Rosie Birkett samples Brooklyn's thriving brewing and dining scene as the borough sets out to claim Manhattan's crown.
It's 10am on Sunday in Williamsburg, and sleepy-eyed locals are swarming around the magnificent vintage counter at Diner (dinernyc.com), a neighbourhood favourite in a converted 1920s Kullmans dining car on the corner of Berry Street and Broadway. Inside the restaurant, which has been championing "locavore" fare for 14 years, 1960s Americana streams from the speakers, a waiter in hotpants and oversized hipster specs serves us Bloody Marys, and I'm about to take a bite of a juicy, grass-fed burger.
Since Diner opened in 1998, Brooklyn's food scene has grown exponentially, and now ranges from three Michelin stars at Brooklyn Fare to American-Asian sharing plates at Talde, progressive pizza at Roberta's, and rib-sticking southern barbecue at Fette Sau.
When I say I'm in New York mainly for a bite of the second borough, a well-respected New York chef quips, "We do have restaurants in Manhattan, too, you know". I can understand his exasperation: Brooklyn is rather hogging the culinary limelight. Of American food and entertaining magazine Bon Appetit's best new restaurants in the US in 2012, two (Blanca and Battersby) were in Brooklyn; none was from over the bridge.
It's not just restaurants that make Brooklyn a foodie destination. Its grassroots food culture takes in everything from street food - the brilliant Smorgasburg Sunday "flea food market", with stalls selling everything from oysters to beef jerky - to decent blue-collar bar food as seen at newbie Pork Slope (porkslopebrooklyn.com), and a local brewing scene.
As an American food obsessive, I jumped at the chance to join burger expert and craft beer nut Tom Byng on a "research tour" of the meaty, beery hotspots of Brooklyn.
"In the UK we've been drinking flavoured water for decades, thinking it was beer, but the Americans pack theirs full of flavour, which is great for burgers because the flavours stand up to it," says the restaurateur, whose regular research visits underpin the food and drink at his Byron burger chain in Britain.
"This is late for me," he says. "I've eaten a burger at 7am before now. When you do tours like this, you have to start early."
We're pleased with Diner's freshly ground, simple, but well-put-together burgers ($US14.50), which come with a molten slick of sharp American cheddar and a dwarfing mound of crunchy, skin-on fries.
"The pickled red onion is a nice touch, and the Yanks are way ahead of us on burger buns," says Byng, holding up a Jewish challah-style bun, golden and brioche-like in its sweetness and texture.
We're now interested in a noon tipple, and soon find ourselves in the midst of the tour crowds at Brooklyn Brewery. It supplies hip bars from Aberdeen in Scotland to London. It started in 1988, when founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter set about reviving Brooklyn's forgotten brewing past (before Prohibition, the borough boasted 48 breweries). I try the Fiat Lux Brewmaker Reserve, a one-off, small-batch beer flavoured with coriander and lime peel.
While its beer may be sold all over the world, the Brooklyn Brewery's local impact should not be underplayed: when it opened here, Williamsburg was desolate and mildly scary. Now it's a desirable neighbourhood full of independent shops, cafes, craft beer-led pubs such as Mugs Alehouse (mugsalehouse.com) and beer delis such as Bierkraft (bierkraft.com), which sells more than 1000 brews.
It has also paved the way for other alcohol producers, including the Sixpoint Craft Brewery further south, in Redhook. The Brooklyn Brewery co-founder, Tom Potter, has opened the New York Distilling Company, also in Williamsburg, where we sample some throat-scorching Perry's Tot gin. Most local bars and burger joints stock these brews. At Dutch Boy Burger, (766 Franklin Avenue, in Crown Heights), a kitsch diner gives way to a dark craft beer room complete with vintage arcade games, and the burger comes with a fried mushroom and onion topping.
Arcade games from the 1980s are also in vogue at Barcade (barcadebrooklyn.com), back in Williamsburg, where I order the Ta Henket ancient ale. This is brewed by Delaware craft brewery Dogfish Head, according to methods specified in (get this!) ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It's fermented with Egyptian yeast, and flavoured with Middle Eastern herbs. I love its complexity and weirdness.
Then it's on to the legendary Spuyten Duyvil (spuytenduyvilnyc.com) bar over the expressway on Metropolitan Avenue. Blackboards are scrawled with wonderfully named beers, there's an old red bike on the wall, and retro barbers' chairs provide comfy seating. We try a refreshing, aromatic, slightly fruity Stillwater pale ale, which is made by a nomadic, small-batch brewer using wild yeast.
And it's not just beers that are being fermented. At the new waterfront restaurant, Governor (governordumbo.com), in Dumbo, 32-year-old chef Brad McDonald is fermenting his own tongue-twitchingly intense soy sauce to adorn sweet, pearlescent jewels of raw scallop.
"Being in Brooklyn means a lot," he tells me from his open kitchen. "It's a hotbed of culinary creativity, art and forward thinking, and it's going through a huge artisanal renaissance."
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