Dumbo’s Dramatic New Waterfront Dining Empire

The Empire Stores complex has quickly become home to some of the borough’s buzziest new restaurants

Outdoor diners at Cecconi's have a front-row seat on Brooklyn Bridge Park (Photo by Steve Koepp)

Come for the cicchetti. The mai tai iced coffee. The goat cheese croquettes. But surely, if you’re part of the crowd hanging around the Dumbo waterfront, you’re staying for the views.

Where once River Café stood virtually alone (OK, except for Grimaldi’s pizza around the corner), now a former factory from the Civil War era has turned into a legitimate dining destination, tempting folks across bridges and from nearby neighborhoods.

But why are people flocking to Empire Stores?

Well, first, it’s mighty attractive. With views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the Statue of Liberty, and downtown Manhattan, it’s a one-stop shop for selfie-taking tourists. But when all that Instagramming leads to hunger pangs, Empire Stores is there to fill the void.

The development team wanted to feature restaurants and storefronts that aren’t part of large chains, says David Beare, director of leasing at Midtown Equities, the property’s lead developer, which oversaw retail curation. “The idea was to create unique tenants and a very collective experience,” he says. “We were very fortunate that the building was preserved. You had these beautiful bones to start with, and anything that’s in the original part of the building was preserved and anything we added to the building we made to look modern.”

The dining room of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill in the Empire Stores complex (Photo courtesy of SUGARCANE raw bar grill)

What’s-old-is-new-again holds true in this real estate case. The preserved historic facade now houses an outpost of a Miami hotspot, a shiny new take-away joint, and state-of-the-art office and retail tenants. Who wouldn’t be intrigued to check out Water Street now?

The latest and splashiest opening on this new restaurant row is Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, which debuted its 11,000-sq. ft., 300-seat restaurant on Sept. 18. Featuring an open-flame grill, raw bar and traditional kitchen, not to mention an interior that’d fit right in with its Miami-born roots, the restaurant and its award-winning executive chef and partner Timon Balloo tried to adapt to the neighborhood as much as possible. As their spokesperson Marissa Amendolia notes, “the beautiful brick and schist walls, and the 150-year-old wood beams, play as much of a role in our ‘kick back, eat well, stay awhile’ vibe as our food and drinks do.”

The beet mojito at Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill (Photo courtesy of SUGARCANE)

That relaxed mentality is much of the space’s appeal. You’ve already walked (or biked) all the way to the water. Why not stay awhile? (Sugarcane has an extensive global rum list, which might help.)

A more casual scene is found next door at VHH Foods, an offshoot of the beloved Vinegar Hill House named for the tiny neighborhood next to Dumbo. With protein-forward lunch specials and their standout chocolate Guinness stout cake, the favorites are proving popular with neighborhood crowds, office workers and fans of the original outpost. Partner Sam Buffa, who moved to Dumbo in 1998, says he always looked at the old building and imagined the possibilities, so when he heard Empire Stores was going to develop it three and a half years ago, he reached out—just as they contacted him: “They were excited to engage with a local restaurant and see if we had the ability to work together.”

VHH Foods, an offshoot of Vinegar Hill House, opens onto a soaring atrium inside the Empire Stores building (Photo courtesy of VHH Foods)

The result is VHH Foods’ open, breezy area with clean, modern lines. “We wanted to have fun with the elements, not take ourselves too seriously and have a design that is understated, but has nice pops of color,” says Buffa. “We can’t recreate Vinegar Hill House and we shouldn’t try to.” They put a lot of love into their inventive coffee program as well, which mixes cocktail culture with caffeinated beverages. Sample drinks are the Coffee Mai Tai, Egg Coffee, and Cascara Vermouth. The idea is appropriate for the building which, as Buffa notes, housed Arbuckle Bros. Coffee Co.,  the first company to bring green beans in to the U.S., roast them in house, and distribute them throughout the country.

The other main draw is the cicchetti. I mean, Cecconi’s, where you can find the cicchetti: Venetian small plates like meatballs, shishito peppers, and ricotta crostini. Usually you’d eat these on an Italian bar crawl on the water, but the idea translates well to the East River, where the al fresco seats provide a view of the glowing lights of Manhattan. You’ve likely seen someone’s Instagram from this spot. (The endless summer weather surely helps their PR.) Never underestimate the power of envy. People want to show off their experience in a beautiful space, and they’ll tell someone else, who will tell someone, and so on. Right now if you try to book a weeknight table at Cecconi’s, your only options might be 5:45 p.m. or 9 p.m.

The Empire Stores complex is nestled in a cove in Brooklyn Bridge Park where it traverses Dumbo (Photo courtesy of Empire Stores)

All the buzz over Cecconi’s, whose menu also features pizza, pasta, and $34 branzino, works well for owner Nick Jones. Dumbo House, his expansion of membership club Soho House, is under construction for a springtime debut upstairs in the very same Empire Stores complex. (The cosmopolitan Cecconi’s has seven other locations around the world, including West Hollywood, Barcelona and Istanbul.)

THE BRIDGE WEEKLY

SIGN UP FOR BROOKLYN BUSINESS NEWS

Other businesses in Empire Stores are flagship West Elm, Detroit-based watchmaker Shinola, with a takeout shop of Soho favorite Smile to Go, FEED Projects founded by Lauren Bush Lauren, and 72andSunny, the ad agency. Beare from Midtown Equities says they’re planning promotions and pop-ups to keep the space relevant and fresh, and the idea is for the building to have artistic and musical performances.

Brooklyn lives in an endless cycle of growth and death and regeneration and the same holds true for its buildings. With so many developments underway—and sometimes forever stalled—it’s something of a miracle that this enormous project ever saw the finish line at all. Some locals might scoff at the globally-minded hotspots, but if they get people over to Brooklyn Bridge Park, isn’t that a win? Imagine seeing Jane’s Carousel for the first time. What could be more magical than that?

Kara Cutruzzula is a writer living in Fort Greene. Her articles, essays, and plays can be found here.