BY DONNA MINKOWITZ | There is nothing like rifling someone’s hair under white cherry blossoms. Or gazing at tall black-purple tulips while someone puts their arm around you and pulls you close enough to smell their spicy traditional cologne. That is why there is no single better spot for a date in all of New York City than the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
In almost every season, the garden is the place to take someone you love. Many years ago, the BBG folks opened the garden at night during the winter, hanging almost all the trees with fairy lights. I would have gone there every evening if I could: it looked like a queer and trans version of the Fellowship of the Ring was about to ride up on horseback from the northernmost lane of trees. The yellow fall after 9/11, the BBG folks made admission free every day as an act of solace. I walked under the dull green oaks and harvest-gold ginkgos, and it was a good place to fully feel my sadness as I looked across at the cloud of dust that had been 2,753 people.
I’ve been coming here since I was four, when my yeshiva nursery school brought us. My yeshiva took wrong positions on almost every single issue, but it cultivated in all of us kids an enjoyment of the senses and a taste for beauty, things that are probably goods in themselves as we keep fighting against ever-emboldened white nationalism and for the world not to burn. On every Jewish holiday, my teachers gave each child a little bag of the most delicious and sensual dried fruits I have ever encountered. They were all exotic to me, in 1968 Brooklyn: long black carob pods, figs from Smyrna, intense dates, and flaming dried peaches. We never ate them at home. What extravagant pleasures had the world prepared for us? On my tongue, fruits whose names I didn’t know made voluptuous shapes, extending this way and that, making me learn with my mouth how thrilling textures could be.
It’s a Jewish tradition to make learning “sweet” to children by pouring honey on letters of the alphabet and having children lick them off; this was my school’s version of that. For an education in textures, smells, and sights, the most important variants of oral pleasure, come to the garden and walk in the bluebell path, the garden of red, fuchsia, pink, purple, magenta, and white peonies, and the lilacs that hang luxuriantly on the path to the rose garden.
Last year, some of the roses kept blooming through November. If you think they’re done, they’re not. There are tens of thousands of them, some of the sexiest flowers under the sun, so go with your beloved and stick your nose in them. There are 1,000 varieties in all colors and shapes, but for my money the pink, spread-open Tiki roses with yellow centers are the best, male and female at once and smelling like honey.
Of the blossoms that fade quickly, the ones you really shouldn’t miss are the fragrant magnolia that bloom in March, April, and (for one late variety, the creamy magnolia virginiana) in June. If you stand under them, they look like breasts; go put your head under them while they’re there. The cherry blossoms, when they’re here, look like birthday cake that you want to bury your face in. The black-purple tulips I mentioned are profoundly masculine, tall, deep, and angular, and of a color so dark and intense they could be the official flower of the Folsom Street East Fair. They are always present in the yearly display of tulips at the southwestern end of the garden near the greenhouses, right in front of the new restaurant that opened in April, the first sit-down restaurant in the garden’s 106-year history.
Oh yes, the restaurant. The Yellow Magnolia Café, with an expensive but mostly delicious, vegetable-focused menu from sustainable sources, makes a date in the garden far easier. When you and your boy or girl get hungry from all that bending together over the peonies, you now don’t have to eat at the garden’s crowded, miserable outdoor snack canteen, forced to sit at unshaded tables under the broiling sun. (The only places you’re allowed to eat in the garden are the café and the canteen area.)
Savvy members of the 99 percent already know to go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden all day Tuesdays or on Saturday mornings, when admission (normally $15) is free. But the weekends are so crowded from April through September that you should call in sick and go on Tuesday if you can. However, Tuesdays can be crowded, too, making even the most enthusiastic daters irritable and too touchy to accept their sweetheart’s offer to read the poetry excerpts laden around the plants in the Shakespeare Garden. So if you can afford it, spring for the $15 and go on a different weekday, when there is enough room that you can touch an iris’ long, labial petals and then your beloved’s inner arm without accidentally hitting people taking photographs.
Then go to the café — reservations have become increasingly necessary, and vital on weekends and Tuesdays — and order the best thing on the menu, biscuits for two with salted molasses butter and, both the times I ordered it, blood-orange jam ($6). Get them with coffee, tea, or prosecco. The biscuits (vegetarian), dark -colored and unusually deep in flavor, are probably the best biscuits in New York City. Dip a piece in the salted molasses butter, dip another piece in the astounding blood-orange jam. Smile at your beloved.
Ask to sit so that you can both get to look across at the tulips and the flowering trees as you eat. If you’re feeling flush, order other foods on the partly-Southern, partly-Jewish, very herbal menu — the chicken with delicate ramp dumplings, fiddlehead firms, and royal trumpet mushrooms ($16) was my favorite. But if you don’t want to spend your hard-earned bucks, the biscuits will sustain you ‘til you leave the garden. (You don’t need to order four ($11), unless you are a group of four. Trust me on this, even if you are the biggest eater you know.)
Then, after you’ve looked at the water lilies and wandered the forest-like Japanese Garden in the path around the pond, go out the Washington Avenue exit and eat at the cheap and wonderful Kimchi Grill. The place, which seems to be run by queer and trans women, cooks fresh, also vegetable- and herb-forward Korean/ Mexican dishes like a toothsome barbecued short rib taco with a slaw made of red cabbage, kimchi, pear, and apple ($4) and a surprisingly good and interesting “tofu, edamame, falafel taco” ($3.50) made with cucumber kimchi, kimchi-infused refried beans, pickled daikon, and what the restaurant calls “signature Asian spices.” You can have three tacos and a Mexican beer for $10.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has entrances at 150 Eastern Parkway, 990 Washington Avenue, and 455 Flatbush Avenue. Closed on Mondays (but open every July 4 and on Columbus Day). Summer hours are Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $8 for seniors, children under 12 get in free. Fridays are free for seniors, and Tuesdays are free for everyone, while Saturday has free admission from 10 a.m. until noon, except on festival days.
Yellow Magnolia Café, at 990 Washington Avenue in the garden (718-307-7136, or reserve online at yellowmagn
Kimchi Grill, 766 Washington Avenue, between Sterling and Park Places, is wheelchair-accessible. The hours are Monday through Thursday, noon-10 p.m.; Friday, noon-10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m-10:30 p.m.; and Sunday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.