Neighbourhood Watch: A Safe Harbour for Whimsy in Red Hook, Brooklyn

From chocolate to cocktails to an unexpected cluster of acclaimed Thai restaurants, New Yorkers know Red Hook has more to offer than just that big Ikea

There’s nothing like the eclectic charm and raw urban beauty of Red Hook. More than a mile away from the closest train stop and cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by the sketchy Gowanus Canal, this waterfront neighbourhood is off the beaten track for most city slickers. Yet this Brooklyn destination not only has the small town warmth of a seaside village, butalso an idiosyncratic, creative atmosphere – an increasingly rare experience in today’s New York.

Red Hook’s close-knit and resilient community made a remarkable comeback from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. It also continues to successfully resist gentrification, despite Ikea and Fairway superstores, a season on MTV’s Real World, and now impending plans for the Red Hook Innovation District’s 1.2-million-square-foot commercial development.

With sweeping views of New York Harbor and a moody mix of decaying piers, warehouses, railroad tracks, graffiti, and cobblestone streets (from its historic days as one of the busiest ports in the United States), Red Hook is free of the typical window dressing and noisy hype of New York. Home to a variety of creatives and entrepreneurs, it’s one of New York’s most gritty-glam, grassroots artisanal, and neighbourly neighbourhoods – a place where mom and pop can still open shop.

Craft chocolate makers, distilleries and wineries

The family-run chocolate maker and distillery Cacao Prieto has been growing organic cacao and sugarcane for more than 100 years in the Dominican Republic. In addition to producing bean-to-bar chocolate, it distills small-batch rum and whisky.

Red Hook Winery, meanwhile, is part of a growing urban winemaking movement in New York. Brooklyn native Mark Snyder and his partners craft reds, whites and rosés – creating dozens of distinct labels each year – out of grapes sourced from 15 different New York State vineyards. The scenic waterfront warehouse offers bold and unique tastings, from $8 for a trio of harvest samplers to $35 for eight-wine flights.

Hangar-size art galleries

Red Hook’s industrial landscape has been transforming into a vibrant artistic community. At its heart is Pioneer Works, a 25,000-square-foot ironworks building from the Civil War era. Artist Dustin Yellin and his team converted the massive waterfront space into an arts and culture hub for exhibitions, events, performances, artist residencies and educational programs. Every second Sunday of the month, they throw a block party with live music, open studios and artist performances.

Vintage shopping

At Foxy and Winston, you’ll be charmed by the custom letterpress stationery and silkscreen textiles which owner, a British-born illustrator named Jane Buck, creates in her adjoining studio.

For vintage jewellery finds, Erie Basin specializes in Art Deco and custom designs with a penchant for antique gemstones. Wooden Sleepers curates vintage menswear and antique swag like a high-end designer shop.

From nautical dive bars to fancy cocktails

Passed down for generations in the Balzano family, Sunny’s is Brooklyn’s oldest waterfront bar; the homey dive has been a favourite drinking hole of the locals since 1890. The look is “wharfside tavern,” but when it comes to music, expect bluegrass and country jam sessions as opposed to salty sea shanties. Another hole-in-the-wall with local cred is Red Hook Bait & Tackle, housed in what used to be a bait shop. Try to sip your draft beer or spicy bloody mary while avoiding eye contact with the taxidermy.

If you’re more in the mood for affordable and off-the-charts artisanal cocktails, head to BotanicaModelled after a bourgeois Venetian hotel, the dreamy cocktail bar features infusions with locally distilled spirits. Fort Defiance (named after a Revolutionary War fort) makes expertly executed vintage and vintage-style cocktails and is also known for its contemporary pub fare and brunch.

Old and new school eats

At the intimate and charming Good Fork, Ben Schneider and Sohui Kim prepare delicious Korean-inspired, farm-to-table dishes. They use produce from the Red Hook community farm and also serve local specialties from Red Hook Winery, Cacao Prieto, and Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, a local dessert purveyor with a cult following.


Courtesy Good Fork

For a taste of the more traditional, Red Hook Lobster Pound makes classic lobster rolls with freshly caught specimens from Maine. Delfonte’s Italian sandwich shop had its roots as a longshoreman hangout, but is frequented today by nearly everybody who lives and works in the neighbourhood. Take in the local history with an old-school comfort sandwich (such as the potato-and-egg), peering over nostalgic wall photos and clippings.

Top Thai and celebrity chefs

Oddly enough, Red Rook is becoming home to a cluster of some of New York’s most celebrated Northern Thai kitchens, all located a few blocks apart from each other. James Beard award-winning and Michelin-starred chef Andy Ricker prepares bold and authentic Thai dishes at his tiny, no-frills Pok Pok NY. The Portland chef set his roots down in Red Hook because he was looking for an up-and-coming, but still affordable, New York neighbourhood. Following his lead is Chew co-host and former Top Chef contestant Carla Hall. With the help of Kickstarter, she’s set to open Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen this year, in a space formerly owned by Ricker.

Praised for its serious Thai cooking, Kao Soy has received rave reviews from The New York Times and New York Magazine. More recently, co-chef Kanlaya Supachana left the restaurant to start her own neighbourhood spot, Chiang Mai. In the homey pop-up,she serves signature Northern Thai specialties, such as her beloved banana blossom fritters.

Pro tip: The most scenic way to reach Red Hook from Manhattan is a 25-minute New York Water Taxi across the East River. A shuttle service runs between Pier 11/Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and Red Hook’s Ikea store. It costs $5 each way on weekdays and it’s free on weekends. Buses also run between Red Hook and Downtown Brooklyn. Take the B57 or B61, connecting from the A, C, F, N, R, 2, 3, 4 or 5 trains in Downtown Brooklyn.

Neighbourhood Watch: A Safe Harbour for Whimsy in Red Hook, Brooklyn
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