In Williamsburg if you want to sit outside, near the river, and drink a beer at an establishment with an unobstructed view of the water, good luck. Over the past decade, the Williamsburg waterfront has been snatched up by developers, and implanted with residential high rises, beginning with that conspicuous trailblazing development, The Edge. It and similar-looking friends have taken away most straight-shot views of the East River, and places to hang out along it, unless you are of the mysterious set who lives inside one of them.
Of course, the exception to this private development is Bushwick Inlet Park and the adjacent East River State Park. As these public green spaces began transforming into their present condition in the aughts, the state cleared out and tidied up what had been neglected for decades. But, if you look at the land on Google Maps, you will notice a single building remains in the middle of it all. That building belongs to Mark Nagawiecki, who moved to Greenpoint from Poland in 1976 at the age of 25. In front of the building, on 110 Kent Avenue, he installed an event space called Biba, opened in 2003; six years later, Nagawiecki opened the much more visible café by the same name, just across the street. And now, after years of fighting the state to save his building—under his ownership since 1986—from being subsumed by the park, Nagawiecki seems to have prevailed. And with his victory, he has given us all a treat: The only beer garden with an unobstructed view of the water, and Manhattan beyond it, on the Williamsburg waterfront, called Biba (once you’ve got a brand, may as well stick with it).
Biba beer garden, situated inside of a large fenced-in patio behind Biba’s event space and surrounded by the State Park on three sides, has been open to the public since April, according to General Manager and Nagawiecki’s son Mark Jr.. But you may not have heard about it previously because they hadn’t spoken a word about it. On Saturdays and Sundays, however, Mark Jr. says the patio is jam-packed with thirsty patrons simply by virtue of its visibility from the park. Park visitors (and residents of the Edge) see other people quaffing bitter, cold suds, eating meats, sitting on picnic tables shaded by umbrellas, and then mosey inside to join them.
When I stopped by last week, Nagawiecki Sr., who acquired a mentor in construction when he first moved to Greenpoint, and has since become successful in the industry, told me he hasn’t advertised because he didn’t need to. He has all the proper permits (though the beer hall does not exist on the state’s official zoning map), and has no rent to pay: If he served the beer, Nagawiecki knew the beer drinkers would come.
“I stayed because I am stubborn and I don’t give a shit about certain things, which is Money,” Nagawiecki told me, as we sat inside of the beer garden’s kitchen, closed early due to some forboding clouds in the distance. When he took over the building in 1986, up to 60 homeless people had been living there he told me; nobody knew or cared. The land surrounding it, too, was untouched.
Oh, how times have changed.
Last week, Nagawiecki Jr. sat with me on the patio, empty in light of the weather, and told me what he hoped to achieve with it. In essence, something very simple: “There is nothing traditional about us, really,” he said, sitting across from me at one of the picnic tables. But by that he meant, in fact, quite traditional. These days what is simple is novel. “We just wanted to have a nice place to hang out, to have a couple of drinks, and something to eat with no pretense and no posturing.” he explained. “Just have a beer, enjoy yourself and go.” What a delight.
Is it true that this is really the only unobstructed water-view beer garden in Williamsburg, I wondered? Mark JR. replied, “Yeah, well, there’s Giando’s”—that vintage mafia-like waterfront aberration everyone recognizes but likely has not eaten at—“but that’s a full time restaurant.” If that is the closest thing to this beer garden on the waterfront, then, I agreed, this factoid must be true.
On Nagawiecki’s menu, in addition to beers and wine on draft, and some elaborate cocktails like the Dionoso Silva (your choice of alcohol with lightly sweetened black iced tea, fresh squeezed lemon, orange and mint, garnished with lemon, mint leaf, and seasonal berries), and Mark’s Polish Lemonade (named after whichever Mark happened to be on site that day, Mark Jr. told me), once again with your choice of alcohol, fresh lemonade, and infused with organic berries and sage and garnished with the same; there is a whole boat load of grilled meats in various forms.
The Biba Burger comes topped with cheddar and house-made vegan tofu chili. There’s a cheeseburger with caramelized onions, pickles, mustard, ketchup and mayo; a Biba dog (add sauerkraut free of charge); a naked dog; and, of course, a traditional Polish sausage: pork kielbasa shipped from Chicago and served on a Martin’s potato roll that you can add onions and peppers to with kosher bacon drippings (and again: zero dollars for extra sauerkraut).
Mark Jr. says that once they get an additional occupancy permit for the event space indoors, all of the seating there will be available to beer garden patrons, and the same goes for the full indoor bar, already installed and operational. Outside, the capacity is around 200 and it’s open seven days a week.
So, Williamsburg (and anyone else who wants to eat and drink and look at the water without craning your neck around hulking apartment buildings), meet your low-key summertime beer garden, with water views, clear as day, en suite. Why not make it your Fourth of July destination? Mark Jr. says they’ll be hosting a big party: with the fireworks on the East River, the views can’t be beat. “Get a wrist band and you better reserve your spot for the rest of the night,” says Mark, anticipating somewhat of a crowd, to put it lightly. “Keep eating and drinking, otherwise we’re going to ask you to leave,” he says, both joking and, you know, not.
Knowing how people like their beer and waterfront here—especially when combined—that should not be a problem.
Biba: 110 Kent Avenue, Williamsburg
Photos by Jane Bruce