Kate Hooker is a lawyer and writer who fled the East Village for Brooklyn a few years ago in search of outdoor space. When she isn’t working or writing for brooklynbased.com, Kate is often found exploring Brooklyn's restaurants and bars (particularly those that trade in oysters, craft beer, and pie), seeing live comedy, and watching college basketball.
About Red Hook:
Red Hook, one of my top three favorite neighborhoods in New York City, doesn’t show up on a lot of tourist itineraries. This sleepy residential community on the water is basically the opposite of Times Square-- there is no Starbucks here, you won’t be harassed by any con artists in Elmo costumes, and the closest subway stop is almost a mile away. The mom-and-pop-run hotspots are separated from one another by long blocks of worn cobblestone and crumbling remnants of industrial buildings adorned with colorful street art (you say graffiti, I say street art). It takes some extra effort to get to Red Hook, and to get around once you’ve arrived, but it’s totally worth it if you want to spend a day exploring a place that feels worlds away from the rush of Manhattan, taking in the best view of the Statue of Liberty NYC has to offer, and eating and drinking like it’s your job (which it pretty much is, seeing as how you’re on vacation).
OK, so there is no easy way to get to Red Hook with a Metrocard, but guess what is a lot better than a hot, crowded subway ride? Answer: a quick ride across the East River on a boat, with a fantastic view of the NYC skyline behind you, courtesy of a 20 minute ferry ride that runs every 45 minutes from Manhattan’s Pier 11 to the Red Hook Ikea (free on weekends, $5 on weekdays). This is a pleasant and hassle-free way to travel, but real go-getter types can also rent a bike and cruise to Red Hook via a new bike path that runs along the water from DUMBO.
If your journey to Red Hook worked up an appetite, you’re in the right place. This neighborhood has an amazing variety of food options for every taste and budget, so summon up your inner Kobayashi and pace yourself so you can take advantage of as much of it as possible. Here are the highlights:
If you arrive on a weekend morning, brunch at Home/Made is worth the line—they give you free coffee while you wait and the French toast there is killer. If you aren’t feeling the sit-down thing, Court Street Grocers’ Red Hook outpost has coffee to go and a breakfast sandwich that will forever ruin for you the standard bodega-issue wad of rubbery American cheese and overcooked eggs you’ve grown accustomed to.
For a lunch experience that you’ll never forget, head to the Red Hook Ballfields on Saturday or Sunday to sample a wide variety of authentic Latin American dishes from the food trucks that gather there. You really can’t go wrong, and the prices encourage you to try something from each vendor, but the Salvadoran pupusas are what my dreams are made of. In other cheap and mind-blowing lunch news, you can experience old school Brooklyn, and possibly a cardiac event, at Defontes Sandwich Shop, a legendary, family-run sub spot that has been open since the 1920s. In keeping with the New England vibe of Red Hook, you can opt for one of the best lobster rolls you’ll find outside Down East Maine at Red Hook Lobster Pound. There are also great crabs to be had at Brooklyn Crab (pictured), a massive, multilevel seafood shack that seems to have been beamed in from Florida and has showstopping views of the water.
Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, with their pale yellow filling, will make you question what everyone else is passing off as Key lime pies. Get the Swingle, a mini pie on a stick dipped in chocolate and then frozen, and relish each bite while watching kayakers and sailboats from nearby Valentino Pier Park. Don’t overdo it, though, because you can’t leave Red Hook without trying a salted caramel brownie from Baked (pictured).
Hooked on Shopping
There are a few storefronts on or near Van Brunt Street worth a peek. Foxy & Winston has twee baby presents and letterpress cards, dry dock wine & spirits has rare, small-batch booze, and the Brooklyn Slate Company sells slate cheeseboards that make good souvenirs. You can also spend a very pleasant hour tasting wine from Long Island and Upstate New York vineyards at Red Hook Winery, or take a tour of Cacao Prieto, a visually stunning distillery-chocolatier which, incidentally, I think we can agree is the best multi hyphenate on the planet. Finally, Erie Basin has a meticulously curated selection of unique vintage jewelry, such as this Art Noveau peridot and pearl enamel necklace (pictured).
Beloved Bars and More
Fort Defiance, a gem of a cocktail bar, is a great place to sip something fun and weird and vaguely Mad Men-esque, like a bourbon milk punch, before dinner. You can eat there if you want elevated pub grub, or at The Good Fork down the street, which is tiny and romantic and serves upscale New American cuisine with a Korean twist (get the pork and chive dumplings or regret it). Hometown Bar-B-Que is great for a group, and serves some of the best brisket in town, to-die-for mac & cheese, and local beer on tap in a sort of hipster/honkey-tonk atmosphere that includes live music on weekends. My latest fave for dinner though, is newcomer Grindhaus, a tiny, 20-seat restaurant that churns out an ever-changing menu of inventive, delicious grub that will impress the snootiest foodie.
Wind down your day with a cold one (or four) at a beloved Red Hook dive: Sunny’s for tons of character, Red Hook Bait & Tackle if you want to be mesmerized by kitschy décor (there is an owl figurine collection that belongs in a museum), or the Brooklyn Ice House (318 Van Brunt St., 718-222-1865) if you feel like backyarding it in a dive bar. Red Hook is a special place that feels rugged and untouched compared to the rest of Brooklyn, which is being devoured at every turn by luxury condo development. It took the brunt of Hurricane Sandy hard on the chin, and nearly all of the businesses mentioned above were flooded and had to shut down for several months. That they were able to come back swinging is a testament to the spirit of the neighborhood, which I bet will become one of your favorites too.