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Almost nothing is as it was when Joel Teitelbaum and his Satmar Hasidic followers settled in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn 70 years ago. That is except for the neighborhood itself. Thousands fled a Holocaust-ravaged Hungary and Romania in the 1940s and 1950s and settled in bustling Brooklyn. Seeking safety and solitude, the Satmar (named for a town in Hungary from which most emigrated) created an instant, yet highly insulated empire via textile-making, precious metalwork, and real estate, all framed by a deep piety and social simplicity.
Many a New Yorker has rolled through the streets of Williamsburg, South of Bedford Ave, to find it buzzing with men in wool suits and tall hats, and women leading small armies of children like ducks in the park, uniform in both dress and decorum. Far fewer have spent time there, but a tradition of good food and hospitality percolates just beneath the solemn surface.
Though not designed or established to be a destination, culinary or otherwise, folks are more than welcomed to visit, dress, and carry on as they like in public spaces, but it's important to know that Hasidim themselves adhere to rather strict codes of clothing and conduct. Casual mingling between Hasidic men and women on the streets is frowned upon, for instance, and should be avoided. If entering a place of business or worship, women are expected to cover their shoulders and men not to wear shorts, flip flops, or tank tops. In observance of the holy Sabbath, beginning sundown on Friday, nearly everything (including restaurants) closes and remains closed until Sunday.
Gottlieb's Restaurant and Delicatessen anchors the bustling triangular intersection of Roebling, Division, and Lee Avenues, and serves as much of this anachronistic flavor as anything else in the roughly 20-block neighborhood. Just a single stop into Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge and served by the JMZ trains (Marcy Ave. stop), the 50-seat diner was opened in the early ‘60s by World War II survivor Zolton Gottlieb and proudly continues the Jewish culinary traditions set in place centuries ago.
The cafeteria-style diner is one of very few “formal” restaurants in the neighborhood, a term to be used lightly as formalities are scarce. Today, and for the past 60 years, if you walk in for a bite or a pound of deli meat, you’ll likely be greeted by an actual Gottlieb. These days, the late Zolton’s grandson, Menashe Gottlieb, tends the deli counter with occasional help from his father Joseph. The next generation, Menashe’s young boys, huddle at a table—watching and learning—but mostly eating mountains of hot french fries.
The menu here is simple in just the way you hope it will be and Menashe glows as he explains it to be virtually unchanged from the one his grandfather drafted in the early days. His pride dampens ever so slightly when he admits, unprovoked, that they now use delivery apps like Seamless and have a barebones website to “keep up with the times.”
From the kitchen, salty pastrami and corned beef sandwiches ($11-$13) are sliced to order and served simply on local rye or hero bread with a side of pickles. Opting for the sweet grilled onions, just a dollar more, is as rewarding a splurge you’ll make all year.
Traditional cholent, a stew of beans and brisket not unlike beef stew, is served only on Thursdays and is a wise decision for the hungry patron, while Hungarian Cherry Soup, served daily, is simply an adventurous one.
Over the years, Menashe tells me they’ve taken a few calculated risks in the form of menu items. A Jew’s love of Chinese food is no secret and a pastrami egg roll ($4) serves as a crunchy, greasy, delicious reminder. Less creative Americanized versions of Chinese classics like Sesame Chicken seem out of place and a bit of a waste to order in a city with more authentic options.
Other deli staples like matzo ball soup and stuffed cabbage are done well and without frills while rows of sweet and savory Kugel, a Jewish noodle casserole, stand at attention in an adjacent display case, waiting to be devoured.
If time is a luxury, there’s no place better to spend it then Gottlieb’s, eating and kibitzing with Menashe and his family, listening to men, young and old, talk politics, sports, and life as they have in diners like this everywhere, and forever.
If time is a liability, the tiny Grill On Lee serves up divinely overstuffed pastrami and shawarma sandwiches, knishes, and other faster foods in a less formal setting. Some have lauded it as “the best pastrami in the neighborhood,” so in the spirit of democracy, I suggest bringing a friend along and share halves at each spot.
A few shuffles up the block on Lee, where it intersects Penn Street, Sander’s Bakery is the obvious place—among several in the hood—to finish a food tour of South Williamsburg.
Jewish bakeries are an international source of pride and Sander’s is a near perfect illustration of why. Baskets of flaky chocolate rugelach (think firmer croissant), black and white cookies, and shiny rolls line every square inch of the small store. Trays of brightly decorated cookies cool on racks in the corner waiting to be boxed, while large cakes stand guard on shelves, behind the counter.
Much like the Gottliebs, the Sanders family opened the bakery during the mass settlement, roughly 60 years ago, but unlike the Gottliebs, they’ve modernized the look and feel a bit. An automatic door might surprise you at any small bakery, but in this particular neighborhood, it is a truly shocking discovery.
Despite its aesthetic update, a young cashier assures that the famous recipes are exactly the same, passed down from Sanders to Sanders...to Sanders. “They multiply like crazy, this family” he tells me, looking bewildered and a little exhausted. “Each one has like 10 kids and they all work in the business, somehow. I have like 50 bosses!”
If possible, aim for a Thursday or Friday to visit, when the bulk of baking is done in preparation for the Sabbath and Sander’s shelves are at full stock. You’ll have to negotiate hoards of women in pill box hats, but it’s a small price to pay for a big beautiful babka, which is to the Jewish Bakery what the lion is to the jungle. Sweet babka cakes are made from a flaky, yeasty dough and layered with chocolate, cinnamon, or nuts. At Sander’s they are gone by Friday, if not sooner, not to be seen again until the following Thursday.
In nearly every neighboring block of Brooklyn, outside of Satmar, in the gentrified hipster enclaves more commonly associated with Williamsburg, everything has changed and in doing so has become mostly the same. But not here.
There is a cadence to Gottlieb’s, Sanders’, and the rest of the neighborhood that is both familiar and foreign at once. A flurried mix of Yiddish (a Jewish dialect preserved and spoken by Hasidim) and English create a unique din in the neighborhood joints. Anyone and everyone are welcomed and encouraged to join in, but just know you may have to make the first move.
Folks here move fast and wear a noticeably guarded social coat of arms, reinforced by cultural preservationism and preoccupation with deep faith (they attend temple three times day). But as I discovered, on several food-focused excursions, most are teeming with a generosity of spirit, eager to share their stories and schnitzel, if given the chance.
Gottlieb's Restaurant sits, almost literally, in the shadow of one of New York’s most iconic steakhouses, Peter Luger’s, where a (well-deserved) reputation has spawned heart-stopping prices (steak for two runs $108) and a dint of arrogance. As I peered into the deli window from the street, post-pastrami, watching Menashe go about his business with an enviable ease, a gentlemen sidled up next to me. “Better than Luger’s” he said, almost completely out of nowhere. Well, that’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges, I thought to myself as I nodded politely, but in a number of ways, he wasn’t wrong.
Header image credit: Craig Calefate.
I live in Brooklyn and write about food, booze, and travel. Anything with sesame is my all-time favorite food...this week.