One Brooklyn runner’s totally idiosyncratic spectator’s guide to the TCS New York City Marathon

Welcome to Brooklyn, baby.

Welcome to Brooklyn, baby.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Originally published in October 2015, this post has been updated to reflect business closings (a sad fact of life for restaurants everywhere, perhaps especially in gentrifying sections of Brooklyn) as of September 2018. 

This is for you, marathon spectators! Thanks for listening to our whining, humoring our obsession, pretending to understand our talk of intervals and tempo runs and split times and generally putting up with us throughout our months of training. As if all that isn’t enough, you’ve further agreed to stand outside for hours in whatever weather November 1 brings. Some of you have traveled long distances and invested significant sums of money to be here on marathon day.

You deserve the race of your life.

I’ve been a spectator along the marathon course about as many times as I’ve actually run the race, so I know a little bit about spectating. The main thing you need to know is that it’s great; prepare yourself for a wild, raucous, exciting time. It can also be a little tiring. It may be cold. Cheering for random strangers will leave you thirsty and hoarse. At some point, you will get hungry.

Since I’m a runner who gets cold and thirsty and hungry a lot, and who uses many of her runs to explore Brooklyn neighborhoods (including, of late, obsessively running portions of the marathon course), I can help. And I want to help, because your cheers are what make the New York City Marathon, in my biased opinion, the greatest race in the world.

You’ll find a ton of helpful information on the official marathon website (if you haven’t been checking it obsessively, your runner no doubt has) – course maps, starting times for the various waves, general advice. If you’ll be using public transportation to go from place to place along the course, the MTA trip planner tool can help you figure out travel times.

Beyond that, if you want a highly personal and idiosyncratic guide to where you can warm up, rest your feet and get something delicious to eat along the Brooklyn portion of the course – then read on.

(“Why just Brooklyn?” you may be asking. That’s part of “personal and idiosyncratic.” Plus, more of the 26.2 miles of the marathon course are in Brooklyn than in any other borough.)

So here goes . . .

Miles 2 to 6 – Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Greenwood Heights

Just after the 2-mile mark, runners come off the Verrazano Narrow bridge into Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood. Runners in the Blue and Orange starts continue onto 4th Avenue (Blue on the east side of the street, Orange on the west), while runners in the Green start do a bit of a detour through residential neighborhoods until they join the Blue runners at 4th Avenue and Bay Ridge Parkway, roughly 3.5 miles into the race.

Get your ma'amoul on!

Get your ma’amoul on.

Exciting as it is to welcome runners off the bridge, if I were cheering for someone in the Blue or Orange start, I’d station myself a bit farther down, around 86th Street . . . mainly because of my fondness for Karam (8519 4th Ave), one of many Middle Eastern restaurants in Bay Ridge. If your runner is in the first couple of waves and you’re not planning to stick around, you’re out of luck – Karam doesn’t open until 11:00. That may still be a bit early for one of their shawarma or sujuk (Lebanese sausage) sandwiches, but it’s never too early for ma’amoul. (2018 update: Karam opens for takeout early in the morning, so if you’re ready for shawarma or sujuk at that hour, they’ll be ready for you.)

Ma’amoul, for the uninitiated, are slightly crumbly cookies filled to bursting with walnuts, dates or (my favorite) pistachios. The pistachio filling here is a dense, intensely-flavored paste, almost like marzipan. (Karam is a few storefronts down from the northeast corner of 4th Ave and 86th St, which puts it on the Blue side of the avenue. Crossing the avenue during the race is a Very Bad Idea, so you’re going to have to pick a side and stick with it.)

If you’re craving something warm to drink, the Cocoa Grinder, next door to Karam at 8521 4th Ave, opens earlier (7:00 a.m.) and has coffee and hot chocolate. They also have smoothies and fresh juices, including – this is Brooklyn, after all – kale.  Kitty corner from Karam and the Cocoa Grinder (that is, on the Orange side of the street), you’ll find the enthusiastically-named Mocha Mocha Coffee at 8602 4th Ave. They’re also open bright and early.

Even the bread is happy at Amy's.

Even the bread is happy at Amy’s.

The next mile of the course is a bit of a dead zone, food-wise (though there are some beautiful old apartment buildings to admire). North of 68th Street, you’ll start seeing more Asian and Latino storefronts as the Bay Ridge neighborhood transitions into the neighborhood of Sunset Park. Sunset Park’s bustling Chinatown is a long hike off the course, along 7th and 8th Avenues, but 4th Avenue isn’t entirely devoid of bubble tea and Chinese pastries. Check out JW Golden (6017 4th Ave, between 60th and 61st) and Amy’s (2018 update: CLOSED). Both of these are on the Blue/Green side of the course (those two groups are running together by  this point) – but despair not, Orange spectators, your turn is coming.

She plans to be there on Marathon Sunday - with tamales.

She plans to be there Marathon Sunday, dishing up tamales (while they last).

Good Mexican food abounds between miles 4 and 6, with a smattering of Central and South American options. And not just in restaurants – you’ll also find sidewalk vendors (look for them by churches and major subway stops). The Sunday morning I ran this section of the course, parishioners at Iglesia la Luz del Mundo (4th Ave and 53rd St, Blue/Green side) were still setting up around 10:00, but judging by the tubs of curtido slaw and what looked to be a griddle, I’m thinking that Salvadoran pupusas were in the offing. And there’s almost always a woman selling tamales (verde, mole, rajas and oaxaqueños), along with warming arroz con leche and champurrado, outside St. Michael’s Church (the imposing building with the phallic steeple at 4th Ave and 42nd St, Orange side).

Another non-restaurant option is to venture inside one of the many “Grocery and Deli” or “Grocery Deli” or “Deli Grocery” establishments that line both sides of 4th Avenue. This is very much a New York thing; we call them bodegas, regardless of what they call themselves on their awnings. They look like small, shabby grocery stores, but they typically have a grill and, sometimes, a few tables or a counter in the back. They open early and stay open late, and you can always count on finding coffee and egg sandwiches on the menu. Along this stretch of the marathon course, many (if not most) also serve up tacos, tortas and other Mexican antojitos.

And by all means, check out bakeries. At the corner of 4th Avenue and 49th Street, on the east (Blue/Green) side of the course, Pariscien (4823 4th Ave) dishes up hearty breakfasts and Colombian specialties in addition to breads and sweets. Just look for the Eiffel tower on the awning – a sure-fire indicator of delicious empanadas and arepas within.

Dia de los Muertos at Don Paco Lopez.

Dia de los Muertos at Don Paco Lopez.

Another block down, on the same side of the avenue, Don Paco Lopez (4703 4th Ave) is worth a special visit – not just because it’s one of the oldest Mexican bakeries in New York City, but because the proprietors go all out for the Day of the Dead . . . which, this year (2018 NOTE: but not this year), coincides with marathon day. So pick up a sugar skull and some pan de muerto and hope that your marathoner doesn’t become one of the shuffling dead in the last miles of the race.  (The bakery closes at 1 pm on Sundays.)

As far as more traditional restaurants go, a few that I can vouch for either personally or by word of mouth are, heading north from just before the 5-mile mark:

  • Tacos El Bronco (4324 4th Ave at 44th, on the Orange side of the street) is locally famous for its tacos, and the hype is well-deserved. The extensive menu also includes plenty of non-taco offerings, like their delicious consomé de chivo – tender goat meat with garbanzos, potatoes and carrots in a flavorful broth, seasoned to your personal taste with onion, cilantro and lime, and served with warm tortillas on the side. And their chicken in pipián rojo, an occasional special, is a revelation. They open at 10:00 if you’re in the mood for a Mexican breakfast.
  • I challenge you to find a prettier storefront along 4th Avenue.

    I challenge you to find a prettier storefront along 4th Avenue.

    Café Zona Sur, three storefronts down from Tacos El Bronco at 4314 4th Ave, is a labor of love by a couple of restaurant workers who ventured out on their own, opening the kind of place they’d like to eat at…which also happens to be the kind of place I like to eat at. The menu is eclectic – fresh, local, organic, “New American” – and the space itself is hands down the most appealing on 4th Avenue. They serve Sunday brunch from 9:00 to 4:00.

  • Reina de la Nube, also on the Orange side of the course (922A 4th Ave, between 35th and 34th), serves Ecuadorian food. I go there for the delicious juices (try the naranjilla) and morocho, but I always see lots of other happy customers tucking into heaping plates of eggs, meat and maduros. (Can’t find their hours, but I run by there often, and I’ve never seen them closed during the day.)
  • Should lunchtime roll around while you’re hanging by the 6-mile mark, Taksim Square II (776 4th Ave at 26th St) opens at 11 am and offers Turkish food. I haven’t been myself, but hear good things about it. It, too, is on the Orange side of 4th Avenue. (UPDATE: I can now personally vouch for the deliciousness of their baba ghanouj and adana kebab with yogurt.) 

A couple of final tips. As you may have noticed, most of the cross streets on the long, 4th Avenue section of the course are numbered. The standard NYC street grid rule of thumb is that 20 blocks = 1 mile, making it easy to estimate distances (e.g., 53rd St. to 43rd St. is half a mile). If you’re using public transportation along this stretch, the R train is your friend. It runs under 4th avenue from 95th Street in Bay Ridge all the way to Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center.

Miles 6 to 8 – Park Slope and Flatbush Ave

Park Slope, where I live, is a delightful neighborhood – but you’d never know that from the vantage point of 4th Avenue, as low-rise storefronts give way to the ugly, towering condos that have gone up over the past decade.  The crowds around here are great, though, and it’s a fun place to watch the race. A long block uphill to the east, 5th Avenue is one of Brooklyn’s “restaurant rows,” with a dizzying number of places to eat, drink, and warm up. If you want to stay on the course, your options are fewer – but there are still some good ones.

Reyes Deli & Grocery, on 4th Avenue between 15th and 14th (Orange side), is one of those grocery/deli/bodegas I mentioned earlier. I’m singling it out because (1) it’s my go-to bodega and (2) its tacos have been acclaimed by the New York Times, so you don’t have to take just my word for how good they are. I always get the cecina – salty, chewy, intensely-flavored beef that’s somewhere between steak and jerky – with salsa roja and a guava juice from the cooler. There’s (limited) seating in the back. (UPDATE: In the time since this post originally appeared, they’ve added fresh-squeezed orange juice, aguas frescas and killer rice pudding to their menu. I can also attest to the excellence of their breakfast sandwiches.)

Saltfish and dumpling, breakfast of champions.

Saltfish and dumpling, breakfast of champions.

Brooklyn has lots of great West Indian food, but not, alas, along the marathon course. That makes the Bread Fruit Tree Café at the corner of 4th Avenue and 10th Street (Blue/Green side, covered in scaffolding) stand out. It’s mainly a coffee and smoothie place, but they also dish up Jamaican fare like saltfish with dumplings, and the staff are some of the nicest people in Brooklyn. Extra special bonus: if it’s a cold day, they keep the heat dialed up to tropical levels. (UPDATE: this establishment has since CLOSED – the second West Indian eatery at that corner to go under.)

Between the 7 and 8 mile marks (quickly, now, we still have lots of ground to cover!), options include Root Hill Café for coffee and pastries (262 4th Ave at Carroll St, Orange side); the Pickle Shack, where you can get your hipster on with local, artisanal “pickle-centric eats” (UPDATE: this location has CLOSED – and I would have thought artisanal pickles were a safe bet in the neighborhood); and Brownstone Bagel & Bread (671 Union, Blue/Green side of 4th Ave) for your basic bagels and sandwiches. And by the way – if you see my Prospect Park Track Club teammates cheering in front of Brownstone Bagel, be sure to tell them how awesome they are.

4th Avenue ends at Flatbush, where the runners do a couple of quick turns and the Orange start finally merges with Blue and Green around the 8 mile mark. This is, in my opinion, a terrible place to watch the race (though people do). Both 4th and Flatbush are wide avenues, which makes for an extremely wide intersection. Between that and the turns and the merging of all three starts and the upcoming mile marker and fluid station and the bottleneck when runners hit much-narrower Lafayette . . . you may or may not be able to spot your runner, but they will almost certainly not spot you.

Another public transportation note: just as the R train was your friend for the first 8 miles of the course, the G is your friend for miles 9-13 (or 15, if you want to continue into Queens). The easiest place to switch to the G is back at the 4th Ave/9th St station, which is served by both lines. (If you want to head on into Manhattan, you have many train options; check a map or the MTA trip planner for your specific destination.)

Miles 8 to 10 – Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant

Lafayette Avenue through Fort Greene and Clinton Hill is hands-down the prettiest section of the Brooklyn course (the blocks from S. Oxford to Grand are a designated historic district). The street is narrow, lined with big trees and beautiful brownstone buildings, and everyone and their kids and parents and in-laws has come out to cheer just for you. That’s how it feels to me when I run it, anyhow.

If you plan to watch the race here, it’s an opportunity to get up close and personal with the runners – but be prepared for crowds. Sidewalk space is much tighter than along 4th Avenue.

If the excitement gets to be too much, you can always duck in to Baba Cool Café (64B Lafayette between S. Elliot and S. Portland, on the right side of the street if you’re going in the direction of marathon traffic) to sample the tribal cuisine of Brooklyn hipsters: gluten-free granola; quinoa, chia seed and goji berry porridge; kale salad; beet and ricotta toast (and a lot of other things as well). On an ordinary day, rocking chairs in front invite you to sit and stay awhile . . . but I suspect that on marathon Sunday those chairs will either be stashed away, or taken by people who got there much earlier than you.

The venerable Pink Tea Cup in Fort Greene.

The venerable Pink Tea Cup, now in Fort Greene.

It’s impossible to overstate the passionate devotion people feel for the Pink Tea Cup (120 Lafayette at Cumberland, right side of Lafayette). I’ve witnessed strangers bonding over their shared grief at the 2010 closure of its longtime West Village location, and their shared joy when they learned it had finally resurfaced in Fort Greene. This is where you go for soulful Southern cooking in a homey setting. They start dishing up their famous chicken and waffles at 10:00 on Sundays.

It's always time to make the doughnuts at Dough.

It’s always time to make the doughnuts at Dough in Bed-Stuy.

For most of the runners I know, doughnuts are a primary food group. Your runner may not be able to indulge their doughnut cravings during the race, but you can – and there’s no better place to do that than Dough, just after the 9 mile mark (448 Lafayette at Franklin, on the right side of Lafayette). Check out the giant mixer, the plastic tubs filled with eggs, the bakers at work . . . and then go inside and check out today’s selection. These are rich, yeasty doughnuts with glazes in flavors like dulce de leche (with shaved almonds), passion fruit (with cocoa nibs) and hibiscus (with a spidery blossom attesting to its provenance). Best of all is the seasonal pumpkin puree with spiced pumpkin seeds.  I wish they would hand out little paper cups of that pumpkin puree to runners –  it’s way better than any energy gel (and why is pumpkin-flavored gel for fall marathons not a thing?).

Another long block and you’re at Bedford, where the runners take a left turn and head north again. While the Lafayette Avenue section of the course has lots of food and drink options (I’ve mentioned only a select few here), the offerings become sparser after the turn onto Bedford.

One standout is the Brooklyn Kolache Co (520 Dekalb, a couple of storefronts off the west – i.e., left, going in the direction of marathon traffic – side of Bedford). If you are Texan, you know what kolaches are (and if you are Czech, you know what koláče are): yeasted, lightly sweet, filled pastries of Central European origin. At the Brooklyn Kolache Co they come with traditional fillings, like apricot, as well as Brooklynized variants, like bacon, egg and cheese. All that, and locally-roasted coffee, too!

Should you have the urge to probe more deeply into hipster foodways (or, more accurately, hipster pro-biotic drinkways), there’s local kombucha on tap at the Colador Café (1000 Bedford between Lafayette and Dekalb, on the west/left side of street).

But what if it’s spiritual sustenance you need? The entire Brooklyn course is lined with houses of worship representing many faiths and denominations. I’m not religious myself, but when I ran this section of the course in training, the message of the Universal Outreach Ministries of Deliverance (963 Bedford) spoke to me:

IMG_3543 (2)

Here’s hoping that with more than 16 miles until the finish, your marathoner (and you) aren’t laboring too hard, or laden too heavily. Remember – this is still the fun part!

Miles 10 to 13.1 – Williamsburg and Greenpoint

According to the maps I consulted, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn begins when Bedford crosses Flushing, just before the 10-mile mark on the marathon course. But this is not the gentrified Williamsburg where bright young people with artistic temperaments draw down their trust funds to pay inflated rents. It’s gritty, and largely Hasidic. Cafés and restaurants are few – largely nonexistent, in fact.

The appetizing counter at Korn's is a riot of pastels.

The appetizing counter at Korn’s is a riot of pastels.

One exception is Korn’s Bakery (454 Bedford at S. 10th St, on the west – left – side of the street). This small storefront is part of a local mini-chain that serves various Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It’s kosher, of course (dairy). In addition to bread and pastries, they offer “appetizing” selections (lox, tuna salad, egg salad, gefilte fish, poached salmon) that can be made into sandwiches to carry out.

Around Broadway, gentrified Williamsburg starts to come into focus – subtly, at first, as street art replaces walls of advertising posters in Yiddish and then, around Grand, not so subtly. North of Grand, Bedford Avenue is a veritable explosion of fair trade coffee, carefully-curated vintage merchandise, and mindful locavore cuisine – all the signifiers of Brooklyn’s international brand. You really don’t need my help finding places to eat here, which is a good thing because (can I be totally honest?) gentrified Williamsburg annoys and (can I be even more totally honest?) intimidates me.

I’ll just note that in one short stretch between S. 4th and Grand, you can investigate “magicfood” (which turns out to be vaguely Turkish – who knew?) at Abracadabra (347 Bedford); sample “refined” French Algerian cuisine at Simple Café and Restaurant (346 Bedford); have some quinoa at Quinoa Kitchen (287 Bedford); and find out what a “robata grill” is while gently mocking hipster naming conventions at Salt+Charcoal (171 Grand, at Bedford – opens at noon). And that’s before you even get to North Williamsburg proper.

My curmudgeonly mutterings aside, Bedford Avenue from around the 11-mile mark to McCarren Park is, in many ways, an ideal place to watch and cheer. If you need a break, or find yourself with time to kill before heading to your next stop, you have more options here than just about anywhere else on the course.

And since I just realized that we’ve made it past 11 miles without a single mention of Brooklyn pizza, I’ll even offer one non-grudging, non-ironic recommendation: Fornino (2018 update: MOVED, but you can find another location along the course at 849 Manhattan Av in Greenpoint). You don’t need to be a trustafarian with a bad case of hipster attitude to enjoy their wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pies. In fact, it probably helps if you aren’t.

After N. 12th Street, Bedford cuts through McCarren Park; the 12-mile mark is just on the other side of the workaday park (think ballfields and a track, not trees and ponds), after which runners veer left onto Manhattan Avenue.

They (and you, if you’re following along) are now in Greenpoint, a historically Polish neighborhood. Some of that Polish flavor lingers on Manhattan Avenue’s commercial strip. Christina’s diner (853 Manhattan Ave between Noble and Milton, west/left side) is famous for its pierogi, borscht and heaping platters of kielbasa, bigos and stuffed cabbage. If you’d rather eat in a place where the entrance is flanked by two complete suits of armor (don’t ask me why, I’m just reporting), there’s Krolewskie Jadlo (694 Manhattan Ave just before Norman, east/right side; opens at noon).

Non-Polish options include the only Brooklyn outpost of Xi’an Famous Foods (648 Manhattan Ave, shortly after the turn from Bedford, east/right side; opens at noon), a Food Network favorite that has expanded from its original hole-in-the-wall location in Flushing, Queens. Get the spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles in soup and the tiger vegetable salad and thank me.

For pizza, there’s Fornino again – they have a Greenpoint location in the same block as Christina’s, at 849 Manhattan Ave – as well as many modest, local slice joints.  Some of these are better than others, and since I have no particular Greenpoint recommendations, my best advice is to stick your head in, see if it looks good, and if it does, give it a try. At worst, you’ll be out two or three bucks.

Just a typical afternoon at Peter Pan Donut.

Just a typical afternoon at Peter Pan Donut.

And, of course, there are always doughnuts (or donuts, if you prefer). Peter Pan Donut (727 Manhattan Ave between Norman and Meserole, west/left side of street) has a cult following, as evidenced by this paean in the Village Voice.  These are venerable, old-fashioned donuts – no passion fruit glaze, no cocoa nibs – and even though they’re not my personal favorites (that distinction goes to Dough, followed by Leske’s in Bay Ridge, which is quite close to the 5K mark on the Green marathon course), they’re delicious. So what if it’s afternoon? Peter Pan customers don’t care, and neither should you. It’s Marathon Sunday, and you still have a lot of cheering ahead of you.

By now, the runners are making their way to the halfway point on McGuinness Boulevard, and then on over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. Their time in Brooklyn is over.

And just think – later, when your marathoner is yammering on about their race (the fluid station collision at mile 8! that endless climb up the Queensboro Bridge between 15 and 16! and oh my God, the calf cramps that started at mile 23!), and they mention that Brooklyn was by far the best part of the course, you’ll be able to tell them:

“Yes, I know. It sure was.”

Have a great race, everyone, runners and spectators alike. And if you do follow up on any of the recommendations in this post, I’d love to hear about it in the Comments section. Feel free to share your own discoveries and recommendations as well.


7 thoughts on “One Brooklyn runner’s totally idiosyncratic spectator’s guide to the TCS New York City Marathon

  1. This is the most thorough spectator guide I’ve seen for the first half (Brooklyn) portion of NYCM. Thanks for putting together this amazing guide– and have a great race Sunday!


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