Like many neighborhoods on the edge of Brooklyn’s bustling Downtown, the Columbia Street Waterfront District has been struggling under the weight of being “the next Williamsburg” for a few years now.
But just as Greenpoint and DUMBO earned — and then casually tossed aside — that designation to become interesting, but never frenzied, neighborhoods, so has the stretch of Columbia Street between Atlantic and Hamilton avenues.
Yes, there are plenty of great places to eat and drink, shop or browse — and one music venue that ranks with the best in the city — but Columbia Street remains a quiet livable neighborhood.
Part of that is certainly due to its mass transit isolation — the best way to get to the area is probably via the Ikea shuttle from Borough Hall rather than anything provided by the MTA.
But the neighborhood’s status is also no doubt due to the boom that never really came. For every pioneer that has made it — Alma — there are two that didn’t (Red’s Tapas Bar on the south end of the strip and Pit Stop, that pitch-perfect French bistro on the north end, both closed within a few months of each other).
“Columbia Street is a half-year business,” said Anthony Capone, who, as one of the creators of the Mexican restaurant Alma eight years ago, is one of the strip’s elder statements. “From November through March, it’s dead here.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do, as The Brooklyn Paper’s team discovered:
1. Freebird Books
This six-year-old bookstore has it all — an indie store that charms you from the moment you walk in. For one thing, the place is a browser’s paradise; it looks as if your novel-obsessive friend gave you run of his apartment — and left you some wine and coffee, too.
In addition, the laid-back employees actually care about the books they’re selling, and they respect your discretion as you peruse through selections literally spilling off the shelves.
The place also has regular readings — Ira Robbins will be reading from his 1960s memoir, “Kick It Till It Breaks” on March 21.
Freebird Books & Goods [123 Columbia St. between Irving and Kane streets, (718) 643-8484]. Closed Monday-Wednesday.
Alma, the Mexican restaurant that occupies the top two floors of the building at the corner of Columbia and Degraw streets, is an all-purpose pleaser. On summer evenings, hordes flock to the rooftop deck, with its expansive views of lower Manhattan, for fancy Margaritas.
On weekends, the place fills with families devouring huge brunches of chilaquiles ($8.50) and breakfast burritos ($10.50).
No matter what time of day, the restaurant is a stunner, with wood tables and chairs fabricated in nearby Red Hook, and stained glass by a Fort Greene artist.
Alma [187 Columbia St. at Degraw Street, (718) 643-5400].
3. Margaret Palca Bakes
When she moved her shop to Brooklyn in 1985, Margaret Palca streamlined her confection creations and became a well-known wholesale baker for high-end gourmet shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She moved again to Columbia Street 15 years ago, where she opened up a small café.
“We came to this side of Brooklyn, saw the view across the water, and we were in love,” she said. “I knew I’d found what I was looking for — a beautiful place for me and the customers.”
Beauty is not just for the eyes, but for the stomach, thanks to Palca’s melt-in-your-mouth brownies, cupcakes, tarts, and arguably the best rugelech in the borough.
Margaret Palca Bakes [191 Columbia St. between Degraw and Sackett streets, (718) 802-9771].
4. Bopkat Vintage
Just before the turn of the century, Laura Buscaglia opened Bopkat Vintage in what was then the Wild West of Park Slope: Fifth Avenue.
But after being priced out there, she sought out a new “up-and-coming” strip and found it near Columbia Street.
“The rent is cheaper, but it’s always a struggle,” she said.
That’s a shame, because Buscaglia’s shop is not just a collection of souvenirs of the 1960s and ’70s, but a practical vintage clothing and accessories shop. Yes, it’s fun to browse classic Hawaiian shirts, fedoras, high-ball glasses, cocktail shakers, postcards and women’s clothing from the “Mad Men” era, but making a purchase doesn’t mean wallowing in kitsch.
“We don’t do high-end collectibles, but practical items,” she said.
Bopkat Vintage [117 Union St. between Columbia and Van Brunt streets, (718) 222-1820].
5. Botanica el Phoenix
For a few laughs — or, if you believe that there’s a Devil perpetually hoping to steal your soul — stop in at Botanica el Phoenix, which has been on the strip for about three years.
You can get pretty much anything to ward off the great Satan, including “Go Away Evil” bath oil, prosperity candles and incense.
Does it work? That’s unclear. “If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe in nobody,” the owner’s friend told us. “And business has been good.”
Botanica el Phoenix (224 Columbia St. at Union Street, no phone)
6. Old Brooklyn
Don’t let the name fool you — there’s nothing “old Brooklyn” about Old Brooklyn Wines and Liquors. Opened just two-and-a-half years ago by Fernando Young, this sleek shop stocks a wide range of wines (mostly reds) from small vintners — most priced less than $20.
Old Brooklyn Wines and Liquors [145 Union St. between Columbia and Hicks streets, (718) 422-1145]
The granddaddy of all Columbia Street Waterfront District businesses is Ferdinando’s Focacceria. Opened in 1904, this unpretentious Sicilian joint may be the oldest restaurant in the borough (there is controversy on this point), but it is certainly one of the best.
There’s nothing fancy on the menu — which hasn’t changed with the latest trends — but that’s what you expect from an old-school Italian restaurant that does it right.
The panelle sandwich ($5) is a thing of beauty: two chickpea pancakes on a fresh focaccia roll with creamy ricotta and a dusting of parmesan. It’s a one-bite sandwich, not because it’s small, but because you consume it one continuous creamy, oily, crunchy, chewy gulp.
And there may not be a more satisfying dish than the pasta con sarde ($16), a simple stew of sardines, raisins and tomatoes.
Ferdinando’s Focacceria [151 Union St. between Columbia and Hicks streets, (718) 855-1545]. Closed Sundays.
8. Union Max
Union Max came about due to a huge purchase from a jewelry factory 30 years ago. Now, the store features an eclectic mix of random bling, kitsch, postcards and plenty more. Since opening 10 years ago, Rachel Goldberg, one of the owners, has seen the neighborhood evolve into an out-of-the-way destination for anyone seeking vintage gear at a reasonable price.
“The stores here are more interesting — and cheaper — than on Smith Street or Atlantic Avenue,” she said.
Union Max [110 Union St. at Columbia Street, (718) 222-1785]. Closed Mondays.
The secret is out on this top-notch taco joint — but just in case you’ve missed out, now is the time to make the trip. The carne asada steak taco is the best bang for your buck — $4 for each loaded pair of corn tortillas — but the pollo asado and pulled pork tacos are also excellent.
The Vendley Brothers started their popular, and Vendy award-winning So-Cal-style operation out of food trucks in SoHo.
Eventually, their food became so popular that they opened the restaurant last July. Specials add spice to the menu as well — early last week featured delicious pork belly tacos. An assortment of veggie options are also available.
Calexico Carne Asada [122 Union St. between Columbia and Hicks streets, (718) 488-8226].
10. Brooklyn General Store
Open just seven years, Catherine Clark and Katie Metzger has become the go-to place for knitters. Operating out of the old Frank’s Department Store, the pair stock 200 types of yarn and specialize in natural fibers.
Don’t know what to do with all that string? Take one of 25 classes.
Brooklyn General Store [128 Union St. between Columbia and Hicks streets,  237-7753
11. House of Pizza and Calzone
Since 1952, this pizza joint has served one of the best calzones in the city. For only $5, you get a pocket of deep-fried dough filled with ricotta, mozzarella and ham — prepared in the same way as when the spot first opened. If you’re feeling even more thrifty, slices go for $2.25.
“The cheap price in no way reflects the quality,” insisted Paul Diagostino, one of the owners. Since taking over the place in 2004 along with Gino Vitale — a 20-year local — the pair have seen Columbia Street become quite the culinary destination.
“There is a very eclectic amount of cuisine here — a lot happening within a few blocks,” said Diagostino.
House of Pizza and Calzone [132 Union St. between Columbia and Hicks streets, (718) 624-9107].
12. Sokol Brothers
Sokol Bros. is just a mile — and three decades — away from Ikea. With its 1970s-style parquet-panel walls and neon signage, Michael Sokol’s furniture store remains virtually the same since it opened in 1974 — before the artists, before the brownstoners, before the restaurants, before Ikea.
So, yes, some of the styles may no longer be stylish, but Sokol stays in business because some customers don’t want to be treated like a stranger (and most don’t want to build their own furniture, either).
Sokol Brothers Furniture [253 Columbia St. between President and Carroll streets, (718) 875-2600].
In just a few years, Jalopy has emerged as not just the singular venue in the borough for folk and bluegrass, but also a popular music school where regular acts like Eli Smith and Ernie Vega give classes.
Lynette Wiley and her husband Geoff started Jalopy after moving from Chicago in hopes of finding suitable soil for a folk movement. That was the easy part.
“When we opened this place, I thought the hardest part would be finding talent to play,” said Wiley. “But within a 10-minute walk are some of the best musicians in America.”
The joint is typically packed for the “Roots and Ruckus” folk show every Wednesday — hosted by our own Frank Hoier for the entire month of March. Tony Scherr and Feral Foster are regulars, and blues legend Danny Kalb will be playing on March 5.
Jalopy [315 Columbia St. between Hamilton Avenue and Woodhull Street, (718) 395-3214]
Moonshine is the kind of bar that should have a mechanical bull. Not only can you drink PBRs and shots, but you can also bring your own meat and cook it up on one of the big BBQ grills.
Moonshine [317 Columbia St. between Hamilton Avenue and Woodhull Street, (718) 852-8057].