Revisiting Layla's, a Lebanese restaurant in the South Slope (7th Ave at 15th St.), and then seeing a recent appreciative reference to its foul on this list (on a Mombar thread) got me thinking. One restaurant category most of us want and appreciate could be described as "good, interesting, inexpensive, friendly neighborhood restaurant". No restaurant does all these things perfectly, but it strikes me that Layla's is emblematic in the way it fills this role. I'd gone there a number of times 12, 13 years ago, when the liquor store on the same block of 7th Avenue served its pints of Mogen David from behind bullet-proof glass, and there were virtually no other restaurants south of 9th Street. Now there are a number of restaurants between 9th and 15th Streets, and that liquor store is a spruced-up little wine shop, and Layla's is exactly the same. No innovations in menu or decor, no liquor license, also no slipping in the quality of their food. It's tasty, satisfying, well-prepared, maybe unspectacular, but certainly a bargain. And on the level of a comfortable place to share a meal with family or friends it's extraordinary in its ordinariness.
I invoke that paradoxical phrase partly because of my mixed reaction to the influx of ambitious restaurants with which Brooklyn has recently been blessed. I have a love-hate relationship to the new Smith Street. Who doesn't want more choices for good meals close at hand? But I also see a real Brooklyn neighborhood in a sense invaded, turned into a kind of annex of Manhattan. In much the same way downtown Brooklyn has been developed recently with cheap office space for Wall Street firms, Smith Street is being used as a charming, convenient outer-borough setting for a slew of upscalish Manhattanish restaurants. At least I get a sense this is how many of that neighborhood's long-time residents feel about it. And the handful of times I've gone out for dinner on Smith Street recently there was some kind of nagging discomfort I felt which the food and ambience wasn't extraordinary enough to banish.
Please let me emphasize again, my reaction is a MIXED reaction. This is not meant as a tirade. Does, say, French cuisine belong on Smith Street in Brooklyn any less than it belongs on Avenue A? Of course not. Much of it is a matter of personal taste, of economics, of the inherent clash between gentrification and the good and bad things it brings, vs. neighborhood continuity. And a matter of all the other things that go into our habits and preferences. I could contrast my more positive personal reaction to the smaller, more gradual influx on 5th Avenue (closer to where I live). It's probably brought less cutting-edge cuisine. It has brought Coco Roco, where our family probably dines as often as we go out to all other restaurants combined. Their food has had its ups and downs - up lately - it's certainly more ambitious than Layla's, but in its own noisier, livelier way just as friendly and comfortable.
But revisiting Layla's simply made me feel very appreciative of that particular place and the continuity and integrity (and bargain)it represents. It doesn't have to market itself, position itself, reinvent itself. To view it from another angle: it's exactly the kind of place I hope to luck into when passing through an unfamiliar town.
Now I'll awkwardly end this rumination with a prosaic question. I remember some years back going to a few good Turkish restaurants in the vicinity of Coney Island Avenue. Does anyone know about good ones that are still around or have emerged?