Is Columbia Street about to become the new Smith Street?

Is Columbia Street about to become the new Smith Street?
Courtesy of Andy Ricker

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.

James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker will open a highly-anticipated new Thai restaurant on Columbia Street.
Courtesy of Andy Ricker

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 [email protected] or by calling her at (718) 260-4505.

Anthony Capone, owner of Alma, wants Columbia Street to become a major dining destination — but will it ever be “the next” Smith Street?
Photo by Elizabeth Graham