Near East (River) Passage

In the short three-block stretch of Atlantic Avenue between Court Street and Hicks, where Brooklyn Heights meets Cobble Hill and the East River sparkles through the arch of the BQE, lies a land rich in the food of the Mediterranean Middle East and the origins of the oldest Arab-American population in Brooklyn. For over a century, Kings County has been home to one of the largest Arab-American communities in the US; Atlantic Avenue is its Main Street.

Why Atlantic Avenue? “I believe this is where they landed,” says Dennis Halaby, owner of Damascus Bakery at no. 195, gesturing in the direction of the Brooklyn Piers. His grandfather Hassan Halaby immigrated to the United States in the 1920s along with a wave of immigrants from what is modern-day Syria and Lebanon.

It is more likely that Hassan came to Brooklyn via Manhattan, by way of the ferry that connected Manhattan to the foot of the Avenue—where Dennis had gestured. The ferry was a conduit from Lower Manhattan’s “Little Syria,” where many Orthodox Christians fleeing the Ottoman Empire had settled around Washington Street in the 1870s. (That area would later become the site of the World Trade Center.) As early as the 1890s, Syrians were moving to Brooklyn’s South Ferry neighborhood, what is now Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.

Hassan arrived during a golden age when Syrian shops peppered the Avenue and St. Nicholas Cathedral, the Syrian Orthodox church, had just moved from Pacific to State Street. After working for local bakers named the Skendars, Hassan opened Damascus Bakery around 1936, naming it for his hometown.

“My grandfather made Syrian bread,” says Dennis, “it wasn’t called ‘pita’ then.” Like his father, Henry Sr., Dennis along with his brother, Henry Jr. (who now co-owns Damascus), grew up in the apartment above the bakery. Dennis remembers watching his grandfather pull hot bread from the subterranean brick oven, occasionally helping to sort and box the pita for sale.

Construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in 1948 displaced what remained of Lower Manhattan’s Syrian diaspora; many merchants relocated to the burgeoning Arab community in Brooklyn. Among them was young Wade Sahadi, who had emigrated from Zahle, Lebanon, in 1919 to work for his uncle Abraham. Wade became a partner in A. Sahadi & Co on Washington Street, and in 1941 decided to set out on his own. Abraham traded lentils, chickpeas, and rice for Wade’s share of the business, and Wade used those same goods to open his own store, Sahadi Importing, a block away. In 1948 Wade moved his young family to Brooklyn, reopening Sahadi Importing at no. 187 Atlantic Avenue.

When Charlie Sahadi, Wade’s eldest son, left his studies at Pace University to take over for his ailing father in 1964, he was unsure whether his father’s customer base, patrons from the old country buying cracked wheat and fava beans in great volume, would remain. He started introducing specialty foods alongside his father’s Middle Eastern staples as an interest in health food brought younger non-Arab customers into the store.

The 1970s were lean times citywide. Charlie Sahadi remembers, “Prior to 1970 the Avenue could have gone either way.” Local merchants including Sahadi tried to spur revitalization, founding the Atlantic Antic festival in 1974 to draw attention to the Avenue’s commerce. (The lively street fair emphasizing local business continues each September.)

Around that same time, the Avenue became infused by a new wave of immigrants: Middle Eastern Muslims seeking refuge and new opportunity found a community here. The Salam family emigrated from Tripoli, and opened their restaurant of the same name on the corner of Atlantic and Clinton in 1973. The port city in Lebanon is known for its pastry, and Brooklyn’s Tripoli showcased delicately crafted sweets in large display cases. “When you first walked in that was what you saw,” recalls Nick Salam, who manages the restaurant founded by his father Mohamed and several uncles.

A 1982 fire destroyed the original location, a still-unsolved crime of arson targeting the Muslim-owned business for alleged but unfounded ties to the PLO. Mohamed, a furniture designer by trade, rebuilt across the street at no. 156 (Tripoli’s current location), intricately hand-carving each chair and crafting the interior to resemble a grand sailing ship.

Traditional Lebanese food has long been Tripoli’s mainstay—what Nick describes as “labor-intensive dishes that require patience, using delicate ingredients.” Fresh leban (yogurt) is made on the premises for house specialties like shish barak, small meat pies cooked in yogurt sauce wrapped in fragile hand-made dumpling skins. “You can’t just learn to make these dishes,” he says, “you have to grow up with it.” Most of the cooking is still done by his father’s generation with Nick and his brothers in the dining room. These days the fare is more savory than sweet, though Tripoli still offers the expected trio of baklawa, lady fingers, and birds’ nests for dessert.

Revitalization had taken hold by the 1980s, ushering in new residents and businesses. Many factors were coming to bear: rent increases, older immigrants moving out of the neighborhood, next generations leaving the family business. Over the decades, old-world customers cooking from scratch for large families were replaced by second- and third-generation Arab-Americans sampling the flavors of their childhoods and a broader base of young Brooklynites seeking health food.

In 1985, Charlie Sahadi expanded his store to include no. 189. Until the renovation, the store had retained the original shelves which Charlie remembered watching his father’s business partner hammer into the walls 40 years earlier. Listening to customers and his own instincts, he had diversified into a mix of ethnic, health, and gourmet foods, and needed room for international cheeses and olives as well as Irish steel-cut oatmeal, Italian balsamic vinegar, and Swiss preserves. He also made way for a deli counter, the brain-child of his daughter Christine (then a business student at NYU), to showcase prepared foods using ingredients available in the store.

A few regulars accused Charlie of “yuppifying,” but he had surprised most customers for the better. “My specialty-food shoppers fell in love with the Middle Eastern food, and my Middle Eastern shoppers fell in love with the specialty foods,” he chuckles. Sahadi’s (as the store is simply referred to now) is Atlantic Avenue’s flagship, drawing customers from the borough and beyond.

Dennis Halaby also adapted Damascus Bakery, folding new ideas into his grandparents’ traditions. In the ‘90s he began using whole wheat filo dough to create variations on his grandmother’s spinach and feta trikopita (triangular pies), substituting potato for feta and filling others with vegetables and meat, similar to samosas. The low-carb set took to his thin, cloth-like Markouk bread—“they call it ‘wraps’ now.” Dennis also upgraded to a more modern and efficient elevator oven, but it’s lined with bricks from Lebanon to flavor the bread like his grandfather’s coal-fed brick chamber.

Perhaps the most interesting eats on Atlantic Avenue are also the newest here, from one of the oldest centers of civilization: Yemen. When Muthanna Nassir, a former chef at the Windows on the World atop the WTC, and his business partner, Yahya Alsubai, opened Yemen Café at no. 176 in 1984, it was the first restaurant on the avenue to depart from food of the Levant, focusing on the decidedly lamb-based cuisine from their homeland at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

Along with Sanaa, the Yemenite diner that opened across the street earlier this year at no. 193, Yemen Café is as close to round-the-clock service as you’ll find on Atlantic Avenue, opening daily for breakfast at 9 a.m. and serving customers until 11 p.m.

During the month of Ramadan (which ends on Oct. 23), when Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown, Yemen Café opens from 3-ll p.m. Even those Brooklynites not breaking a fast may want to dig in to sambosas (savory fried meat dumplings not to be confused with Indian samosas), and shurba (a thick porridge of lamb and ground whole wheat). The roast lamb is a favorite of Chowhound Jim Leff. “They hack off a chunk and serve it on a plate. It feels like you’re in a migratory yurt in the Yemeni dessert.”

Akram Nassir, Muthanna’s son who now runs the café with Alsubai, says about a third of his customers are Yemenite, a third are new immigrants from the Middle East, and the rest is “everybody else.”

“You don’t have that old tradition,” says Akram, referring to the long-gone first generation, “but you still have every Arab community coming to Atlantic Avenue. They want Yemeni food, they come here. They want pastries, they go to Damascus. They want dried fruits, they go to Sahadi’s. They want spices, they go next door to Malko or to Oriental Pastry & Grocery.”

These days the shoppers on Atlantic Avenue, Arab or not, are as often from Connecticut and Pennsylvania as from the BoCoCa trident. Sahadi’s in particular has inspired many a bridge and tunnel reversal, with Manhattanites coming to Brooklyn for items they can’t find elsewhere. It’s well worth the trip, and for a transatlantic passage it’s not very taxing. They simply cross the East River.

Where to go for…

Middle Eastern 101
Try the house vegetarian platter for one ($12) or two ($25) at Waterfalls Café. Tripoli (no. 156) offers Lebanese traditional maza, a sampler of 20 house specialties that serves 3-4 people ($41.95). Both are open on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

Autumnal picnic fare
Pick up take-out from Fatoosh—their falafel sandwich is the hood’s heartiest, with crisp vegetables and fresh made-to-order pita. Or assemble tapas of olives, bread and cheese at Sahadi’s (no. 187-189). Then head with your spread to the Promenade or Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO.

Holiday baked goods
The winter holidays are boom time for Damascus Bakery (no. 195), which offers specialties like honey balls, macaroons, and a special baklava with cheese. Check out Kataif, a shredded wheat pastry popular for the three-day feast concluding Ramadan, and Greek egg bread, favored by local Greek Orthodox patrons at Christmas.

Bearing gifts
Hit the deli at Sahadi’s (no. 187-189) en route to a Thanksgiving potluck or pick up a tray of dried fruits, nuts and chocolate to share. The freshness of their dry roasted nuts is unparalleled—never more than three days old—and their ample selection of gourmet foods lack the epicurean markup. Don’t miss their Christmas window, one of the best show pieces on the Avenue. Charlie’s wife, Audrey, designs the windows year-round, in addition to running the office and buying all the cheese.

Warm up
Wind off the East River makes harsh winters feel even colder on Atlantic Avenue. After trolling the Christmas windows towards Flatbush, wrap your hands around a Styrofoam cup of boiling hot black tea with local Yemenites, the newest Middle Eastern immigrants this end of the Avenue. Stave off the chill with the garlic-rich yellow lentil soup at Sanaa (no. 193)—or try the classic saltah at Yemen Café (no. 176, above the barber shop), a lamb stew with a fenugreek froth, scooped up with doughy bread instead of a spoon.

Editor’s note: Waterfalls Cafe has closed.