Two weeks after I graduated college in 2000, I moved in to a cramped 3BR on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights with two friends from school. Though a short walk from the hustle of Seventh Avenue in the Slope, Vanderbilt Ave, the first major avenue one crosses in Prospect Heights, left a lot to desired.
It seemed, my roommates and I agreed, to have a lot of potential to grow, with its many vacant store fronts and the statuesque brownstones on its sidestreets. But at the time, about 30% of the storefronts on Vanderbilt were unwelcoming barber shops and hair salons.
Our limited food options on Vanderbilt were a source of endless frustration for me. They consisted of two bullet-proof window Chinese takeaways, a sad-looking pizzeria that closed at 7pm, a desolate, undecorated Carribbean takeaway named "Krispy Kreme Quisine" that offered soggy patties, Mitchell's, a soul food restaurant open only on Wednesdays and Sundays for about six hours, and a scruffy diner named "George's Donuts and Restaurant" open only until 4 pm. Garden Cafe, a tiny bistro that regularly received high Zagat ratings, huddled on one corner, shielding visiting Slopers from the neighborhood's grit and local residents from its high prices. The lone hangout, Muddy Waters, a coffee shop, was reviled for its snide service and over-priced burnt coffee. We lived and died by the offerings of the local Met supermarket (thankfully open until 9pm most days).
We stayed on Vanderbilt for two years, relishing excursions to neighborhoods with better restaurants, and praying for a bakery to open down the block (at least I did). When the time came for a larger space, greener pastures and Rite Aid, we departed for the Slope. But as we packed our boxes, I noticed that the avenue had indeed begun to change. Across the way from our apartment Soda had opened, a pub from the folks who brought us the popular Great Lakes.
Since Mickey Rooney still lives in the neighborhood, I have had the opportunity to watch Vanderbilt expand and gentrify. Since I left Vanderbilt, a slow-food Italian restaurant called Aliseo opened between Park and Prospect to controversy, fanfare and a front-page article in the NYTimes Metro Section. Across the street, cool and elegant Half Wine Bar replaced the downtrodden Krispy Kreme Quisine. Down the block, the affable French-Canadian owners of George's Donuts and Restaurant gambled on a renovation, resulting in "The Usual", a proper diner open through dinner time and packed on Saturday mornings. Hibiscus, a cute plant shop at the intersection of Bergen, expanded next door and opened a juice bar and cafe. Rumors that an Indian restaurant was arriving were confirmed last month when a dark maroon awning marked with "India Palace" showed up two doors down from Aliseo.
And now we have entered a new era on Vanderbilt Avenue.
Witness my Saturday morning breakfast at Le Gamin's newest location -- Vanderbilt Avenue between Bergen and Dean Street. In the foreground is my L'ouef Gamin, which is poached eggs atop a crispy potato pancake that features a layer of goat cheese. Both are served on a bed of sweet, unctuous ratatouille ($8.75). In the background is Mickey Rooney's goat cheese red pepper omelette, served with generous helping of salad and savory potatoes ($9). We each splurged on cafe au lait ($3.50 a bowl), and sat in the clean, gravelled outdoor patio. When a thirty-something white couple wheeled in a double Maclaren stroller sporting twins and SUV-sized tires, we exchanged glances. Vanderbilt Avenue has arrived.
A French cafe, open nightly till 10 pm? All the time that I lived there, I could never have dreamed that such an establishment would open a block away from my apartment. And what's this?
Why, it's the beginnings of a brick oven pizza parlor planned by the proprietors of Aliseo. I barely recognized this as the storefront that used to contain Jim Jim's Four Seasons, the aforementioned sleepy slice place. In fact, I am beginning to barely recognize this avenue at all. Though I am happy that the neighborhood continues to blossom with the growth of small businesses, it barely resembles the grimy strip of shuttered storefronts, swirling trash, and stoops littered with smashed Hennessy bottles that I inhabited just two years ago. Funny what we get nostalgic for, huh?
Q to Seventh Avenue or 2/3 to Grand Army Plaza