The first thing to know about Brooklyn is that it's huge – a mix of well-known 'hoods like super-cool Williamsburg and edgy 'burbs on the rise. I based myself in Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant), and had a huge head start with local food and drink tips from my kind Airbnb hosts, James and Siobhan; but because I was immersed in a neighbourhood, I could also get lost in the suburban streets and make my own foodie finds. Here are my top picks in Bed-Stuy and beyond.
Soul food: Fried chicken and mac and cheese at Peaches Hothouse. Photo: Kate Cox
You can't go to Brooklyn and not eat soul food, the borough staple. Peaches Hothouse in Bed Stuy became my go-to – seriously good (and good value at $13 with a side) fried chicken – try the Extra Hot if you dare (it's not for the faint of heart), plus excellent mac and cheese, Creole shrimp and grits, gumbo and black-eyed peas. All in a laidback bar setting, with $5 cocktails from 4pm-7pm weekdays. (Brunch and dinner from 5pm; get in early for dinner because it gets seriously busy.)
Around the corner is Hothouse's fancier sister, Peaches, a neighbourhood fave (according to James) for brunch, lunch and dinner, featuring classic southern dishes such as black skillet chicken and 12-hour short ribs, in a homely setting.
And head to Williamsburg for BeeHive Oven Biscuit Cafe and build your own biscuit (similar to a scone) from a giant range of options. Wash it down with homemade lemonade. The super-friendly Texan owners stock jams for sale, too.
American cafes have drastically improved in the past few years and Brooklyn has a thriving, slightly edgy cafe culture, though you do have to hunt down the gems. My hosts recommend Zabka Cafe for "the best latte in the neighbourhood" – it's a teeny Polish joint that does super-cheap, filling pierogi (Polish dumplings) and other seasonal small plates. It becomes our top pick – by the end of the stay the barista knows our order, like a true local.
There are homegrown roasters in town too, in the form of the busy Toby's Estate Coffee in Williamsburg, with doughnuts and a moreish egg roll with espresso lacquered bacon, a cool exposed brick interior and a brew school.
Smashed avo on toast at funky cafe Five Leaves. Photo: Kate Cox
In memory of Heath
Before Aussie actor Heath Ledger died, he had dreams of opening a cool cafe in Brooklyn, his adopted home. His friends (and father) ended up honouring that dream in the form of Five Leaves, a funky, rustic Williamsburg corner cafe with big queues, lots of tatts, excellent coffee, happy tunes and delicious, hearty food, such as huge ricotta pancakes and truffle fries.
The Brooklyn Flea food market spin-off is called Smorgasburg and runs Saturdays in Williamsburg (our pick) and Sundays at Prospect Park (11am-6pm April through November). There are dozens of food offerings in one spot, from oysters to ice-cream to hotdogs, plus craft beers and other beverages.
Most restaurants in Brooklyn seem fine with kids; a good option is The Farm on Adderley, both family friendly and farm-to-table.
Flash but not out of control for the credit card, Vinegar Hill House is a charming 40-seat vintage-feeling restaurant with a brilliant sustainable menu (try the pear sourdough pancakes, or anything really, and sit outside) including natural wines – it's a regular stop for Aussie fashion designer Fleur Wood, who lives nearby.
For Italian, hit up the cosy al di la Trattoria in Park Slope, with a northern Italian menu heavy on local ingredients, heart and family.
Walking along the streets, I see a discarded My Favourite Bagel pizza box with the words: "Our only competition is heaven". I never got to try it – there was too much other good eating to be had (but if you have, let us know what it was like.)
There was loads of pizza to love. I indulged at edgy local institution Roberta's in Bushwick (just so, so good, I'm still dreaming), got excellent home delivery from Speedy Romeo in Clinton Hill (they also do phenomenal burgers), joined friends over a long garden lunch at Saraghina in Bed Stuy and soaked up the history at Grimaldi's, with its coal-fired brick oven under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Shake Shack burger and fries. Photo: Kate Cox
And burgers, of course
When in Brooklyn, one burgers. Our pick is Thistle Hill Tavern – not only are they super-moreish and sophisticated (at $16), they are also served with salt and pepper French fries I couldn't get enough of. For the old-school kind, check out American tavern Henry Street Ale House.
Hard Times Sundaes is a Brooklyn institution – from find the food truck or go to the bricks and mortar outlet – with a simple menu (single/double/triple, with cheese/chilli/bacon or not) and a delicious touch. Just try them.
And don't forget Shake Shack (I can't) – hardly a Brooklyn institution but worth a visit all the same. There are three outlets on this side of the river, all offering that addictive combo of cheesy crinkle fries and moreish burgers (you know it's fast food but it somehow seems better than all the others) – without those long Manhattan queues.
Peaches Hothouse, 415 Tompkins Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant, bcrestaurantgroup.com/hothouse
Peaches, 393 Lewis Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant, bcrestaurantgroup.com/peaches
BeeHive Oven Biscuit Cafe, 182 South 2nd Street, Williamsburg, beehiveoven.com
Zabka Cafe, 616 Halsey Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant, zabkacafe.com
The Milk Bar, 620 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights, milkbarbrooklyn.com
Toby's Estate Coffee, 125 North 6th Street, Williamsburg, tobysestate.com
Five Leaves, 18 Bedford Ave, Green Point, fiveleavesny.com
Smorgasburg, East River State Park, 90 Kent Avenue, Willamsburg (also at Prospect Park), smorgasburg.com
The Farm on Adderley, 1108 Cortelyou Road, Ditmus Park, thefarmonadderley.com
Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue, Vinegar Hill, vinegarhillhouse.com
al di la Trattoria, 248 5th Avenue, Park Slope, aldilatrattoria.com
Roberta's, 261 Moore Street, Bushwick, robertaspizza.com
Speedy Romeo, 376 Classon Avenue, Clinton Hill, speedyromeo.com
Saraghina, 435 Halsey Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant, saraghinabrooklyn.com
Grimaldi's, 1 Front Street, DUMBO, grimaldis-pizza.com
Thistle Hill Tavern, 441 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, thistlehillbrooklyn.com
Henry Street Ale House, 62 Henry Street, Brooklyn Heights, henrystreetalehouse.com
Hard Times Sundaes, 630 Flushing Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant, hardtimessundaes.com
Shake Shack; 409 Fulton Street, Downtown; 170 Flatbush Avenue, Flatbush; 1 Old Fulton Street, DUMBO, shakeshack.com
The writer stayed in Brooklyn as a guest of Airbnb