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The BQE: Not Just For Traffic
Sarah Enelow

Imagine yourself driving through East Williamsburg along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, peering out the window. Do you wonder how terrible it must be to live within spitting distance of this grungy hunk of concrete? Hardly.

The BQE represents many ideas: Robert Moses' iconic roadway, the fastest route between two boroughs, ridiculous rush-hour traffic, and now, industrial chic. As more Brooklynites are priced out of crowded downtown Williamsburg near Bedford Avenue, they're moving east to populate the area's more affordable houses. Unlikely as it seems, this migration is turning Meeker Avenue, the street that runs alongside the elevated BQE, into an urban promenade in East Williamsburg and a respite from hipster fatigue.

Brooklyn restaurants have been surpassing their expensive Manhattan counterparts for years, and while cafés are dropping like flies across Manhattan, there are still some great ones thriving in Brooklyn. Boneshakers is arguably East Williamsburg's finest cafe, an ideal hangout for any creative mind in need of good coffee and wireless access. There's plenty of room to spread out and, as a result of the offbeat location, you won't have to fight for a seat or be shuffled out the door to make way for new customers. Boneshakers also has a light vegetarian menu of fresh sandwiches, salads, burgers, and baked goods. Grandma Rose's is an unassuming Italian joint that literally lies in the shadow of the BQE and has some of the best pizza in the entire city. All pies are made-to-order with an impeccable crust and garden-fresh toppings. Large pizzas are only $9 on Wednesdays and be sure to try their risotto balls. Sunset Cafe is simply an affordable, all-American diner with no frills or pretensions. Grab a booth, take advantage of the free wireless, and order up your diner favorites, from triple-decker sandwiches and breakfast all day to burgers and fries.

Shoppers, especially gourmands, are practically guaranteed to find something of interest at any of these specialty establishments. The Brooklyn Kitchen has been providing unique cooking supplies to local foodies since 2006. Previously located a few blocks south, their new location on Meeker Avenue is bigger and better with more room for dairy products, spices and flours, chocolate, pickling supplies, and more. They share the space with The Meat Hook, providing a small but impressive counter of local products from beef and poultry to sausages made fresh daily, including red wine & rosemary, toasted fennel, red and green chorizo, and bahn mi dog, among others. The Brooklyn Kitchen also offers a full calendar of classes on every possible subject: knife skills, urban chicken raising, cookie baking for kids, pickling and canning, beer brewing, pig butchering, and the list goes on. McCarren Park Farmers Market is practically the only game in town for farm-fresh produce, so drop by on Saturday mornings to get your groceries or picnic supplies. You’ll find vegetables, fruits, bread, honey, jam, meat (from beef to rabbit), dairy, and flowers, enough to give the Union Square Farmers Market a run for its money. In a city where so much food is trucked in from hundreds of miles away, take this chance to eat something refreshingly local and seasonal (watch out for classes and events as well). Family-owned and -operated BQE Wine & Liquors is far more than meets the eye. Hugely popular with the locals, BQE offers notably low prices and an extensive selection, especially for wine, scotch, whiskey, and vodka. With amazing customer service, this beats your typical New York bottle shop hands down. There are also discounts available when buying in bulk, making it ideal for party planning.

Aside from foodie supplies, perhaps the best shopping is at Meeker Avenue Flea Market, a recent addition to the neighborhood featuring an impressive range of antique furniture, some of it pricey, most of it downright beautiful. Looking for an old piano? Meeker Flea. 1960s loveseat? Meeker Flea. Turn-of-the-century end table? Meeker Flea. The market also features vintage clothes, music, housewares, and all those odds and ends that make flea markets so addictive, plus they hold occasional auctions on Sundays. They’ve included an ATM at the entrance and some vendors may deliver. Don’t forget, there’s another floor of merchandise upstairs.

North Brooklyn does indeed have nice parks, but in any event, if you happen upon a Greenstreets along the BQE you might as well take advantage of it. While some of these parks are greener and shadier than others, the benches are a commodity in themselves. Grab an Italian hero or some prosciutto and melon from the Italian butchers on Graham Avenue and have a picnic. You'll find Greenstreets sporadically right next to the BQE, on both the north and south sides of the expressway, the nicest being located at the tree-lined corner of Meeker Avenue and Leonard Street, a popular neighborhood hangout for kids and adults alike. McCarren Park, the biggest, finest park in all of North Brooklyn, is only two blocks north of the aforementioned corner. Not only is there a running track, basketball courts, tennis courts, a baseball field, and a skate park, but plenty of benches and grassy places to sit with clear sightlines to the Empire State Building. This park is remarkably clean and ideal for all ages, singles and families alike. The ubiquitous soft serve ice cream truck makes its rounds and on Saturday mornings, come for the farmers market. McCarren Pool, former free concert venue, is now scheduled to become a pool again, but look out for those concerts at the waterfront in Williamsburg proper. And for a bit of indoor exercise, Greenpoint Shotokan Karate is like a gym without the irritating membership policies, and it's one of Brooklyn's longest running karate schools, established in 1990. If you ever wanted to take up martial arts or self-defense, this is your chance. Kids are more than welcome and be sure to inquire about a free trial lesson.

This stretch of the BQE may not be bursting with arts and nightlife options, but there are a couple of notable upscale spots. Eyelevel BQE is an intimate gallery space that throws a spotlight onto adventurous artists from Brooklyn, Queens, and abroad with a solid Hispanic contingent amongst many talented designers. This is one of those places that keep the neighborhood interesting and the gallery attendants are pleasantly informative. The Richardson is the area's nicest spot for cocktails, or as they put it "a proper American bar," offering small plates of refined food. It might not be the cheapest drink around, but the atmosphere is elevated, plus there's outdoor seating.

If you need a breather from the expressway, a quick stroll down Graham Avenue (heading south from the BQE) leads to all sorts of fantastic Italian establishments. Be sure to visit Emily's Pork Store for meats and cheeses, Caffe Capri for coffee and a pastry, Carmine's for the only pizza in the neighborhood rivaling Grandma Rose's, and Uncle Louie G's for some excellent spumoni ice cream.

East Williamsburg's BQE might appear to be an enormous, gritty, exhaust-ridden expressway, but people are slowly discovering what gems are lurking underneath the surface and some folks are even moving here on purpose. The area doesn't need its own witty acronym yet, but I suggest checking it out before it gets one.

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