"This is a bar, not a hardware store," Tommy Demaras says to a man who rang the bell outside Square Hardware, the confusing exterior of Demaras's latest project, The Last Word, a cozy speakeasy echoing Manhattan's PDT and other semi-hidden bars. "This happens everyday," he explained: Older and long-term residents in the Astoria neighborhood where he recently launched the bar are shocked to learn that such a place exists on Ditmars Boulevard, home to many an old hardware shop with bodegas, dollar stores, grocery stores and a Dunkin Donuts in between.
Even Demaras's own father, who raised him in Astoria, was a little worried when he heard about the speakeasy concept, but neighbors assured him his son, a "product of Astoria," would be okay. With waits over an hour on weekends, it looks like they were right.
Demaras said that growing up, he and his friends would joke that they couldn't wait for their parents to make enough money so they could move to Whitestone or Bayside. But now, with sushi restaurants and chic Australian cafes, "Astoria has become what Brooklyn became years ago. It's a happening, trendy, really cool place." He noted that he and many neighbors agree that Ditmars, one of a few bustling streets in Astoria (the others, closer to Manhattan by train include 30th Avenue, Broadway and Steinway), has seen a resurgence in the last few years, bringing new, millennial-attracting businesses to the neighborhood.
Rumors have been circulating that the former home of Top Tomato at 33-15 Ditmars, which has been abandoned since the local grocery store closed in 2009, may even become a Shake Shack (though Shake Shack says it really is just a rumor). "This is a trendy, happening scene, I'm thrilled to be in this neighborhood," according to Demaras.
Twenty years ago, Demaras had to beg his friends to come out to Astoria (those who live in Astoria currently may still be familiar with the feeling) and now notes that rentals in the area now rival Manhattan prices. Since The Last Word opened just over two months ago, Demaras said real estate agents take their clients into the bar and other newer local businesses to show how cool and desirable the Ditmars area is.
The area around the Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard subway stop is quickly becoming a destination for those who don't live in the neighborhood. On this section of Ditmars circa 2016, we're talking speakeasies, Michelin-recommended ramen, cocktail bars helmed by personal friends of Lady Gaga, and all the amenities of Manhattan and Brooklyn without the pretense.
Old school bakeries, Greek restaurants (and Greek bakeries!) are all part of the attraction, too, interwoven with trendy new restaurants and shops that are boosting business on the Boulevard. Haven't taken in Ditmars yet? Our list isn't exhaustive, but here's a guide to some of the culinary delights that await.
MARTHA'S COUNTRY BAKERY An institution so cool that it recently opened a Williamsburg location, this bakery lures in passersby at all hours of the day with its magnificent scents of fresh-baked pies in all flavors of the fruit rainbow, triple layered cakes with fudgy frosting gluing the layers together, and gelato just waiting to be whipped up into the milkshake of your dreams. Cafe tables outside and in an enclosed porch make this a legitimately pleasant place to hang out any night your own grandma can't comfort you with pie. Opened in 1972, a date proudly printed on workers's aprons, this old school bakery is a Ditmars staple that's nearly impossible to resist for anyone with a sweet-tooth.
36-21 Ditmars Blvd., (718) 545-9737; marthascountrybakery.com
THE POMERY With a kitchen helmed by Lady Gaga's chef Bo O'Connor, The Pomeroy has been a high profile spot since it opened in November 2015. It's loud, it's fun, and the cocktails cost the same as a trendy Manhattan bar, unfortunately. Visit the charmingly decorated restaurant for the fried chicken that comes with a duo of addictive dipping sauces and daily specials using seasonal ingredients for salads, sides and more.
36-12 Ditmars Blvd., 718-721-1579, thepomeroynyc.com
BROOKLYN BAGEL & COFFEE The best bagel in New York City by many opinionated New Yorkers, this ironically not-in-Brooklyn spot serves freshly rolled bagels each morning, to be smothered in homemade flavored cream cheeses (baked apple and jalapeno are practically tame for the shop) or dressed up as a fancy sandwich that elevates your typical BEC with things like sprouts, turkey and avocado. Slinging out bagels on Ditmars since 2002, this was one of the O.G. destinations for the neighborhood before it became flanked by cool bars, boutiques and sushi restaurants.
35-98 Ditmars Blvd., (718) 932-8280; bkbagel.com
ASTORIA BIER & CHEESE Part grocery and beer store, part cheese counter, and part restaurant and bar, this multi-faceted business is all about things that taste good. Stock up on cheese, fresh bread and rare beers for the week, or visit at night for freshly-pressed, super melty grilled cheese (try the Mr. Crispy with rosemary ham with Gruyere), cheese plates and sandwiches galore, all to be paired with whatever's on tap.
35-11 Ditmars Blvd., (718) 255-6982; astoriabierandcheese.com
HINOMARU RAMEN Some of the best ramen in NYC, you'll want to stop by this monkey-mascoted ramen shop as you stroll down Ditmars. Start out with the tempura broccoli appetizer, which is shockingly enormous and so delightfully crispy and drizzled in sweet sauce you'll forget you're eating a vegetable. All of the meat and veggie ramen are solid; add a spicy fireball—a tongue tickling, chili-infused and pork meatball—if that's your thing, and look to the back of the menu for a guide on ramen styles and beer pairings.
33-18 Ditmars Blvd., 718-777-0228; hinomaruramen.com
TAVERNA KYCLADES Originally founded in 1996, this twenty-year-old Greek restaurant, one of many in the neighborhood, feels more old school Greek grandparents than millennial—and that's a good thing. Not at all showing its age, this no reservations, family-style joint is rumored to be George Clooney's favorite restaurant when he's in town shooting a movie at the nearby studios. Even with a second location just off the L train at First Avenue and 14th Street, Taverna Kyclades is known for its long waits down Ditmars Boulevard, worthwhile for the excellent Mediterranean fare and cheap carafes of wine you'll be rewarded with on the other side. Prepare to feast like a Greek deity on grape leaves, saganaki, lamb chops, whole fish with abundant sides, and Dionysian carafes of wine.
33-07 Ditmars Blvd., (718) 545-8666; tavernakyclades.com
FLATTOPPS This new burger joint by the creators of the notoriously greasy, sugary, and somewhat wacky Queens Comfort brings the same deep frying mad scientist flare with a little bit of refinement, with a focus on burgers and boozy slushies. The restaurant—with a DJ spinning in back and retro video games at each end of the space—is loud, satisfying and undeniably indulgent. But if you're an influencer looking to Instagram a burger oozing cheese, jam and cereal-crusted bacon—or just a normal person who likes a bonkers burger—this is your spot.
33-06 Ditmars Blvd., (718) 267-0400; flattopps.com
THE LAST WORD Hidden behind an entrance disguised as an old hardware store is this cozy cocktail lounge where you can cuddle up on a couch or plush armchair in a living room-style setup that's tough to come by in the over-crowded bar scenes elsewhere in the city. Ideal for dates or small groups, having your own space and being able to have a conversation over artisanal cocktails is a novelty practically reserved for Astoria at spots like these.
31-30 Ditmars Blvd., (347) 670-4831; tlwastoria.com
OK CAFE Just a slight turn off Ditmars Boulevard sits this petite cafe and coffeeshop that becomes a cozy, empanada-serving wine bar at night. With barely room for ten to sit, if you play it right, you can have the whole candlelit place to yourself.
22-04 33rd Street, (718) 440-8789; okcafeastoria.com
Melissa Kravitz moved to New York City in 2009 and has been writing about food ever since. Her work can be seen on Thrillist, Mashable, Elite Daily, First We Feast and more. She eats mostly noodles and is working on a novel.