beef is aged for at least three weeks and then placed under a display so customers can stroll amongst the steaks and chops nestled next to shanks, tails, neck and marrow bones.
Former Diner cook Stephen Tanner left to found the original Pies 'n' Thighs under the Williamsburg bridge, and he now serves meaty bar-food fare at The Commodore on Metropolitan Avenue. Tom Mylan, who previously ran the counter at Marlow & Daughters, recruited Marlow friends Brent Young and Ben Turley to start The Meat Hook, his own butcher shop further north in Brooklyn, a few blocks from McCarren Park on Frost Street. The chefs collaborate on events, have relationships with the same farmers and eat at each other’s restaurants, including Fatty ’Cue. And it’s at Fatty ’Cue that that return to the “Land of Cockaigne” aesthetic is most completely articulated.
“Pig head is very exciting for me,” Richter said. “Not a lot of restaurants, period, have that available in numbers on a routine basis and people are excited about it. Especially after they’re done, you’ll see guests take the skin, because it’s barbequed so slow and low it’s kind of inedible. So they will actually put the skin on their face.”
“That’s so Texas Chainsaw,” said Pelaccio.
At this point, the aesthetic at Fatty ‘Cue has solidified into one that decisively gets away from dominant Manhattan food fashions.
“From what I’ve experienced with Zak is he’d rather we didn’t go so far like into the Asian menu,” said Steve Harritopolous, ’Cue’s chef de cuisine. The Sheepshead Bay native grew up in a Greek family and has been turning pigs roasting over coals since he was five years old. He tells me Pelaccio gave him and Richter a "blueprint" for Southeast Asian-style barbeque, but also encourage him to "cook from the heart. “I tried a few dishes where I went into a Japanese realm with a cow head, and they were good, but he basically told me don’t go there.”
There are the obvious reasons that a homey bbq joint in Williamsburg is getting buzz and business over some of the city spots: standing out is difficult in Manhattan, especially with barbecue, of which there are so many mediocre practitioners in that nevertheless have the loyalty of their neighborhoods.
"It's like a grungy bar-be-que joint, but we didn't fabricate it," Pelaccio said. "It's not contrived."
But there are practical reasons, also, that create the conditions for ambitious meat menus along the Williamsburg waterfront. It’s both distant and central, across a bridge from downtown Manhattan, giving it the logistical advantages of a neighborhood far from The City while happening to be one of the City’s hippest neighborhoods.
Williamsburg also provides chefs what it’s been providing a generation of the city’s artists, designers, writers and musicians: low rent, minimal red tape, easy access to the city (and the client base there), and perhaps most of all an encampment point just outside the castle walls, where the rules aren’t as strict and the behaviors aren’t set in stone.
“You don’t have a 12-story building-you-have-to-worry-about kind of thing,” Richter explained. Building giant vents to carry the smoke up and away from neighbors isn't as difficult when the structures are squat and in a commercial district. “You look at two popular barbecue restaurants [in the city]: Dinosaur, they’re up in Harlem by the shore. That’s by design, I’m sure. You look at Daisy Mae Bar-Be-Que, they’re on 11th Avenue and 46th Street in the middle of nowhere. It’s difficult to build something in the middle of the city.”
But if Williamsburg isn’t the “middle of the city,” it’s a neighborhood that can support a thriving restaurant culture on its own—whether people travel to eat there or not.
“I think it would be inaccurate to say Brooklynites are less cynical than Manhattanites. I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Pelaccio. “We get a lot of people who come from Manhattan who come here. There’s no real difference between people who come from Manhattan and people who come from Brooklyn. It’s just younger people who have less money.”
He also said, “In Brooklyn, it’s fun. There’s possibility. It has always been like that, back when I worked at the Chickenbone. It was on the vanguard of the food movement and the trends in New York and it was really pushing the limits. New things could happen out here. The same restrictions that you had in Manhattan don’t exist out here.”
“Maybe it’s just that, you know, the buildings aren’t as tall,” he said. “So you see the sky so you have hope, you know?”