A cool breeze wafts through Gertie as an 18-wheeler careens down the BQE. Artisanal Oreos lie under glass. Laptops abound, with their beautiful, AirPod-wearing human servants typing on them. Squash toast, as orange as fresh candy corn, waits for the inevitable ’gram. Cacti sit above the doorway. There are also tulips in glasses, vintage cutlery in cute tins, and free oat milk in an elegant thermos. Matisse-style pastel cutouts, marked up with twee sharpie lettering, advertise daily specials. Christ.
One would expect to buy an avocado quinoa bowl at this sort of place — and pay gourmet hamburger prices for it. Except there are no avocados at Gertie, nor is there any quinoa. Instead, there is a very good rendition of eggs and toast.
Gertie is like Los Angeles beautifully barfed over two-thirds of a New York diner. Its existence, along with the kabocha porridge-slinging Hunky Dory in Crown Heights — which serves one of the best breakfast sandwiches on planet earth — represents a wonderful and wild addition to the city’s all-day, counter-service, gourd-forward, Cali-tinged community.
Neither employ waiters, a reaction to rising minimum wages and other costs, but it’s with a sleight of hand that both manage to flourish with the hospitality of a high performing full-service restaurant. And so what could have been two spots characterized by social media signaling or salad chain sterility — as is common in the fast-casual world — what we instead have are just two honest and delicious neighborhood restaurants.
Nate Adler, an Upper West Side native who also runs Huertas, built Gertie as an ode to West Coast cafes. You know, places that start with the letter G, like Gjusta and Gjelina. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the length of the dining room, letting in so much light that those not wearing indoor Ray-Bans will find large swaths of this hip hangout useless.
The restaurant’s cuisine, however, is firmly planted within the Big Apple’s idiom, with chef Will Edwards sending out bialys and lox, vegetarian Greek gyros, Chinese-style ducks, and Italian water ices with wooden spoons. It is a modern diner not entirely dissimilar from MeMe’s in Crown Heights, except you pay before you eat.
Sunny-side-up eggs, with lattice-like whites and soft golden yolks, sit partially hidden at the bottom of a breakfast platter. Lying over them is a swatch of vinegared collards, the tartness countering the rich spoils above. Those spoils include slices of house-baked sesame toast, smoked al dente beans, slices of fully crisped heritage bacon, and three rounds of beef salami, fried until they curl up like large ’roni cups. The salami boasts a funk that almost suggests dry-aged beef, while the toast, though crunchy at the edges, is gorgeously soggy from all the bean juice. The visuals have more in common with a Rochester garbage plate than anything pretty or LA-like, but every ingredient is immaculate.
The neighborhood diner is an endangered species, with its low prices and static menus clashing with almost everything that makes up contemporary New York, from rising operating costs to trend-seeking clienteles. In a parallel universe, Gertie might have been a place to swing by for delicious, utilitarian fare, with waiters swinging by constantly to refill your coffee.
But in contemporary Williamsburg, the server-free model means that kitchen workers drop by to pour a little extra Parlor brew into your mug. Those staffers also take additional drink orders at dinner, like a stellar riff on the pina colada, or a pre-carbonated Seagrams & Seven. Unlike at a barebones barbecue shack or an overpriced salad emporium, counter service does not mean no service at Gertie or Hunky Dory.
Still, some will find the $13 classic breakfast plate a bit steep by diner standards, especially when two meats and coffee brings the bill past $20. Or take the signature egg sandwich, piled high with pickled peppers and paper-thin smoked turkey. At $11, It’s about twice the price of a classic BEC.
What’s worth keeping in mind, however, is that patrons don’t necessarily add 20 percent for service. Huertas, where Adler remains managing partner, is one of the few small scale restaurants that has managed to hold firm on the gratuity-free front. Adler says that tipping is “not obligatory” in this counter setting — no one is paid the sub-minimum wage — though he adds most folks still do leave ample tips given the level of service.
At the inaugural dinner service last Tuesday, just about everything coming out of the kitchen was spot on. Chef de cuisine Katy Moore drenched medium rare leg of lamb in bright, high-acid lemon-anchovy sauce, and paired a rotisserie chicken with every restaurant’s new favorite seasoning: everything bagel spice. The poppy seeds zing the grains with a proper crunch, while the onion imparts a strong perfume. The chicken is the star, packing a gamey flesh, a pliable skin the texture of a gently crisp croissant dough, and a vinegar-laced jus spiked with a musky breed of paprika and mustard powder.
Give the Italian ice a test drive for dessert; it’s currently made with a cara cara orange that improbably mimics the nostalgic flavors of the artificial variety so many of us grew up with. That sweet is an Edwards recipe; other confections, like the apple pie or any work of boulangerie here, are the fine work of head baker Savannah Turley. Remember that name while the haute Oreos dissolve in your mouth, a rare restaurant version that delivers the same amount of indulgent cream and crumble as the near perfect mass produced snack.
One can consume it next to a bookshelf that Adler says is a “free library,” in case anyone wants to borrow the Noma Cookbook.
Speaking of Noma, let’s consider the greats. Dominique Crenn has her spherical kir breton. Ferran Adria has his liquid olives. Rene Redzepi has his langoustine on a rock. And Kirstyn Brewer, chef at Claire Sprouse’s Hunky Dory in Crown Heights, has her egg sandwiches.
Brewer piles soft scrambled huevos on a pillowy brioche roll. The buttery curds ooze like porridge over a thick sausage patty. The blend of lamb and pork sports the rich flavors of merguez, with a hint of heat from Korean chile flakes. A tassel of arugula adds pepper and astringency, while curried onions impart every bite with a heady, intoxicating aroma. The sandwich isn’t cheap ($9 without meat, $13 with), but it exhibits no fewer complexities than the thinkpiece-spawning Minetta Burger when it debuted a decade ago for $28.
Hunky Dory, which opened in January, is insanely good and unconventionally beautiful. The sky-lit room blends indigo paneling, soft pinks walls, and golden shelving. None of that is random color matching; it’s a clever hat tip to the gender-bending David Bowie album that bears the same name (Google the album cover and you’ll see what I mean). Menus and coasters are the product of illustrator Kelly Thorn, a tattoo artist who specializes in the increasingly popular stick-and-poke method.
It’s a strong New York debut for Sprouse, a longtime member of the San Francisco cocktail scene who’s best known for her environmental efforts. Amid California’s historic droughts of the early-to-mid teens, the native Houstonian co-founded the Tin Roof organization to help fight waste in the beverage community.
Ask a bartender at Hunky D why the orgeat is made from sunflower seeds and they’ll respond that the ingredient uses less water to farm than almonds. Related: It’s just as good as the classic product, adding a distinctive nuttiness to a musky blend of bourbon and lemon.
Besides sustainability, here’s another word that comes to mind when I think of Sprouse’s bar: community. Ambitious cocktail bars, whether or not they serve food, tend to be more expensive nighttime affairs, often sitting fallow before 5 p.m. Hunky, by contrast, welcomes in the neighborhood starting at 8 a.m., serving a wonderfully eclectic all-day menu.
Like Gertie, it doesn’t employ dedicated waiters. Bartenders serve the tables themselves at night; in the morning and afternoon Hunky is counter-service only.
That means there’s no pressure to turn tables, creating an environment that can effectively feel like a coworking space; a bartender tells me it’s not uncommon for hospitality types to sit with their laptops and do their paperwork during breakfast. These and other patrons linger over poached eggs (gently smokey from a lapsang souchong soak), smashed cukes (sprinkled with everything bagel spices, naturally), and fig jam with hearty sourdough toast.
Sunday in Brooklyn attracts a serious wait for its $21 pancakes most weekends; I hope Hunky soon draws proper crowds as well for its $4 version. The apple cider cakes, barely larger than silver dollars, pack a fluffy squishiness that take well to a drizzle of butterscotch toffee. A dollop of whipped yogurt adds tartness; crumbled bacon conveys salty umami.
For a more savory meal, Brewer turns the Dr. Seuss classic that is green eggs & ham into a real life dish, pouring chile verde broth over a warm stew of rice, beans, poached egg, and braised ham. It all tastes precisely like it sounds, a blend of salt, starch, spice, and smoke designed to restore the senses.
Rising wage and real estate costs are supposed to favor established empire builders and larger chain operators, the types of institutions bent on turning New York into a giant international mall. I can’t say that won’t happen, but the tough operating environment is also fueling a lean class of smaller restaurants, venues that are tweaking the model of affordable, ambitious gastronomy without replicating the cramped, uncomfortable dining rooms of the aughts. These gems, places like Gertie, Hunky Dory, and Kopitiam, are key to ensuring that the city’s culinary community keep its soul.