I’m a self-confessed food junkie who has found culinary nirvana – a food truck meet-up without the trucks, a flea market for gourmands, a veritable feast of undeniable and delicious fun. No surprise, it’s in Williamsburg, a.k.a. hipster heaven.
Found in an open lot in Brooklyn’s East River State Park, Smorgasburg features stalls that offer some of the most inventive food in the city. It’s far from fancy, but no one seems to mind sitting on the grass or eating from plastic plates. The focus is the food. Add the party vibe, gossip-worthy people-watching and an expansive view of the Manhattan skyline, and you have an experience that threatens to become a habit.
Smorgasburg grew out of the popular Brooklyn Flea, the massive antique and vintage vendors market that still draws savvy shoppers looking for one-of-a-kind collectibles every weekend. The Flea’s popular food stands proliferated and then in 2011 hived off into a space of their own, continuing the same artisanal credo. Slowly word spread that there was some pretty adventurous food in an open field in Williamsburg and the current hotspot that is Smorgasburg was born. The New York Times calls it “the Woodstock of Eating.”
The food-stall vendors here are mostly independent entrepreneurs, the ingredients come from local producers and growers and the food is personal and innovative.
My daughter dragged me to Smorg the first time. “I hate to eat standing up!” I complained, but she’s a savvy Manhattanite, so I went along.
I’ve been fantasizing about the lemon ricotta fritters with rhubarb strawberry compote from Frittering Away ever since. The variety of adventurous food choices was almost dizzying: pork belly and brisket sandwiches from Mighty Quinn’s BBQ, lobster rolls from Red Hook Lobster, chicken and waffles from Buttermilk Channel, hibiscus and blood orange doughnuts from Dough, salty and sweet turkey legs from Crazy Legs.
The next time, I arrived promptly at 11, and lineups had already formed for some of the vendors. By 12:30 the area was seriously crowded, and the line in front of Mighty Quinn’s BBQ was maybe 30 people strong, stretching all the way to the water.
This time I fell for the grilled anchovies with pickled sweet peppers and smoked paprika mayo from Bon Chovie, and fried chicken and biscuits from Bee Hive Oven.
Molly Moker, a New York food blogger who lives in neighbouring Greenpoint, has been to Smorgasburg nearly every Saturday since it opened in May. “I’m obsessed,” she says. “It’s a great place to meet friends for a brunch, and you can try so many different kinds of food for less than $20.”
But she has some words of caution. “You have to have a strategy when you come to Smorg. I come early, usually with friends, and grab a bubble tea from Thirstea and then do a recon to see what vendors are there and what appeals.” Among her regular indulgences are pork buns – messy but seductive, with braised pork belly, cucumber, scallions, hoisin and pickled jalapeno – from Bite Size Kitchen, and the schnitzel sandwiches with pickled cucumber and daikon from Schnitz. “Another must-try is the Goodwich ice cream sandwich from Good Batch: an oat chocolate chunk cookie with drizzled fudge, sea salt and Blue Marble vanilla ice cream – fabulous.”
If you’re in a rush, you can get your Smorg fix to go. Several of the vendors sell take-home foods, condiments and whole desserts that would make a perfect dinner party finale.
Carolyn Sherman at ISH offers horseradish with ginger that would be delicious with cheese and buttered slices of French bread (might as well grab a loaf from Pain D’Avignon while you’re there). Anarchy in a Jar will supply you with wild blueberry jam with rum, juniper and anise, while Sunday Gravy will sell you a quart of, you guessed, gravy.
“I think the popularity of Smorgasburg lies in the quality of the vendors,” Moker says. “While there are close to a hundred vendors, it’s very competitive, so only the best get in. Eating outdoors, visiting your friends, enjoying the view from the mini beach or the pier on the East River – that’s great, but if the food wasn’t unique and spectacular, there would be no buzz.”
If you go, there are a few things to remember: Shade is sparse, you’ll find few places to sit down and most vendors only take cash (there is an ATM on site). The crowds can also be crushing.
But what is that when weighed against foie-gras beignets with Korean mountain berry jam, dusted with Nutella powder? Or mango lassi ice cream? A Salvadoran pupusa?
Come early. Come hungry. Come adventurous.
If you go
Smorgasburg runs on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Brooklyn. If you are coming from Manhattan, take the L Train to Bedford Avenue. Exit at North 7th Street, continue south on Bedford Avenue to North 6th Street. Take a right on North 6th Street. Pass Berry, then Wythe. Smorgasburg sits on the banks of the East River. It’s about a 15-minute trip from Union Square. 27 N 6th St. (between Wythe Ave and Kent Ave).
On Sundays, many of the same vendors set up at a second location in Dumbo (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.), at the Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s easier to get to from downtown, but not as cool. Find the Dumbo location at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Tobacco Warehouse, 30 Water Street, Brooklyn.
Where to stay
The 45-loft suite Box House Hotel has modern well-equipped kitchenettes, hardwood floors and original art. It is situated in a quiet neighbourhood, but surrounded by a multitude of dining options. The complementary taxi service provided by classic Checker cabs will drop you at Smorg, or you can walk there in 15 minutes. A loft suite (sleeps 4) runs $311 a night. Close to metro and free WiFi is available. 77 Box Street. Brooklyn, NY, 718-383-3800; theboxhousehotel.com
Smorgasburg will run until the weekend of Nov. 23, rain or shine. For more information visit smorgasburg.com.