Red Hook is a lot of things to a lot of people. Home to the largest complex of public housing projects in New York, frontier of gentrification, land of Fairway and IKEA, artists’ refuge, hard-drinking waterfront enclave—all of these things combine to make it one of the most endearing and unusual neighborhoods in the city. It has the community feel of a small town, with a handful of cozy local haunts that fill up every night with the close-knit group of artists and creative types who make The Hook their home. Here, restaurants, boutiques and artist-converted industrial spaces intermix with actual industrial spaces, yet-to-be repurposed factories and great old docks—in a grit-to-glamor ratio that has slowly but steadily been inching toward the latter.
Red Hook took a hard blow during Sandy, with many of the local businesses being shuttered for weeks or months after the floodwaters receded (one of our favorites, the incomparable bar Sunny’s, is still struggling to reopen), but an incredible spirit of volunteerism and cooperation has put a lot of the pieces back together. Make your way down there by bus, cab, foot, bike or ferry (the closest subway is the F to Carroll St.) and explore a place that still manages to feel wild and untamed.
Red Hook Lobster Pound
This beloved restaurant was completely swamped by Sandy, but after lots of hard work— and big-time support from a clientele that didn’t want to imagine a Red Hook without lobster—it’s back. Want a Maine-style lobster roll, served cold, lightly dressed with homemade mayonnaise, celery and spices? Red Hook Lobster Pound serves a version that could be the best south of Kittery. If you prefer your lobster warm, they also dish up a toasty Connecticut-style roll with plenty of butter. Or try one of their fresh-caught live Maine lobsters cooked to order. You’ll also find clam chowder (New England and Manhattan), a shrimp roll, steamers when they’re available, and—new since the storm—French fries. Eat at the picnic tables in the newly renovated but still rustic dining room, or take your catch out to Valentino Pier (see below) and enjoy it with the sea breeze in your hair. 284 Van Brunt St., 718-858-765, redhooklobster.com
In the dark weeks after Sandy, owner St. John Frizell confronted the total devastation of his café-bar with a spirit worthy of the place’s name. He and his staff, helped by an army of volunteers, cleaned the place up and put it back together, celebrating the reopening with a November pig roast that helped the neighborhood turn the corner toward recovery. The food is fresh, simple and seasonal, the cocktails pack a punch, there are always some good craft beers on tap, and the locals at the bar will make you feel right at home even if you’ve come from the far reaches of Manhattan. Every neighborhood needs a spot like Fort Defiance, but only Red Hook is lucky enough to lay claim to this particular gem. 365 VanBrunt St., 347-453-6672, fortdefiancebrooklyn.com
The views from this park, tucked away on the Red Hook waterfront, are astonishing—Statue of Liberty, Verrazano Narrows Bridge, New Jersey waterfront, Manhattan skyline—the whole package. Settle in on the grass with a picnic and watch the tugboats and ferries steam by on their way to and from their berths in the Erie Basin around the corner. People come down to fish from the pier, launch kayaks and canoes from the pebble beach, and canoodle on the benches as the sun sets in the wide-open harbor sky. Ferris St. between Coffey St. and Van Dyke St., nycgovparks.org/parks/valentinopier
Chocolate, rum and whiskey: that’s what you’ll find at Cacao Prieto, a distillery and chocolate maker located just a block off Red Hook’s most-beaten path of Van Brunt Street, and it is enough. The owner’s family has been growing organic cacao for a hundred years in the Dominican Republic, and here in Brooklyn you can buy the elegant end product of a bean-to-bar process—some of the most fragrant and delicious chocolate around. There’s distilling going on here as well, of small-batch rum, both plain and cacao-infused; cacao liqueur; and Kentucky-style bourbon whiskey. You can see the gleaming copper stills from the front of this cavernous industrial space, where tastings of the booze are offered and all the products are available for purchase. You’ll go home loaded with liquor and chocolate, and why shouldn’t you? 218 Conover St., 347-225-0130, cacaoprieto.com
Red Hook Bait & Tackle
A great dive bar is a thing of beauty, and Red Hook Bait & Tackle is a modern classic of the genre (Red Hook’s other standout dive, Sunny’s, is hoping to reopen by summer). Located in what was until 2004 a fishing tackle store and local hangout, this watering hole has earned neighborhood cred by respecting local history and giving the people of Red Hook a place to drink through good times and bad. The multiple examples of taxidermy—ferrets, pheasants, and coyotes, just to name a few—will gaze down upon you as you enjoy your drink. There’s also free live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Pull up a stool and raise a glass. 320 Van Brunt St., 718-451-4665, redhookbaitandtackle.com
The Good Fork
When the Good Fork opened in 2006, serving food cooked by co-owner and chef Sohui Kim (Savoy, Annisa), it took the neighborhood’s dining scene to a whole new level. This cozy, intimate restaurant serves well-crafted dishes such as handmade malfatti pasta with a guinea hen ragu, or Berkshire pork loin with a chocolate mole sauce. The little Korean-influenced touches (Kim is Korean-American), set it apart, and the “steak and eggs Korean-style” with kimchee rice is a perennial favorite. This is Red Hook’s choice for a splurge date dinner, and it’s as reliable as ever. 391 Van Brunt St., 718-643-6636, goodfork.com
Red Hook’s massive industrial spaces and middle-of-nowhere vibe have long attracted artists looking to create stuff without having to worry that their materials—or their ideas— are too big and messy for the cramped confines of the city. Now there’s a 25,000 square-foot space that serves as the utopian heart and soul of the neighborhood, where artists can work and play and locals can socialize. Pioneer Works, a former Civil War-era iron works building on the waterfront, has been converted by artist Dustin Yellin and several co-conspirators into a venue for exhibitions, events, artist residencies, and classes in subjects as various as lock picking, electroplating, building cigar-box amplifiers, and paper marbling. Much of Yellin’s own artwork was destroyed during Sandy not too long after the space opened last year, but he and his colleagues were determined to rebuild, and now they’re back with renewed energy. Check out the newly-launched series of upcoming outdoor events and programs. 159 Pioneer Street.,718-596-3000, pioneerworks.org
Metal and Thread
An unusual collection of jewelry, quilts, sculptures, paintings and hats—all the work of local artists and artisans, often crafted from industrial materials—make this shop different than any other in town. The proprietors also carry vintage musical instruments. Stop in and pick up a bracelet made of steel mesh or a forged iron bowl. No one you know will own anything like what you’ll find here. 398 Van Brunt St., 718-414-9651, metalthread.com