Williamsburg Bridge in 1991 (Photo by Jet Lowe/Library of Congress)

At the end of October, Pete Wells didn’t use his knife to cut through Peter Luger’s vaunted porterhouse— instead he drove it directly into the heart of the 132-year-old steakhouse. “What gnaws at me every time I eat a Luger porterhouse is the realization that it’s just another steak,” Wells wrote in his review for the New York Times, “and far from the best New York has to offer.” He awarded the restaurant zero stars, his words as cold as the disappointing German fried potatoes. The same day, the New York Times released a (perhaps prematurely) companion article: “Readers Respond to the Pete Wells Review of Peter Luger: ‘Finally.’” This was a hit job, through and through. 

Located right off the Marcy Ave stop of the JMZ, Peter Luger has weathered the changing tastes of Williamsburg. It witnessed the influx of immigrants at the end of the 19th century, the building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the descent of the neighborhood into the “killing fields” of the 1980s, and its rebirth as a hipster haven in the 1990s and early 2000s. Whether or not readers were truly clamoring for Pete Wells’s guilty verdict, it’s clear that Peter Luger no longer holds the honor of Williamsburg’s steakhouse. Instead, that title goes to its reluctant heir-apparent: St. Anselm, just down the street at Metropolitan and Havemeyer. 

The much-maligned, yet still delicious Peter Luger porterhouse (Photo by Leo Schwartz)

After St. Anselm opened in 2010, critics were tripping over themselves to coronate it as the big new deal. The man behind the establishment, restaurateur Joe Carroll, told me he didn’t even think of St. Anselm as a steakhouse until the media deemed it one. In fact, he and his father had initially conceived of St. Anselm as a “burger and dog thing” in the vein of two places in New Jersey he grew up with. The space didn’t fit that concept, though, and Carroll decided to make St. Anselm into the type of tavern diners would go to for an affordable steak on a Tuesday night. 

Unlike Peter Luger, which has occupied its building since before the turn of the century, St. Anselm not only reflects the dining scene of the new Williamsburg—its building, 355 Metropolitan, mirrors the history of the neighborhood. The restaurant may also represent its future.

The Old Williamsburg

In a deep dive for Curbed, the New York City expert James Nevius details the history of Williamsburg. In 1792, the entrepreneur Richard M. Woodhull bought up 13 acres of land in what was then called Bushwick Shore. Ten years later, he hired his friend, an army surveyor named Jonathan Williams, to create a gridded street plan, naming his new town Williamsburgh “in honor of its master planner.” The “h” disappeared by 1852, when Williamsburg was formally incorporated as a city with a population of around 40,000. The city of Brooklyn annexed it three years later. 

The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, and the Williamsburg Bridge 20 years after that. So many immigrants flowed over the latter that it became known as “the Jews’ highway,” although groups included Poles, Italians, and Slavs. Most of the immigrants settled in the area north of the bridge, which included 355 Metropolitan. 

Property records during this period are murky, with the only verifiable data coming from fire insurance maps. The earliest one is from 1886, which showed a three-story structure at 355 Metropolitan with a wood frame and brick encasing—the building still standing today. The earliest archive mentioning the address also comes from 1898, from a directory of liquor holders. It lists a Peitro L. Petrozelli at 355 Metropolitan Ave, subdivision 1. The spirit of food and drink—or at least, drink—runs deep in the property’s DNA. 

The portrait of Peitro Petrozelli (or Peter Petruzzelli, as he’s more commonly listed) unfolds through the pages of newspapers and censuses. Petruzzelli came to the United States from Italy in 1883. A New York Times photoessay from 2019 documented the remnants of the wave of Italian immigrants like Petruzzelli who moved to Williamsburg at the end of the 19th century. Although the dwindling population now refers to itself as “The Leftovers,” Petruzzelli would have been surrounded by fellow countrymen when he arrived in Williamsburg. In a 1900 census, 355 Metropolitan lists four families: the Petruzzellis, the Distefanios (led by Peter’s son-in-law, Antonio), the Ferraris, and the Janenos, all from Italy. The census identifies Peter as a saloon keeper and the owner of 355 Metropolitan. Antonio works for him as a bartender. 

A 1902 article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle indicates that 355 Metropolitan saw constant turnover of tenants. On July 16, one of the new residents, Frank Fagan, discovered his housemate Francisco Cantano dead in the hallway, his head covered with blood. Although police suspected foul play, a doctor came down from the Eastern District Hospital and decided that he died as the result of a fall. After an investigation, the police learned that Cantano had spent the previous night “visiting cafes in the neighborhood,” which presumably weren’t the type of bougie cafes that now litter Williamsburg. The police determined Cantano had fallen down the stairs. 

As tenants moved out (or died), the Petruzzellis remained a constant. In 1909, Peter’s daughter Maria married Filippo Montagano—a neighbor at 308 Marcy Ave. The 1910 census includes some new additions to the house. The Distefanios, Ferraris, and Janenos had presumably moved out, replaced by the Crudeles and Filios, also from Italy. A third family joined them: Joseph Friedman—an immigrant from Russia, and presumably Jewish—along with his wife and four children. Like many other Jewish immigrants of the time, Joseph worked in cloth and textiles. Two of his daughters—Annie, 18, and Beccie, 16, worked at a nearby factory as silkwomen. Joseph also had a 10-year-old daughter, who was written up in the Oct. 18, 1910 edition of the Brooklyn Citizen. “Little Lena Friedman has narrow escape from harm,” reads the headline. Apparently, she was crossing the street at Metropolitan Avenue and North 4th when an automobile operated by Adolph Firnell knocked her down. Luckily the top vehicle speed of the day was around 28 mph, and little Lena was only “slightly injured.”

Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Curiously enough, Peter changed his occupation to painter in the 1910 census, although it’s unclear whether this was in the artistic or utilitarian sense. Clearly, he only viewed saloon-keeping as a hobby, although he stayed in the property for a number of years. In a marriage announcement, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Aug. 6, 1921 still lists “Pietro L. Petruzzelli” at 355 Metropolitan, now 66 years old, marrying Marla T. Canio. A series of 1930 advertisements in the Brooklyn newspaper The Chat, though, includes a listing for 355 Metropolitan: “Store, suitable any business, electric, good business location.” Peter had moved on. 

The only other indication of 355 Metropolitan as a store or restaurant comes from a 1940s New York City Department of Records project that photographed every property in Brooklyn for tax purposes. A grainy image captures the building at some point between 1939 and 1941. An awning covers the storefront, with goods for sale outside. To its immediate left is a barbershop, a truck tires store to its right. At some point in the ensuing years, just like its neighbors, 355 Metropolitan went dormant, until Joe Carroll would revive it a half-century later.

The Changing Neighborhood

In 1956, one of the major employers in Williamsburg—the Eberhard pencil factory, which had opened in 1872—moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a harbinger of doom. The trend intensified through the 1960s, as jobs that had attracted people to Williamsburg—industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse—began to dry up, even though thousands of Puerto Ricans were moving to the area with the promise of employment. Compounding this, New York City suffered a fiscal crisis in the 1970s. Factories in Williamsburg shuttered, and the city stopped investment projects, including on the neighborhood’s waterfront. Unemployment sharply increased, especially after two of the biggest companies in the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard shuttered in the 1980s. There were 93,000 manufacturing jobs in Williamsburg in 1961, but fewer than 12,000 by the 1990s. Gangs began to dominate the neighborhood—Phantom Lords, the Satan Souls, the Dirty Ones, and the Driggs Boys of Justice. In 1981, the community leader Luis Garden Acosta dubbed northern Brooklyn “the killing fields,” a particularly deadly enclave in a crime-ridden era for the city, as memorialized in the 1979 cult classic The Warriors

A New York Times article from 1986 captures Williamsburg before its tectonic shift, but with signs of the coming explosion. “Bleak and seemingly abandoned factories provide dramatic loft space for artists,” the reporter David Dorian writes. “Undoubtedly, sections of Williamsburg suffer from severe blight.” To really add insult to injury, the article lists rent for a one-bedroom apartment as $550—a one-family house only cost about $150,000. Still, it cautions that “Williamsburg is a high-crime neighborhood,” although “the gangs that gave Williamsburg its dangerous reputation during the ’70s ‘have quieted down for about three years,’” according to a community leader.

In the 1980s, a Greek immigrant listed in property records as Emmanuel Tsiscais—although alternatively listed in public records as Emmanuel Tsiscacis—purchased 355 Metropolitan Avenue. He still owns the building today, although he currently resides in New Jersey. At the time, the surrounding storefronts had all shuttered. Joe Carroll of St. Anselm said that Tsiscais confided in him that after purchasing the property, he ripped out the old, beautiful wooden storefront and replaced it with a cheap metal facade. “He didn’t give a crap back then,” said Carroll. “It was such a shit neighborhood that nobody ever expected what was going to happen.”

Another NYC photo project from the 1980s captures the change. The photos were taken sometime between 1983 and 1988, after Tsiscais had purchased the lot. A brick building had been erected in the former tire lot, now looking like some kind of garage. The former barbershop was shielded by black plywood, with a decaying door protecting it from outsiders. And 355 Metropolitan was no longer a storefront, but instead a faceless facade blanketed by two metal gates.

Joe Carroll opened his first establishment in 2003, a craft beer bar named Spuyten Duyvil at 359 Metropolitan Ave., the home of the former barbershop. He had already been coming to Williamsburg for years. “It was still pretty chill, pretty quiet of a scene,” he told me. “It seemed to me like Williamsburg had happened already, but it really clearly had not, at least not in the way we know it today.”

As the 1986 Times article foretold, artists and creative types priced out of Soho and the Lower East Side began to flow into the neighborhood, which was just one stop away from Manhattan on both the L and JMZ lines of the subway. Rents were not necessarily lower, but space was more abundant. People moved into vacated warehouses and lofts that could house concert stages and large exhibits. This also began a new age of gentrification. The white population had been dropping and the Hispanic population increasing. In the 1990s, though, the trend reversed.

When Carroll opened Spuyten Duyvil, most of the bars and restaurants in Williamsburg were concentrated around N. 6th and Bedford, the first L stop from Manhattan—places like Oznot’s Dish, which closed in 2005, and Relish, which closed in 2010. Some were also close to the Marcy Ave stop of the JMZ, including the still-open Diner and, of course, Peter Luger. Metropolitan Ave still hadn’t really “happened” yet, except for a Middle Eastern restaurant called Black Betty that would host DJs and bands. It closed in 2009.

Peter Luger exterior (Photo by Shinya Suzuki/Flickr)

Carroll had lived in Manhattan until 2000, but lost the rent stabilization on his apartment. He and his partner Kim moved back in with his parents in New Jersey. For the first four months after he opened Spuyten Duyvil, he was commuting in to Williamsburg. One night, though, Tsascais came into the bar and asked if anyone wanted to rent an apartment at the neighboring 355 Metropolitan. Carroll immediately took him up on the offer. 

Like many of the other vacant storefronts in the neighborhood, Tsascais had converted the first floor into a rudimentary apartment. The basement had even been turned into an illegal unit at one point. Carroll took one of the two apartments upstairs. Tsascais’s mother would come in once a month to stay in the ground floor for the weekend. Carroll knew she was there by the smell of her cooking. 

In 2007, Carroll opened his next restaurant—a barbecue joint down the street named Fette Sau, which had been a vacant cinder block garage. Critics heaped it with immediate acclaim, with Peter Meehan writing in a 2007 Times review, “The strong showing from behind the bar is no surprise because Fette Sau is the second venture of Joe Carroll and Kim Barbour, the folks behind Brooklyn’s best bottled-beer bar, Spuyten Duyvil, just across the street.”

Carroll had moved out of his apartment in 355 Metropolitan by that point, and Tsascais’s mother had stopped coming to her vacated storefront apartment. Carroll was already thinking about his next venture, which at that point was the burger and dog joint he was conceptualizing with his father, although they couldn’t find the right space. Fette Sau was across the street from 355 though, and Spuyten Dyuvil next door. He wondered if the storefront could be turned into a restaurant and bar, without knowing that was its original purpose. Tsascais agreed, and St. Anselm was born. For the first time in as much as 70 years, 355 Metropolitan would serve customers. Ironically, Carroll only kept the first iteration of the restaurant—closer to his original idea of a “highbrow-lowbrow bar-food mecca”—open for a year because he couldn’t procure a liquor license. Maybe the ghost of Peter Petruzzelli, still bitter his career as a painter didn’t work out, was cursing the building.

St. Anselm’s interior (Photo by Michael Parrella)

The New Williamsburg

When St. Anselm finally opened for good in 2011, critics lapped it up, just like Carroll’s other ventures. “The new iteration is charming, with a pulsing bass line of ambition beneath its simple steakhouse melody,” Sam Sifton wrote for the Times

Although Carroll hadn’t even thought of the restaurant as a steakhouse, much less in the grand tradition of Brooklyn steakhouses, other reviewers immediately began to compare it to Peter Luger. In 2012, New York magazine wrote “Use the words ‘best’ and “steak’ and ‘Brooklyn’ in the same sentence but fail to conclude your thesis with the name Peter Luger and even the palest vegan in the audience will wonder whether you might be better off in a home of some sort. But eight blocks north of Luger’s, at St. Anselm, we have a contender.” 

Unlike the old-fashioned Peter Luger, where famously unfriendly servers delivered diners their dry-aged slabs of beef, St. Anselm represented the new wave of Williamsburg cuisine, more focused on sourcing and presentation than legacy and quantity (although St. Anselm does serve a gargantuan bone-in Tomahawk steak). St. Anselm has exposed brick, modern lighting, and counters straight from Restoration Hardware. Peter Luger’s wood paneling looks like it hasn’t been replaced since the early 1900s, and chandeliers light up the dining rooms. St. Anselm meticulously grills their steaks; Peter Luger throws theirs under a broiler. In Pete Wells’s estimation, Peter Luger’s method “caramelizes the top side only, while the underside is barely past raw.” St. Anselm became the darling of the burgeoning Williamsburg culinary scene.

St. Anselm’s interior (Photo by Michael Parrella)

Soon enough, Metropolitan Ave filled out. The real boom in Williamsburg came in 2005, when rezoning led to an eruption of new luxury condos, but restaurants like St. Anselm signaled its official arrival. Williamsburg was no longer artist-cool—it had the more mainstream cool factor that started bringing in the trifecta of Manhattanites, tourists, and the bridge and tunnel crowd. Bars and restaurants began to line not only the main drags of the neighborhood, but the side streets as well, making it “more akin to the East Village,” Carrol told me. 

With that, rents skyrocketed, gentrification intensified, and national chains like Whole Foods and Duane Reade began taking over from the first bars and restaurants that had filled the once-empty storefronts. “No longer is Williamsburg the cool kid spot,” Carroll said, “and hasn’t been for quite a while now.”

Even so, Carroll’s trinity of Spuyten Duyvil, Fette Sau, and St. Anselm are thriving. He even opened a second St. Anselm in D.C. While other establishments that came in the first wave are closing, Carroll was lucky enough to have signed a favorable, long-term lease with St. Anselm, although he said that his rent on Fette Sau has increased five-fold since it opened. 

Steak at St. Anselm (Photo by Michael Parrella)

Peter Luger has remained a constant throughout the history of Williamsburg—static, often to a fault—but 355 Metropolitan rode the neighborhood’s boom-and-bust cycle. Today, St. Anselm continues the legacy of a once-vibrant neighborhood, blighted by industrial loss and revived through New York City’s ever-evolving property costs. As the neighborhood shifts once again, though, 355 Metropolitan may soon have to re-invent itself once again. Until that day, though, you can always find a line outside St. Anselm, waiting for Brooklyn’s best steak. At least until Pete Wells comes along.