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Things to Do

What to do in Red Hook: Distillery tours, seafood shacks and more in the nautical neighborhood

The best destinations take a little work to reach.

So it is with Red Hook, a peninsula cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by the towering Gowanus Expressway, accessible by a bus ride or a long walk from the nearest subway stations.

Once the bustling home to the busiest port in the world, the neighborhood was later known for crime and blight. But over time the quirky area attracted artists to its sprawling brick warehouses and brownstone-lined cobblestone streets; old factories were transformed into new-school manufacturing sites like distilleries. Old standbys from the neighborhood endured even as new restaurants and bars opened up. Quite famously, a giant Fairway Market and then IKEA came to town.

But Red Hook's geographic isolation, diverse socioeconomic makeup and industrial character keep it feeling a little bit more like a hidden gem than other, more crowded Brooklyn neighborhoods, retaining a hint of the quaint weirdness that seems to be slowly disappearing from New York City. Here's how to spend a day there.

Get some coffee at The Black Flamingo

By the time you've actually made it to
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

By the time you've actually made it to Red Hook from the subway, you're probably going to be in need of some caffeine. The Black Flamingo, on Red Hook's main drag at 281 Van Brunt St., will have you covered, with lattes that taste just as good as they look. Take a seat on the sleek black bench and get some work done on your laptop, or just relax with one of the newspapers available -- the selection included an amNewYork, naturally.

Hit the cobblestone streets

Like most New York City neighborhoods, Red Hook
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

Like most New York City neighborhoods, Red Hook is changing -- but parts of it offer direct connections to the neighborhood's past, like the cobblestone streets that are common near the waterfront. They stretch toward the shore alongside old warehouses that have been repurposed into more modern manufacturing endeavors (think artisanal alcohol and chocolate). But the fancy cars parked on them are a reminder that the neighborhood has gentrified considerably from its past as a post-industrial home to packs of wild dogs.

You might also want to check out some shops along the way. Stroll Van Brunt Street to check out small, independent shops like Wooden Sleepers (359 Van Brunt St.), a vintage shop for men; Kempton & Co (392 Van Brunt St.), full of cool Brooklyn-esque accessories; and Pioneer Books (289 Van Brunt St.).

Stay in the past with lunch at Defonte's

Defonte's comes up in every discussion of the
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

Defonte's comes up in every discussion of the city's best sandwiches, and the old-school Italian joint lives up to and maybe even exceeds the hype. It's tucked between a large public housing complex and the entrance to the Hugh Carey Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it's worth the walk from Red Hook's hipper corridors to 379 Columbia St. The shop has been feeding people since 1922, and it's hard to imagine it has changed much since. Early on a Friday afternoon it was packed full of construction workers on their lunch breaks, ordering sandwiches or platters of potatoes and egg or calamari and shrimp (the fish options are Friday specials). Signs advertise a number of menu items including the roast beef with mozzarella and fried eggplant, pictured. The eggplant is perfectly fried, creamy and crunchy all at once, the roast beef is rare, the mozzarella is fresh and the bread is seeded perfection.

Get a little more modern with art at Pioneer Works

Behind an exceedingly nondescript door at 159 Pioneer
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

Behind an exceedingly nondescript door at 159 Pioneer St., you'll find Pioneer Works, an impressive art, exhibition and performance space in a renovated 25,000-square-foot warehouse. The first floor houses changing exhibitions and also hosts large performances; upstairs you'll find more exhibitions -- like Chase Ferguson's "Cars, Buses, and Trains," pictured. Ferguson's mixed media exhibit offers nearly life-sized replicas of parking meters of old, as well as smaller models of buses, trains and yellow taxis. Pioneer Works is also home to public-facing work spaces for artists and other creatives, radio studios, and an eclectically designed garden. The exhibition space and studios are open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.; a $10 donation is suggested.

For contemporary art, check out the latest exhibition at Kentler International Drawing Space (353 Van Brunt St.), a nonprofit gallery open Thursday through Sunday.

Taste chocolate and whiskey at Cacao Prieto and Widow Jane

What could be better than a chocolate factory?
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

What could be better than a chocolate factory? A chocolate factory that also makes whiskey, bourbon, rum and other spirits. The smell of chocolate will lead you to 218 Conover St., the home of Cacao Prieto -- a bean-to-bar chocolate company that started distilling rum and eventually expanded to make Widow Jane whiskey, using water from a limestone mine upstate. The storefront offers tasting flights, but for the whole experience, take a weekend tour ($20 adults, $8 ages 14-20) . You'll learn how cacao from the Dominican Republic becomes a Brooklyn chocolate bar, and then you'll see the distilling process -- tastings included. There's another bean-to-bar shop Raaka (64 Seabring St.), which also has a weekend chocolate making class ($75) or a factory tasting tour ($15).

Check out the neighborhood's nautical past

This spot at 320 Van Brunt St. was
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

This spot at 320 Van Brunt St. was indeed once a bait and tackle shop and fishing club. Now it's a bar that kept the throwback sign and keeps the history of the place alive with fishing memorabilia and other curiosities on display inside.

Treat yourself

Normally, you'd eat your dessert after dinner --
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

Normally, you'd eat your dessert after dinner -- but Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, at 185 Van Dyke St., usually closes around 6 p.m., so unless you're planning on an early bird special you'll have to make an exception. It's tucked behind warehouses on the waterfront and is a little tricky to find, but worth it: The shop sells full-sized pies and personal-sized tarts (although, any sized pie is a personal pie if you eat it all, and we won't judge). The filling is the perfect consistency, tart with the flavor of real Key limes and without the alien-green hue you get in some less authentic versions. If you're feeling extra decadent, get the Swingle, pictured: a four-inch Key lime pie tart dipped in chocolate. Take a heap of napkins and eat it on one of the picnic tables out front.

Enjoy a round of mini-golf

Head to Brooklyn Crab (24 Reed St.) for
Photo Credit: Alison Fox

Head to Brooklyn Crab (24 Reed St.) for a round of mini golf, bocce and cornhole before snagging an outdoor table at the multistory seafood shack for beers and oysters. If you want an indoor experience, head on over to Shipwrecked at 621 Court St.

Take a stroll to the waterfront

Right next to Steve's, you'll find head-on views
Photo Credit: Alison Fox

Right next to Steve's, you'll find head-on views of the Statue of Liberty from Valentino Pier, where the Buttermilk Channel separating Red Hook and Governors Island empties out into the Upper New York Bay. The park includes signs with information about the neighborhood's industrial past, and before that, its role in the American Revolution as home to Fort Defiance, built on a 50-foot-tall hill on the coast. Much of Red Hook's waterfront is still a working one and is hard to access -- but another great spot can be found farther south at Erie Basin Park, owned by the nearby IKEA and developed as part of the deal allowing it to open up in 2008. That park features reminders of the area's past, in the form of massive boat cranes from its shipyard days.

Visit a year-round seafood shack

There's something about being on the water that
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

There's something about being on the water that makes you crave seafood -- even if you wouldn't want to eat anything fished out of the water you're looking at. Head to Brooklyn Crab, at 24 Reed St., a multi-story crab shack that is packed all summer long. In the winter, its outdoor areas are ghostly and the wait times are much shorter, but the food is just as good -- from raw oysters to the Alaskan king crab roll, pictured, served with drawn butter and a side of chips. Or try the snow crab grilled cheese, with smoked Gouda and a tomato dipping sauce.

The neighborhood also boasts a BBQ hot spot in Hometown Bar-B-Que (454 Van Brunt St.); get there on the earlier side for ribs, brisket, collard greens and more, as waits can be notoriously long. Enjoy a goat cheese and fig jam sandwich on a croissant or a slice of quiche with your latte in The Black Flamingo's shady backyard (281 Van Brunt St.). For a sweet treat, dig in to a personal pie from Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies (185 Van Dyke St.) on the picnic bench or at the next-door park.

Have a nightcap at the 'bar on the edge of the world'

However old you are, there's more than a
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

However old you are, there's more than a solid chance Sunny's Bar has been in Red Hook since long before you were born -- it dates back to the 1890s. At 253 Conover Street, it served thirsty longshoremen, survived the onslaught of superstorm Sandy and has for years served artists and others eccentric types described lovingly in Tim Sultan's memoir, "Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World." Everyone seems to be drinking either beer or brown liquor, so grab some local Van Brundt Stillhouse bourbon or American whiskey on the rocks and savor a place that, with any luck, will survive another 100 years.

Or, Van Brunt Stillhouse (6 Bay St.), will let you take a seat in the distillery's tasting room and sip a whiskey cocktail. Over at Red Hook Winery (175 Van Dyke St.), try its sauvignon blanc, merlot, or riesling; the waterfront winery offers free tours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons if you purchase a tasting ($15). For a proper bar, there's strong cocktails at Fort Defiance (365 Van Brunt St.) and beer and whatever live music is happening at Sunny's (253 Conover St.).

Catch some impressive live music

Perhaps the best part of Sunny's is the
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

Perhaps the best part of Sunny's is the live music in the backroom -- there's a weekly bluegrass jam every Saturday. During one visit in November, Charlie Giordano, who plays accordion and organ for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was sitting in with the band. The vibe and the music are so fun that when you walk back out into the dark street near the water, in the glow of the neon anchor in the window and beside the antique pickup truck parked out front, you won't even mind being a mile and a half from the nearest subway stop.

Insider tips

Red Hook is becoming more of a destination
Photo Credit: Jillian Jorgensen

Red Hook is becoming more of a destination neighborhood, but there are still pleasantly hidden surprises -- like these peacocks living in the courtyard at Cacao Prieto.

While it's full of fun places to visit, it is still a pretty difficult trip. A proposed streetcar would help, but that's years away (if it ever happens). Until the BQX arrives, rely on the B61 bus. Or you could take a long, not quite-scenic walk under the Gowanus Expressway from the Smith - 9th Street station.

But the ferry is perhaps the most on-theme way to reach Red Hook. New York Water Taxi runs daily routes from Manhattan's Pier 11, making stops at the IKEA dock and at a dock on Van Brundt Street. The trip costs $5 during the week and is free on weekends, but the taxi makes limited runs so be sure to check the timetable.


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