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Is Columbia Street about to become the new Smith Street?

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An award-winning chef famous for his Thai chicken wings will open a hotly anticipated eatery on Columbia Street — and it could be a sign the quiet waterfront neighborhood is ready to emerge as the borough’s next dining destination.

Food wizard Andy Ricker, who last year won a James Beard Award (essentially the Oscars of cooking), will turn a storefront near Kane Street into the East Coast outpost of Pok Pok, a beloved Portland eatery that serves authentic northern Thai street grub.

Ricker — who the New York Times called the “ambassador for Thai food in the United States”— said he chose the hood after months of research for three reasons: rent is reasonable, it’s near the water, and it’s on the brink of something big.

“I like being in areas that are underdeveloped or up-and-coming and the Columbia Waterfront certainly fits that profile,” he said. “[It] is special for a lot of reasons.”

Food critics, restaurateurs and civic leaders have long whispered about the street’s chances of becoming a new “restaurant row.” And Columbia Street is certainly on the upswing, thanks in part to an influx of new residents at nearby condos, the road’s proximity to Brooklyn Bridge Park, its central location along the long-planned Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway bike path, and the city’s plans to build a park on the west side of Columbia Street — less than a block from Pok Pok.

And there’s plenty of free parking, thanks to the fact there are only buildings on one side of the street.

Even so, the street still has three major obstacles to overcome: the lack of reliable public transportation, the construction disturbances caused by the Gowanus Canal cleanup effort, and its geographic isolation from Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens due to the hood-splitting Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

“Restaurants have really suffered from bad transportation,” said Anthony Capone, who runs the Columbia Street Mexican eatery Alma.

He said the area has great potential to become a lively hub for foodies — but that it’s not likely to grow into “another Smith Street” soon, simply because of its lack of proximity to a subway station. An unreliable B61 bus and icy winds from the water don’t help either.

“People stop coming when it’s cold — and you can’t be a six-month-a-year business,” said Capone, whose eatery’s stunning rooftop doesn’t draw many winter vistors.

Real estate agents claim there has been a surge of restaurateurs signing contracts to lease storefronts on the street, where rent goes for about $3,000 per month — less than half of average prices on food-centric Smith Street and a bargain for waterfront real estate in New York City.

New restaurants include a soon-to-open upscale diner called Water’s Edge and a top-notch-but-little-known Italian restaurant called Casa Di Campagna, which opened about six months ago.

“It’s a sea change,” said Tina Fallon, the real estate broker who leased the space for Pok Pok. “It’s really exciting.”

Restaurateurs and longtime residents echoed that idea but also blamed years of drilling and infrastructure projects for blocking awe-inspiring views of the water with ugly construction cranes.

“We have a big sky and one of the best views in the city — but we’ve seen a lot of restaurants close and it’s not because they’re bad,” Capone explained.

Even buzzed-about restaurants have shut down in the neighborhood, which until recently was better known for being the home of “Crazy” Joe Gallo than a home for trendy eateries.

Pok Pok will move into a space that once housed 5 Burro Cafe and Pit Stop, before they closed.

The new Thai joint will open by March, offering Brooklynites acclaimed dishes such as hoy thawt, fish sauce wings and egg-and-mussel crepes inspired by street markets in Thailand.

The restaurant will boast an outdoor garden and a menu and decoration that has “the same spirit” as Ricker’s flagship location, with a couple tweaks to accommodate kitchen space limitations.

Hungry locals expect Pok Pok to become a culinary beacon.

“It’s going to be a boom for the neighborhood,” said longtime resident and Columbia Street Waterfront District activist Brian McCormick.

Reach reporter Natalie O'Neill at noneill@cnglocal.com or by calling her at (718) 260-4505.

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Reader Feedback

Joey from Clinton Hills says:
no, not another Smith St. as it is too hard to access.

also, thai food is more like junk food than fine dining.
Feb. 6, 2012, 10:15 am
SwampYankee from ruined Brooklyn says:
Columbia Street will never become the new (now old) Smith Street. No Subways. People could get to Smith Street easily by subway, Columbia Street....not so much. Maybe Columbia street will become the new resteraunt row by sheer force of bike traffic?
Feb. 6, 2012, 11:49 am
SwampYankee from ruined Brooklyn says:
Columbia Street will never become the new (now old) Smith Street. No Subways. People could get to Smith Street easily by subway, Columbia Street....not so much. Maybe Columbia street will become the new resteraunt row by sheer force of bike traffic?
Feb. 6, 2012, 11:50 am
Scott from Park Slope says:
Exclusivity is a funny thing. There is an argument to be made for big, loud, accessible. There's another argument to be made for excellent, small, out-of-the-way; that is, only those in-the-know can tell you how to get there.

Columbia Street does not have reliable access to public transportation, and for those who drive it's not along the beaten path either. But it does lie between the southern edge of the Brooklyn Bridge Park and the IKEA- and Fairway-driven delights of Red Hook. And it does have excellent views of the harbor.

We enjoy having brunch at Alma because it has those qualities, great food, reasonable prices, excellent views, and a measure of exclusivity. In other words there are optimal points at several places along the continuum, and it's possible other restaurants along Columbia Street can gravitate toward them. I hope so. Brooklyn has so very much to offer, and re-discovering its many corners is part of its ongoing Renaissance.
Feb. 7, 2012, 10:06 am
Peter from Carroll Gardens says:
I liken the Columbia Street Waterfront to the Westside Highway area of the West Village. In the early 90s who would ever venture to that far from the subway lines. They built a park and now it's some of the most expensive real estate in the city. I don't think direct transportation is that important. Tell me what public transportation gets you to West St and W. 12th St.
Feb. 8, 2012, 1:30 pm
LB from carroll gardens says:
joey, you have obviously never eaten from an authentic thai restaurant, or travelled.
Feb. 8, 2012, 4:22 pm
S from Gowanus says:
I lived on Columbia St when I first moved to Brooklyn in 2001 and absolutely love it there. But, people have been saying it's "up and coming" since then and it never quite gets there... Best of luck.
Feb. 8, 2012, 4:54 pm
Brian from Columbia Street says:
I've come to believe that the lack of Columbia Streets "up-and-comingness" has indeed spared us all who love the neighborhood the mediocrity that comes with the realization of such hyperbolic claims.
Feb. 9, 2012, 6:12 pm
bengee from coney says:
Gambling in Coney has been "up@coming" for the last 25 years it's ——.
Feb. 12, 2012, 11:24 am
Soured from RedHook says:
Who cares... just keep quoting Anthony Capone.
Feb. 18, 2012, 9:11 am
Adrastos from BathBeach says:
I love Columbia Street just the way it is. I drive, and it is easy to get to. I park down there on President St, take my bike out and wooosh, away I go. It is a good ride all the way to DUMBO, Vinegar Hill....

I like the "out of the way" hidden aspect of it. It makes it more interesting. Since BBP there is a lot more people around also, so as not a ghost town, but not a crowd either.

Construction a park along Columbia St would be welcomed, but please, spare us the "fedders housing" or the "so called" affordable housing, that is never really affordable.

So even though it seems as thoughpeople don't cross over the BQE, many really do.
Aug. 10, 2012, 10:42 pm
KCRocker from Park Slope says:
Scott of Park Slope:

You say, There's another argument to be made for excellent, small, out-of-the-way; that is, only those in-the-know can tell you how to get there.

as well as.... Brooklyn has so very much to offer, and re-discovering its many corners is part of its ongoing Renaissance.

Ok, your saying " only those in the know" sounds so snobby, pretentious and silly!!! I'm a life long Brooklyn resident and in my 50s (not sure how old you are, but you sound like one of the dreadful hipsters/yuppies in the area now) and hopefully, Columbia St. WILL NOT become the next Smith Street!!!! I'm not saying that gentrification is a bad thing, however, the hipsters and yuppies of recent years taking over all these Brooklyn areas has made it quite unaffordable for the average working person to live here!!!!
Sept. 10, 2012, 2:29 pm
KCRocker from Park Slope says:
One more thing I wanted to say is, 30 to 40 years ago many of these areas, ie; Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Redhook, many parts of South Brooklyn, Downtown Brooklyn, Flatbush Avenue, etc. were becoming the ghetto and were broken down by crime, gangs, drug related murders, racial tensions, etc. so droves of hard working people with families were moving out of there to escape the high crime in all of those areas and to live in safer areas. Its also true that Brooklyn is now a very desirable location for many since it has a lot to offer in the way of many cultural attractions, easy access to the beaches, Coney Island, Manhattan by tons of subways/buses all over the boro and some gorgeous Prewar buildings and Brownstones, etc. as well as all of the areas mentioned above do have great shops, restaurants, etc. that have popped up in recent years, but the sad truth is nowadays it is very unaffordable to live in Brooklyn and for the "average" working person, its quite unfair and I feel that the hipsters and yuppies and greedy real estate brokers and landlords are trying to turn it into Manhattan, and Lord knows we don't need another Manhattan!
Sept. 10, 2012, 2:43 pm

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