Watching the NYC marathon in Brooklyn – 2016 edition

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“What’s good?” – this post tries to answer that

(NOTE: originally published in 2016, this guide has been reviewed and updated for 2017, with closings and changes in hours noted. Stay tuned for the all-new 2017 edition. 2017 IS NOW UP!)

Less than three weeks until race day on November 6!

If you’re running, this is high-anxiety time, when every training sin (workouts missed, long runs bailed on) comes back to haunt you; when thoughts of everything that could possibly go wrong run through your mind in a continuous loop (you fall off a stool while reaching for a high shelf and twist your ankle, you miss a connecting flight and are stranded in Atlanta, you contract food poisoning the night before the race); when your interpersonal relationships are strained by this obsession of yours that no one who’s not running quite understands.

But if you’re spectating along the course, as I will be this year, this is a fun time. Instead of visualizing the long climb up the Queensboro Bridge, you can visualize brunch spots; instead of obsessing over those twinges in your left calf, you can obsess over finding the best tacos in Sunset Park; instead of planning your best race, you can plan your best race day.

Last year’s guide was pretty popular, and I’ve gone through and made some quick updates and corrections to keep it useful for 2016. But because it was so much fun to do the research, I’ve been back out there running the marathon’s route through Brooklyn (in nice, manageable segments). In the process, I’ve found a whole bunch of additional places worth checking out.

So, here it is – the all-new 2016 edition of one Brooklyn runner’s totally idiosyncratic guide to where to eat, and what to do, along the NYC marathon course. 

What you need to know about the course (and the race)

First, some basics – especially for out-of-town visitors, but also for New Yorkers who haven’t run or watched the marathon before. Spectators are not allowed at the staging area on Staten Island, nor on the Verrazano bridge, where the race begins. That means your first opportunity to see runners is just after Mile 2, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The next 11 miles of the 26.2-mile course are all in Brooklyn. It’s the most miles runners will log in any of the five boroughs, and in my highly biased opinion, the best place to view the race and cheer. The scene along the course is crowded, joyful and raucous, and the cheering is highly personal. I can attest from experience that the runners will hear you, and love you.

What about cheering outside of Brooklyn, you ask? Continue on to Long Island City, Queens, if you want – a dead zone when I first ran the marathon in 2005, it’s now a lively send-off for runners as they head to the Queensboro Bridge – but avoid the crowds on First and Fifth avenues in Manhattan below 96th Street. Between the ungodly commotion and the tunnel vision that runners tend to develop in the later stages of a marathon, no one will see or hear you there. If you are a kindly soul who is determined to lift runners’ flagging spirits and spur on their tired and cramp-racked legs, better spots would be the far northern reaches of First Avenue; the Bronx; or the area around Marcus Garvey park in Harlem.

But honestly, you owe it to yourself to catch at least some of the race in Brooklyn.

You can find a wealth of resources to plan your day at the TCS NYC marathon website, including a course map and information geared specifically toward spectators. To plot transportation from one spot along the course to another, the MTA has a super-helpful “trip planner” tool. (For the Brooklyn section of the course, the R and G are your go-to trains.) Familiarize yourself with the different start times for the professional women, main field (including the professional men), and subsequent waves to estimate when which runners will be getting to which miles. And while it may be tempting to station yourself near a mile marker, it’s best not to: there’s a lot going on around there (fluid stations, port-a-johns, runners checking their watches), so runners will not be able to fully soak in and appreciate your cheers.

A couple of final logistical notes. If you’re cheering for an individual runner, it’s important to know not only which wave they’re in, but also their color-coded start (blue/green/orange). For the first eight miles of the race, runners in the different starts will be running slightly different routes (until the 5K mark, in the case of the green start) and/or on different sides of wide, divided Fourth Avenue. You’ll want to position yourself accordingly, since crossing the street during the race will be either outright impossible or just a Very Very Bad Idea.  Hence the slightly clunky convention adopted in this post of identifying locations by color (blue/green/orange) or side of street (left/right, in the direction of race traffic). If you need to get from one side of the course to another, your best bet is to use the subway (either wasting a swipe to cut through a station, or crossing over at your next stop). Note, though, that some stations are not be configured to allow this.

Also note that the miles in this guide to Brooklyn neighborhoods refer to mile markers. For example, “Mile 2” is the point two miles from the start; you could argue, correctly, that this really means the start of the third mile, but that becomes cumbersome and confusing. I have also taken some liberties with neighborhood definitions, extending Sunset Park north and Park Slope south to eliminate the no man’s land between them.

So now: on your mark . . .

Bay Ridge (mile markers 2-4)

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Time to slow down.

Bay Ridge is the first place where spectators can see the race. Last year, I discouraged readers from cheering here for a couple of reasons. As anyone who has ever run the marathon will tell you, runners’ adrenaline levels are sky-high at this point. The starting congestion has eased, the long downhill off the bridge makes you feel as though you’re flying, and then, all of a sudden, you’re the object of cheers from an adoring crowd.

The result? Your race plan goes out the window, you run way too fast, and you provoke the wrath of the Marathon Gods, who will smite you for your hubris. Seriously, people, if you yell anything at all to runners in Bay Ridge, it should be, “Slow down, dummy!”

But the other reason I slighted this section of the course was its lack of interesting places to duck into for a quick bite on a Sunday morning. (There’s great Middle Eastern food in the neighborhood, but it’s mostly up on Fifth Avenue, and many establishments don’t open until noonish.) I’m taking that back this year. While I’d still encourage spectators not to contribute to runners’ self-destruction by cheering too wildly, if you do want to catch runners coming off the bridge, you now have a great place to rest, warm up and refuel. It’s called The Coop, and it’s on the Orange side of Fourth Avenue at 95th Street (hard by the R train).

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Fall: season of sunflowers, pumpkin spice and the NYC Marathon

When I stopped by the other morning, an artist was busy decorating the windows with pumpkins and artfully drooping sunflowers.  A chalkboard outside promised pumpkin waffles, while a sign in the window assured anyone who cared, “Breastfeeding welcome here.” Inside was blond wood, local artwork tastefully displayed ($55 for a small mounted print), free wifi, stroller parking, a children’s play area beneath a colorful graffiti backdrop . . . along with La Colombe coffee, pastries from Colson, and great, inventive food.

This is where to go if you’re a homesick Australian looking for a flat white; or a homesick Vietnamese in need of an iced coffee fix; or a homesick Spaniard longing for cafe bombón and fresh orange juice from a Zumex machine; or anyone with a hankering for shakshuka, avocado toast or the aforementioned pumpkin waffles. (I devoured the last while gazing covetously at the people next to me, who were eating the second.)

Too precious for you, you say? You’re a misanthrope who hates babies? Your tastes are simpler, more old school? Then head next door to the Fort Hamilton Diner, the oldest of old school joints, dishing up classic Greek diner food 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s an ATM on the premises, but you probably won’t need it, seeing as how their breakfast special (eggs, home fries, toast, coffee and juice) will set you back all of $3.95 ($5.50 with bacon or ham).

On the Blue side of the street, your best bet is still the Cocoa Grinder (described in last year’s guide), at 86th Street. I would note that their “Ultimate Green Juice” now includes spirulina as well as kale.

Runners from the Green start join the Blue and Orange runners at Bay Ridge Parkway (the equivalent of 75th Street). A few blocks farther south, between Bay Ridge Avenue and 68th Street (on the Orange side of Fourth Avenue), another old school, 24-hour diner beckons. The Emphasis Restaurant‘s eclectic menu extends from eggs Benedict to huevos rancheros, and from Roumanian steak and eggs to the ever-popular hot dog and eggs; a pile of Greek-language newspapers stacked on the window ledge serves as a badge of authenticity.

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Bay Ridge moderne at Grately Hall apartments (82nd/83rd)

While in Bay Ridge, be sure to admire the grand apartment buildings along Fourth Avenue, built in a variety of styles, from Art Deco to Romanesque to Tudor (a bit of an anachronism, but never mind). And if you don’t mind stepping off the course for a bit, the residential streets that cross the avenue in the 70s are lined with impressive limestone townhouses.

The Bay Ridge list:
The Coop, 9504 Fourth Ave (7 am-10 pm Sundays)
Fort Hamilton Diner, 9502 Fourth Ave (24 hours)
Cocoa Grinder, 8521 Fourth Ave (8 am-9 pm Sundays)
Emphasis Restaurant, 6822 Fourth Ave (24 hours)

Sunset Park (mile markers 4-6)

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Celebrating Sunset Park’s strength and diversity (the food’s not bad, either)

Sunset Park is one of my favorite eating neighborhoods in Brooklyn. If I weren’t committed to joining teammates farther along the course, this is where I would start out watching the race, hands down. Runners will have settled into a good rhythm by now, the crowds are enthusiastic but not overwhelming (it should be easy to get a front-row spot), and your food and drink options are plentiful, varied and delicious.

Fourth Avenue between 60th Street and the low 30s is heavily Latino – primarily Mexican, but with Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador all represented as well. In addition to the spots featured in last year’s guide, consider the following:

Alimentos Saludables (that’s the name, though the description “Mexican Grill” is what you’ll see on the awning), between 59th and 60th on the Blue/Green side of the avenue, drew me in with the promise of mixiote de borrego. Alas, they were out. (“We had it yesterday,” I was told. “Today, no.”) But you might have better luck in the slow-cooked lamb department, and if not, you can always fall back on tamales (rajas, verdes, de mole, oaxaqueños or dulces), which they will make into a sandwich for you (torta de tamal) if you want to carbo load like a marathoner. They also have a full menu of saludable (and not-so-saludable) Mexican breakfasts, antojitos and lunches/dinners. Seating is a narrow counter and a handful of tables; decor is soccer trophies, a jukebox and a display of religious articles.

A block north (between 58th and 59th), also on the Blue/Green side, the Mug Cafe (2017 UPDATE: now CLOSED, lamentably) looks like a standard-issue coffeehouse-cum-diner – and, mostly, it is. You can get your standard coffee drinks and smoothies here, your standard bagels and breakfast pastries, your standard egg dishes, your standard salads, sandwiches, wraps and burgers. But you can also get Honduran tamales. “What makes a tamal Honduran?” I asked the kid working the counter. “I don’t know,” he told me, sheepishly. “You’d have to ask my mom. But they’re really good. We wrap them in the green things, not the beige things.”

It looked as though I was just going to have to try one.

The verdict? I’m pleased to report that Honduran tamales are substantial logs of creamy masa, steamed in banana leaves (aka “the green things”) with a promising leakage of juices through the folds of the aluminum foil in which they’re cooked and served. These are not tamales you can eat out of hand on the go. You’ll need to sit down with a fork (or a spoon – we’re talking soft polenta texture here) and dig in. The filling is essentially a pork stew – gently spiced but savory, with chunks of meat, potatoes, chickpeas and finely diced green chiles. All this for $2.50.

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Conveniently located by the N/R (just don’t pull a Rosie Ruiz)

Crossing the street now (which this blog can do, though you can’t on race day), Las Rosas Bakery on the Orange side is a busy, 24-hour spot, directly by the 59th Street N/R station. It’s more than a bakery. In addition to conchas, flan and tres leches cake, they also dish up breakfast plates, tortas (the rolls are especially good, which is perhaps not surprising in a bakery), tacos, Salvadoran pupusas and fruit milk shakes (batidos).  They’ll make you an espresso, too, if you need a shot of caffeine to keep up with the runners.

Isabela’s (between 44th and 45th on the Orange side) is another good bet – not just for their tacos and other food offerings, but for their fresh juices (get the green one, if they have it). You can eat inside (they have an actual dining room, not just a counter), or maximize your race-viewing time by grabbing something from their utterly charming takeout window.

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Isabela’s juice-centric carry out operation

Inés Bakery (between 35th and 36th, Orange side) offers even more elaborately-decorated cakes than Las Rosas. Like Las Rosas, it’s conveniently located on top of an express subway station. And like Las Rosas, its bakery business shares space with a full-fledged lunch counter serving delicious Salvadoran pupusas, along with Mexican tortas and cemitas, tacos, sopes and more. All that, plus ethereal doughnuts and pan dulce; tres leches cake oozing milk; and celebratory cakes for every occasion. Need one topped with a bikini-clad doll, palm tree, fruity tropical drink and a champagne bottles? Inés can set you up.

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A cake from Ines Bakery

I don’t pretend to have done an exhaustive study of Fourth Avenue’s Mexican and Central American bakeries, lunch counters and restaurants – much less those in the even denser business district on Fifth Avenue, a long block to the east – so I won’t claim that these are the best Mexican places on the avenue. They’re just the ones that appealed most to me. Honestly, with so many choices, you can’t go wrong by checking out storefronts (specialties are often hand-lettered on poster board in the window) and following your own instincts.

Mexican and Central American food is not your only option, of course. If it’s Puerto Rican or Dominican chow you’re hankering for, consider La Fe (corner of 36th Street on the Blue/Green side) for soupy, stewy comida criolla. Their sancocho de gallina is an essay in the possibilities of starch, combining carrots, plantains, corn and yucca with generous hunks of chicken in a restorative broth (rice is optional, and served on the side). Seafood, roast chicken/pork, and various rice dishes round out the menu.

For Ecuadorian food, my go-to is still La Reina de la Nube (between 34th and 35th, Orange side), described in last year’s guide. At the time, I’d had only their juices (on hot days) and morocho (on cold ones). I’ve since had opportunities to sample their food – most notably, their mote pillo (hominy loosely held together by scrambled eggs, served – as are virtually all of la Reina’s desayunos – with chewy grilled steak) and their homey Ecuadorian tamales (filled with shredded chicken and peas, corn and perfect cubes of carrots, straight from the freezer just like Grandma’s – because, be honest, isn’t that what your grandma used?). I have yet to make much of a dent in their selection of Ecuadorian sweet rolls. Less of a bakery/breakfast spot, and more of a regular restaurant, is Mi Castillo Ecuatoriano (between 43rd and 44th, Orange side). There’s considerable overlap between its menu and la Reina’s, but you can get some dishes here that you won’t find down the street – most notably llapingachos (cakes of mashed potatoes and cheese, griddled until brown and crisp) and hornado (pork roasted until it’s falling apart, served with a piece of its crackling skin).

As long as we’re tarrying on this section of Fourth Avenue, I need to do a shout-out to Zona Sur (between 43rd and 44th, Orange side), also featured in last year’s guide. My fondness for holes-in-the-wall is evident, but sometimes even I would rather sit and relax in a pretty dining room where the tables are made of wood, not laminate; the napkins are cloth, not paper pulled in shreds from a dispenser; and the beverages on offer include an honest-to-God wine list. That’s Zona Sur. I’ve been there for dinner, for brunch and for the occasional nutella hot chocolate (a big dollop of nutella with steamed milk – don’t judge me), and have loved it more each time.

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Paracas, for pisco and parihuela

North of Sunset Park, in the no-man’s land known to realtors as “Green-Wood Heights,” Paracas (between 26th and 27th, Orange side) serves Peruvian standards – ceviche, anticuchos, grilled skirt steak, rotisserie chicken, the seafood stew called parihuela – along with excellent pisco sours and chilcanos (if you decide to hang around). Despite its artistic awning, it’s a modest spot – we’re back in hole-in-the-wall territory here. The staff couldn’t be friendlier, and if you’re interested in learning where to sign up for Quechua language lessons, or getting tips on upcoming Peruvian food festivals, or just want the low-down on Peru’s soccer team, then you’ve come to the right place. (2017 UPDATE: The awning now reads “Lima” in the same distinctive lettering as the former Paracas, and no longer alludes to pisco, but rather to ceviche. Not sure what’s going, but they’re still open for business as of October 2017.)

If for some unfathomable reason you want to take a break from cheering at this point and do a little sightseeing instead, Sunset Park offers several interesting detours. From the Blue/Green side of the street, walking up to Fifth Avenue between 41st and 44th will bring you to the small city park from which the neighborhood takes its name. Follow the winding stairs and paths to the top, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best views in the city: the distinctive St. Michael’s church and Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront in the foreground, the harbor beyond, and Manhattan shimmering to the north. Or wander lovely and historic Green-Wood Cemetery (once one of the nation’s leading tourist attractions). It’s accessible directly from Fourth Avenue between 34th and 35th streets, but that’s the service entrance. For the full effect, walk up to Fifth Avenue and 25th Street, and then continue uphill to the Gothic turrets of the cemetery’s main gate. (Keep an eye and ear out for the parrots that nest there.)

From the Orange side, a longer (and grittier) walk down 43rd street all the way to the waterfront will take you to newly-created Bush Terminal Piers Park, surrounded by interesting old commercial and industrial buildings and offering fantastic harbor views. Or head down 36th Street and explore the redeveloped area around Industry City, stretching from Third Avenue all the way to Second.

The Sunset Park list:
Alimentos Saludables, 5919 Fourth Ave (6 am-11 pm Sundays)
The Mug Café, 5811 Fourth Ave (8 am-6 pm Sundays) CLOSED
Las Rosas Bakery, 5824 Fourth Ave (24 hours)
Inés Bakery, 948 Fourth Ave (7 am-10 pm Sundays)
Isabela’s, 4412 Fourth Ave (11 am-11 pm Sundays)
La Fe Restaurant, 941 Fourth Ave (erratic hours, but should be open by mid-morning)
La Reina de la Nube, 928 Fourth Ave (no published hours, but open whenever I go by)
Mi Castillo Ecuatoriano, 4316 Fourth Ave (11 am-11 pm Sundays)
Zona Sur, 4314 Fourth Ave (9 am-4 pm Sundays)
Paracas Lima Peruvian Restaurant and Pisco Ceviche Bar, 782 Fourth Ave (11 am-9 pm Sundays)

Park Slope (mile markers 6-8)

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A typical morning along Fourth Avenue in the Slope

These are my stomping grounds, which may – somewhat perversely – explain why I have relatively few recommendations for this section of the course (especially in comparison to Sunset Park). It’s partly familiarity breeding, if not contempt, at least ennui; it’s also the fact that the neighborhood’s “restaurant row” on Fifth Avenue is a block closer to my apartment, and so my usual post-run refueling stops are all up there. Still, you needn’t go hungry on Fourth. Take a look at last year’s guide, and also consider these “new for 2016” suggestions.

Barrel & Fare (at 12th Street, Orange side) opened shortly before last year’s marathon. Put off by its hipster ampersand, I still have not gone there. (2017 UPDATE: I still haven’t.) I have, however, peeked in the window to see the interior (airy and charming) and read the menu (New American). Their brunch covers all the major Brownstone Brooklyn food groups: tweaked comfort food (mac & cheese fritters), fashionable vegetables (roasted beets, kale), luxe fries (truffle and parmesan), as well as standard egg dishes. And booze, of course. It has big windows facing Fourth Avenue, opening up the possibility of watching the runners in Wave 4 while eating lobster eggs Benedict and downing mimosas.

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Paris on Fourth Ave

I’m not sure why Olivier Bistro (between 11th and 12th, Blue/Green side) didn’t make last year’s guide; it’s an old favorite for dinner, and they also serve breakfast and lunch. In nice weather, the entire front of the restaurant rolls up so that the dining room is al fresco. Were it not for the bodegas, laundromats and tire shops that line Fourth Avenue, you would swear you were in Paris. No time to sit down? You can get a coffee, croissant and juice from their café window as you cheer on the French runners – who, by the way, make up the largest non-U.S. contingent in the event.

Another worthy place, just off the course on Douglass (Orange side), is Threes Brewing, a brewery/restaurant/coffee shop/community meeting place/entertainment venue. It’s a very Park Slope combination (and a favorite with local runners, I might add). Their coffee shop opens at 8 am, and serves pastries from Balthazar as well as excellent espresso. Brunch (and an intriguing selection of their own and others’ beers) is available starting at noon on Sundays. Threes has partnered with the Meat Hook – artisanal butchers from Williamsburg – so you know that when your cheeseburger or spicy merguez sausage still had four legs and a heartbeat, it grazed on local grass.

If you’re a history buff, you should know that some of the most intense fighting in the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War took place where the marathoners will be running. The 256 members of the First Maryland Regiment who gave their lives so that George Washington and the Continental Army could retreat were dumped by the British in a mass grave that’s believed to be just west of the course, around what is now Third Avenue and 8th Street. (There’s a mural in the vacant lot there, and a small plaque at the American Legion post on 9th Street.) A few blocks north (between 4th/3rd streets), on the other (Blue/Green) side of Fourth Avenue, Washington Park contains a reconstructed 1699 Dutch farmhouse -the “Old Stone House” – with a small museum. The park was the original home of the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers (later, just Dodgers) before they moved to a new ballfield on the Orange side of Fourth Avenue and, eventually, to Ebbets Field. (And then to Los Angeles, but we’re not going to talk about that.)

For a longer sightseeing stroll in the neighborhood, head east (toward the higher-numbered avenues) on any of the residential streets and admire the brownstone architecture. The buildings tend to become grander as you get closer to Prospect Park (five long blocks to the east).

The Park Slope list:
Barrel & Fare, 494 Fourth Ave (10:30 am-midnight Sundays)
Olivier Bistro, 469 Fourth Ave (7 am-10:30 pm Sundays)
Threes Brewing, 333 Douglass (8 am for coffee, noon for food/beer)

Fort Greene/Clinton Hill (mile markers 8-9)

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Beautiful, leafy Fort Greene

I’ve long contended that this is the prettiest section of the marathon course. It’s also the most intimate. After the runners zig left from wide, commercial Fourth Avenue onto wide, commercial Flatbush Avenue and then zag right around the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) onto Lafayette Avenue, the street becomes narrower and more residential. Between the turns and the narrowing of the street and the 8 mile marker and a fluid station and the merging together, at long last, of all three start colors, the area right around BAM is tricky for runners (collisions, or at least clipped heels and banged elbows, are not uncommon), and best avoided if you’re looking to cheer someone on.

A few blocks farther down Lafayette, however, is a great place to station yourself. Lafayette is lined with big trees and beautiful old brownstones, and the narrow sidewalks are filled with people from the neighborhood who’ve come out to watch the race. Kids hold out their hands to be slapped by runners, and the runners giddily oblige. It’s a giant love fest.

It’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat. On the right side of the street, facing S. Elliott Place (directly across from the small park called “Fowler Square,” even though it’s a triangle), The Smoke Joint dishes up very good barbecue with all the classic sides. I especially like their barbecued beans, which come loaded with pulled pork and chunks of sausage.

Just around the corner, on Lafayette itself, the Baba Cool Café epitomizes health conscious, artistic, environmentally aware, gentrified Brooklyn in a pretty-as-a-picture setting. I mentioned it in last year’s guide, based on a quick walk-by (or, in my case, a run-by). I’ve since gone back, and can report that it thoroughly satisfied my craving for hipster clichés. Come here for good coffee and a dragon fruit bowl with almond milk, bee pollen, cacao nibs, pepita and chia seeds and banana ($9.75, recommended to me by the earnest, curly-haired woman at the counter because “it’s good for energy” . . . did I really look that bad??), or one of their special stirato toasts ($7.75-$8.75). Stirato, for the uninitiated (that would be me), is like an Italian baguette, but less substantial – the two small pieces in my order were roughly the amount of bread I would absent-mindedly tear off a loaf and eat before the bakery door closed behind me. $8.75 for the toast; half a peach, sliced and roasted; a smear of goat cheese and a sprinkling of fresh thyme seemed a little steep to me, but what do I know? I’m not a hipster.

A few blocks east (at Adelphi), on the left side of Lafayette, is Olea Mediterranean Taverna. The menu here is pan-Mediterranean, borrowing from Spain (lots), Greece (lots), Italy and France (some) and North Africa and the Middle East (cilantro, merguez sausage and fattoush all show up for brunch). It’s a popular, crowded place at dinner, and I assume will be packed during Marathon Sunday brunch hours. But you can always leave your name, then watch the race as you wait. (Which you’d be doing anyway, right?)

On the right side of Lafayette, at the corner of grand, Choice Market offers coffee from Brooklyn Roasting Company, housemade pastries, breakfast dishes and inventive sandwiches and salads. It’s largely a takeout place, but there’s some seating at a rough-hewn wooden communal table inside.

In addition to its beautiful residential streets, sightseeing destinations in the neighborhood include Fort Greene Park (one long block north of Lafayette, from the left side of the course, between Fort Greene Place and Cumberland), where you’ll find a monument to the more than 11,000 Americans who died of hunger and disease on British prison ships during the Revolution, and the Pratt Institute campus (also a block north of Lafayette but a few blocks farther along the course; turn left on Washington or St. James and then right on Dekalb), home to the largest sculpture garden in NYC.

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Race day scripture on a Fort Greene church: “Behold I am coming quickly and my reward is with me” (Revelation 22:12)

The Fort Greene/Clinton Hill list:
The Smoke Joint, 87 S. Elliott Place (11 am-10 pm Sundays)
Baba Cool Café, 64B Lafayette (8 am-9pm Sundays)
Olea Mediterranean Taverna, 171 Lafayette (Sunday brunch served 10 am-4 pm, dinner 5 pm-11 pm)
Choice Market, 318 Lafayette (6 am-9 pm Sundays)

Bed-Stuy (mile markers 9-10)

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Me with the birds again; couldn’t resist this fine falcon

NYC neighborhood boundaries are fuzzy and mutable (and often fudged by realtors as areas fall in and out of favor), but most current maps use Classon Avenue – the marathon’s 9 mile mark – as Bed-Stuy’s western border. If you don’t notice much of a change at Classon, well, that’s probably because historic Bedford-Stuyvesant extended well into what is now called “Clinton Hill” – a neighborhood invented by realtors when “Bed-Stuy” and “Fort Greene” were, in the minds of many white people, scary places.

As the runners approach the left turn from Lafayette onto Bedford (two blocks past Classon), the crowds of spectators thin out. People who started too fast are beginning to regret their rashness at this point, while those who held back earlier are now passing others at a heady rate. For all these reasons, this a great place to watch the race and cheer. Runners will truly appreciate it.

I sang the praises of Dough doughnuts last year, and I’m going to repeat myself, because they really are that good. You can also find them at Dough’s second location in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, at Smorgasburg, at various food halls, and at coffee shops all over town, but why not go to the source? Station yourself at the corner of Lafayette and Franklin (on the right side of the course), look through the big glass windows to watch the bakers at work, then head inside to pick your flavor. (If it’s anything other than pumpkin puree with caramelized pumpkin seeds, don’t tell me.)

Did you miss the opportuity to sample the (sustainable, farm-to-table) fruits of gentrification at Baba Cool in Fort Greene? Well, you have another chance here in Bed-Stuy! Turn right on Bedford (just as the runners are turning left), and then go up a block toward Clifton Place, where you’ll find Stonefruit Espresso + Kitchen. Their “seasonal, curated” menu features Counter Culture coffee, all-day breakfast (including avocado toast for $8.50; $10.50 if you add a soft-boiled egg), grain bowls and soup.

Or you can continue another block, to Greene Avenue, and duck into Pilar Cuban Eatery for homestyle Cuban food. The decor will transport you to a beachside café, the croquetas are crisp outside and creamy within, and the Cuban sandwiches are terrific.

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Basket o’ rugelach

If you were to continue north along Bedford with the runners, the area after Myrtle Avenue becomes increasingly Orthodox Jewish. (Businesses there identify themselves as being in Williamsburg, not Bed-Stuy.) You can get kosher sushi at the new SushiKBar (between Willoughby and Myrtle, left side); kosher ice cream at The Ice Cream House (same block, right side); and kosher baked goods, smoked fish, salads and dairy goods (multiple places, often on side streets). I was especially impressed with the selection at the place on the northeast corner of Bedford and Lynch (which puts it squarely in South Williamsburg, but I’m including it here for convenience). It had no name that I could see, but it’s hard to miss: just look for the sharply-angled, sand-colored building. Inside you’ll find big baskets of rugelach, classic black & white cookies (also available in pink & white), babka, poppy seed logs and lots of other treats . . . including something that looked an awful lot like whoopie pie. Items are sold by weight. (A single rugelach set me back 49 cents.)

If you’re interested in sightseeing in Bed-Stuy, then instead of following the runners north on Bedford, continue east on Lafayette to Marcy Avenue. If you then walk south (right) on Marcy, passing Herbert Von King Park and cultural center, you’ll see some fine churches and, between Madison and Putnam, the imposing 1891 Boys’ High School. The entire area between Bedford and Tompkins (to the west and east) and Monroe and Fulton (north and south) is a historic district, home to some of Brooklyn’s most striking 19th century architecture.

The Bed-Stuy list:
Dough, 448 Lafayette (6 am-9 pm Sundays)
Stonefruit Espresso + Kitchen, 1058 Bedford (8:30 am-6:00 pm Sundays)
Pilar Cuban Eatery, 397 Greene Ave (11 am-11 pm Sundays)
SushiKBar, 888 Bedford (10:30 am-midnight Sundays)
The Ice Cream House, 873 Bedford (10:30 am-midnight Sundays)

Williamsburg (mile markers 10-12)

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Ah, Williamsburg!

I’m working on my aversion toward Williamsburg, I really am. I ran two races there this summer, and had a great time at both (even as I made gentle fun of the post-race cold-brew coffee and artisanal pop tarts). But it’s too young and too hip to ever really be my kind of place, so if this section seems a bit rushed, forgive me.

On neighborhood maps, Flushing Avenue marks Williamsburg’s southern frontier. As I discovered on my exploratory runs, Hasidic Williamsburg starts even farther south – around Bedford and Myrtle – while Hipster Williamsburg starts farther north. At Bedford and Broadway, to be precise, where the domed Williamsburgh Savings Bank (the bank kept its terminal “h” after the neighborhood shed its) holds court to the east and the Williamsburg Bridge looms overhead to the north.

This is where kosher bakeries become gourmet markets, pharmacies become apothecaries and schuls make way for yoga studios. And it’s where you, if you’re so inclined, can sample some of the best Neapolitan-style pizza in the city, at Motorino (across Broadway, on the right side of Bedford).

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Williamsburg, land of brunch

On the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge, between S. 4th and S. 3rd, a couple of appealing brunch spots beckon from the left side of the course. The Rabbithole offers brunch standards and not-so-standards and (this drew my attention) “boozy chai” (chai, amaretto, spiced rum and cream). SIMPLE (the caps are the restaurant’s) dishes up French and Algerian-influenced breakfasts by day (and Vietnamese food by night, for a more complete French colonialist experience). Unusually for Brooklyn, they also offer a brunch buffet (a deal at $15, coffee and orange juice included).

Heading north along the course, the food and drink options become so dense on both sides of Bedford (as well as on cross streets like Grand and N. 5th through N. 7th), that no guide is needed. If you can’t find someplace to eat around here, I really can’t help you. Around N. 10th Street, the restaurants and other businesses begin to thin out as Bedford becomes more residential, and at N. 12th, cuts through McCarren Park. Next stop: Greenpoint.

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Race-inappropriate street art along the course

Should you choose to tarry in Williamsburg, there are plenty of opportunities to spend your money – vintage stores, fancy food stores, kitchen supply stores, chic clothing stores, all hip and artful and mostly local, abound on Bedford and its cross streets. And even I, no lover of Williamsburg, have to admit that it has pretty awesome street art. You’ll see some great examples right along the course, and still more if you wander nearby streets in either direction. For the best view of the neighborhood, head to its namesake bridge. Access to the Williamsburg Bridge walkway is tucked away under the bridge, off the left side of Bedford between S. 6th and S. 5th.  Climb up the ramp and take in the view from the span – or, what the hell, walk all the way to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Pedestrians have one side of the bridge, cyclists the other, with separate entrances and limited opportunities to cross over. For safety’s sake, please don’t get on the bike side.)

The Williamsburg list:
Motorino Pizzeria Napoletana, 139 Broadway (11:30 am-11:30 pm Sundays)
Rabbithole, 352 Bedford (9 am-11 pm Sundays)
SIMPLE, 346 Bedford (10 am-8 pm Sundays)

Greenpoint (mile marker 12 to the halfway point)

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Manhattan Avenue, *not* on Marathon Day

The Brooklyn portion of the marathon course – and with it, this post – is drawing to an end. After McCarren Park, the runners turn left from Bedford onto Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue; from there, it’s only about a mile until they pass the halfway point and then head over the Pulaski Bridge and into Queens.

For runners, this is time to take stock (am I on pace? can I sustain this? what the hell am I doing to myself?) as they prepare for the toughest part of the race. For spectators, this is also time to take stock, as in: what else do I want to eat?

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The view from Frankel’s

If what you want to eat is classic NYC deli food, Frankel’s occupies the triangle bounded by Bedford, Nassau and Manhattan avenues (on the right side of the course). It’s new (opened this past spring), but designed to look old, with family photos on the walls and signage in retro fonts.  The menu mixes meat and dairy, so you can have your pastrami and latkes with sour cream and applesauce, too. There’s also smoked fish – nova, sable, sturgeon – and even a Gray’s Papaya-esque “recession special” (two hot dogs and a soda for $7).  One of the two young brothers who owns the place is a musician, and that shows in an eclectic playlist which, the day I was there, included Fleetwood Mac, Simon and Garfunkle, and Van Morrison. Big windows looking out on Bedford mean you can watch the race as you eat.

If Frankel’s is New Greenpoint, the Manhattan 3 Decker diner (at Norman, on the left side of the course) is Old Greenpoint. The menu is vast, as a diner menu should be, and the interior is classic: a long counter with swivel chairs, with booths flanking the windows that look out on Manhattan Avenue.

Polka Dot Café (between Norman and Meserole, right side) falls somewhere in between. It’s a Polish restaurant (Old Greenpoint) with a coffee and tea takeaway window (New Greenpoint), packed, the day I was there, with a mix of hipsters and neighborhood old-timers. Its origins as a meat market show – there is a bewildering array of smoked pork products on offer – but some of its tastiest offerings are vegetarian, from pierogi with sauerkraut and mushrooms to zucchini pancakes. Great desserts, too, made in-house by a trio of middle-aged Polish women who are largely self-taught cooks.

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Polish pancakes at the utterly charming Polka Dot Cafe

If you keep walking on Manhattan Avenue after the runners turn toward McGuiness and the Pulaski Bridge, the neighborhood gradually turns more residential. It’s like a less frenetic version of Williamsburg, narrow old frame buildings mixed in with former factories and warehouses, interspersed with small restaurants and cafés. The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit industrial developer, has renovated the neglected building at the end of the street to house 75 small business tenants. Beyond that lies Newtown Creek – a notoriously polluted industrial  waterway that is, nonetheless, home to a new NYC park called the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Go ahead and explore the park; or just lean over the railing, take in the views of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings across the way, and feel very glad you’re not running 26.2 miles today.

The Greenpoint list:
Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing, 631 Manhattan Ave (8 am-4 pm Sundays)
Manhattan 3 Decker, 695 Manhattan Ave (6 am-9:30 pm Sundays)
Polka Dot Café, 726 Manhattan Ave (8 am-8 pm Sundays)

. . . 

Hope everyone – marathoners and spectators alike – has a great day in all five boroughs on Marathon Sunday. (Even though we all know the Brooklyn part will be the best.) If you do stop by any of the places mentioned in this post, I’d love to hear about your experience in the “Comments” section. Or add your own recommendations – I’d love to hear about them as well.

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2 thoughts on “Watching the NYC marathon in Brooklyn – 2016 edition

  1. Pingback: An eater’s guide to the NYC marathon course – 2017 edition | Not another Brooklyn blog

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