Full disclosure: I am a Vanderbilt.
My mother’s maiden name is Vanderbilt and my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Cornelius Vanderbilt, also known as the Commodore (pictured). He may or may not be the inspiration for those funk masters The Commodores, but even if not, he’s in history books in his own right for his incredible wealth, his domination of the shipping trade, and his ownership of both Grand Central Station and the Staten Island Ferry. The family name originated in the village of De Bilt in Utrecht, Netherlands; the Dutch van der (“of the”) was added to create “van der Bilt” (“from De Bilt”), which was eventually condensed to Vanderbilt.
Now, I am also a Weiss. I come from a long line of Brooklyn Jews, stretching back to a mohel based in Brighton Beach and a rabbi in Bed-Stuy.
Neither group, I think, spent much time on Vanderbilt Avenue, the stretch of mostly pleasant homes, speakeasy bars, and faux old-timey restaurants between Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
In light of this, then, Brooklyn The Borough felt it was about time to send a Vanderbilt to Vanderbilt (apparently, the Brighton Beach bris trip is still to come…). And what better place to kick-off this adventure in gentrification, family history, and neighborhood love than with dinner and drinks at The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights.
The Vanderbilt is a neighborhood newcomer, but certainly no gentrification pioneer. Opened in November 2009, the adorable wood-lined bar and restaurant shares the street with the well-regarded neo-cocktailian spots Weather Up and Soda Bar.
Still, you’d have to be Brooklyn-blind to miss The Vanderbilt’s strong pedigree; its co-owner is Saul Bolton, the Brooklyn champion who gave Smith Street locals a reason to put on their Manhattan shoes a decade ago when he opened Saul, his outstanding, Michelen-starred restaurant in Boerum Hill. The neighborhood has only gentrified since, first earning, then expecting, the high-quality food and service Saul provides.
With The Vanderbilt, co-owner Ben Daitz joins in, bringing his East Village know-how from Num Pang, and the result is a spot more gastropub than game-changer. Cozy and warm, The Vanderbilt isn’t struggling to change its neighborhood. This is the seventh day after all of Saul’s toil. Lucky for the laid-back locals, The Vanderbilt rests.
Dining as a Vanderbilt at The Vanderbilt was delicious, as I expected, knowing and loving its sibling spot Saul. Still, dinner at The Vanderbilt was certainly a less formal affair. The wooden American-infused interior evokes a log cabin more than a cocktail lounge. The scene felt upbeat, but more like parents psyched for their one night out than like the buzz of movers and shakers. None of this is bad, of course, just different; comfortable.
The menu takes far more risks. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Commodore would think of the Spicy Blood Sausage ($10, incredibly light and demure – served uncased with shaved celery root puree) or the Orielles de Christ ($4, slightly less demure – the fried pigs ears were accompanied by two tiny plastic syringes full of hot sauce). There’s Grilled Spanish Octopus ($12), Crispy Pig Feet ($10) and Chopped Liver Mousse ($8 – at least my Weiss side was right at home).
My maternal grandfather, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II, believed you could tell a chef’s skill not by his meat or dessert (too easy) but by his vegetables. My grandfather employed many chefs over his lifetime. My grandfather never served vegetables. Well, Grumps, at The Vanderbilt, might I suggest the Brussel Sprouts ($5, luxurious and rich – mixed with the sesame seeds, honey and lime)? Or perhaps the Blistered Shishito Peppers ($6, salty, spicy, sour perfection, served with pimenton salt)?
The Vanderbilt is just like that Long Island estate all American billionaires have – cheerful, homey, relaxing – but with much better cooks. Another key difference is the price. Everything on the menu is under $20. Whether it’s pure charity or the trickle down effect, it’s a delight for the nouveau riche and the newly pink-slipped alike.
The Vanderbilt’s bar offerings are also very well-priced. Wine by the glass ranges from $6 to $12. The beers on tap were the standard pro-craft East Coast spread (Sixpoint, Slyfox, Captain Lawrence… all $6) with some choice picks available in bottles (Monk’s Café Flemish Red Soul Ale, $7).
Cocktails, expertly-mixed though slightly Puritan in presentation (a WASP thing?) were $9. The King Edward both stunned and soothed the palate with an unexpected and smoky combination of rye, cherry, vanilla and Islay scotch.
The dessert menu demands attention too. With choices like Goat Cheesecake ($9, served with red wine pear sorbet and walnut streusel) and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake ($9, served with concord grape gelee and buttermilk ice cream), this modern Vanderbilt was a little embarrassed by riches.
So what is a sixth generation New York tycoon at The Vanderbilt to do? Well, I praised the chef, paid the bill and diversified my holdings. After all, Vanderbilt Avenue has a wealth of options, and so I finished the night with a final drink across the street at yet another gentrification-happy cocktail lounge. The chain reaction of upward mobility never tasted so good.
Yes, indeed, the Commodore would be proud.