The Botanical Gardens. The Brooklyn Museum. Hell, even the Barclays Center. There are any number of reasons a New York tourist might end up in Prospect Heights, my old home and my favorite neighborhood in Brooklyn.
A stroll around the Heights is as pleasant as can be—the tree-lined streets of brownstones, the magnificent landmarks and Prospect Park at its doorstep. It's a mighty nice place to live, too, with a blend of families that've lived in the area for generations and newer transplants who've fallen in love. And that's reflected in the neighborhood's restaurant makeup, too: some classics, some impressive newcomers.
Not the "Tom's Diner" of Suzanne Vega's song and Seinfeld fame; this is Tom's Restaurant, a charmingly quirky neighborhood landmark that dates back to 1936. Its clientele, unlike that of most Vanderbilt Avenue establishments, is a genuine cross-section of the neighborhood—cops, after-church families, skinny dudes in Fedoras all settle in for pancakes. Are said pancakes the best in town? Perhaps not, but Tom's cheery interior and old-world diner charm are the real draw here (as are the gentle prices).
As an alternative on weekends, consider 606 R&D for brunch—also somewhat homey, though in a sleek 21st century sort of way, with a fabulous bacon-cheddar breakfast sandwich and fresh mini-doughnuts straight from their doughnut robot (!).
Let's assume you've walked off that French toast or bag of doughnuts, perhaps around Grand Army Plaza or into Prospect Park. Ready to get out of the cold? Walk straight to ramen shop Chuko, open at noon every day of the week. While the popular shop crowds up at night, it's easy to walk straight in at lunch, the sooner to warm your face over a steaming bowl of ramen. Don't miss their crispy brussels sprouts fish sauce, either.
Wow, do I miss The Vanderbilt. It's the sort of neighborhood restaurant perfect for any occasion: classy enough for a holiday brunch with parents, affordable enough for weekly brunch with hung-over friends, open late enough for a midnight cocktail, spacious enough to get a seat.
But I really miss their happy hour, which brings all beers down $2, gets you a "Bartender's Choice" cocktail for $6 and selected wines for $5. Better still are the snacks, which include some of my favorite Vanderbilt dishes: sprouts with Sriracha for $4, duck fat Marcona almonds for $4, pub cheese for $6. It's the perfect way to kill those in-between hours before dinner.
It's best to set aside a few hours for The Islands, a hole-in-the-wall Jamaican spot running on island time. I love taking visitors here, not least for the element of surprise: walk in and you'll see two ladies cooking behind the counter, and hardly enough room for two customers to stand—but climb up the ladder, too steep to fairly be called a staircase, and you'll emerge into a low-ceilinged attic with several tables crowded in. Order your jerk chicken or Jamaican shepherd's pie downstairs, $12-ish plates that could feed three, and it'll (eventually) be handed up to you. Best yet? It's BYO—so keep yourselves contented with a six-pack of Red Stripe until your oxtail shows up.
If cheap Jamaican food in a cramped attic isn't quite your thing (which, psh), may I suggest Franny's? This pizzeria recently relocated a few blocks down Flatbush, but its modern Neapolitan pies are enduringly impressive.
Drinks, or dessert? Perhaps both. When I'm in the vicinity of Ample Hills Creamery, it's nearly impossible to resist. I love their creative, whimsical flavors, which remind us that ice cream is supposed to be fun—just try not to smile after a scoop of the Salted Crack Caramel, studded with bits of their unholy chocolate-butter-Saltine creation.
Come to think of it, I usually need a drink after Ample Hills. So I'd stroll over to classy cocktail den Tooker Alley or Weather Up for a nightcap—well-deserved after a day of neighborhood adventuring.