Fort Defiance

St. John Frizell’s great good place

fort defianceOur favorite barman and occasional contributor, St. John Frizell, has opened a bar (or is it a café?) in Red Hook. We stopped in to check it out, and learned why his first place is our third.

Edible Brooklyn: Awesome joint. Um, I’m trying to wrap my brain around the decor.

St. John Frizell: Some people say French café, some say Latin American, Argentine, Mexican, Brazilian, Caribbean . . . that’s all fine with me. My wife, Linden Elstran, designed much of it, and it’s inspired by our travels together. A few years ago, I quit my job at Bon Appétit and we spent seven months in South America and China. All of the art on the walls is stuff we picked up along the way, or on subsequent trips abroad.

EB: Are you a café or a bar or what? Speak to me of grub.

SF: In the morning we serve pastries from Colson Patisserie and coffee drinks made with Counter Culture Coffee on a La Marzocco machine. Lunch is salads and sandwiches. At night we serve small plates and one or two entrées, which change all the time. We make our own sodas using housemade syrups and a seltzer system that has to be seen to be believed—the water gets filtered, then chilled three times, then carbonated—it comes out so fizzy it hurts to drink it, perfect for egg creams. My seltzer guy assures me no one’s had a system like this in a restaurant for years. Ice cubes are made by a big Kold Draft machine, naturally. The chef is Sam Filloramo—a young guy I met when he was cooking at the Good Fork and I was tending bar. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in curiosity, humility, good taste and the work ethic of an ox.

EB: I thought you were some schmancy-pants bartender with a Pegu pedigree. How come the cocktail menu looks so simple?

SF: I don’t want to intimidate the local clientele, so I’m starting with summer drinks whose names they might recognize, and that taste fantastic when made correctly, like the Mai Tai and the Tom Collins. A Tom Collins is gin, lemon, sugar and soda—simple. When made correctly, there is nothing more refreshing.

EB: You and your wife have a brand new baby and a brand new business. Have you lost your minds?

SF: Thank God my baby is a good sleeper. Over the past few months, I’ve asked myself why I’m opening this joint. These questions usually came when I was leaving yet another voicemail for my electrician, or getting shaken down by the dumpster company, or, most often, in the middle of the night, while adding up my receipts from Lowe’s or Dykes Lumber or paying another Con Ed bill, wondering how I was going to find the money to get the doors open.

A few years ago, when I decided to give up a profitable career in the publishing industry to tend bar, my father gave me a book called The Great Good Place by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. If I had my copy, I’d quote from it, but I loan it out a lot (right now it’s with David Moo, owner of Park Slope bar Quarter). In the book, Oldenburg defines the “third place”—that place between home and work that has existed in every human society, where one can interact with people who aren’t family or coworkers, meet new people, get community news. In early rural America, it might be the feed store; in France, the café; in Germany, the beer garden; in China, the teahouse. Our society is suffering from the lack of good third places.

Anyway, Red Hook doesn’t have many good third places. And it could be the most neighborhoody neighborhood in New York. I wanted to make a place where all the people in the neighborhood would feel welcome—where you can get a cup of coffee in the morning, a glass of wine and something to eat at night, where kids can come with or without their parents, and vice versa, where drinkers and nondrinkers could mingle. The café-bar is a bit of a strange concept in New York—but not in other parts of the world. Historically, we Americans don’t like to have our evening beer in the same place we get our coffee—I have my own thoughts as to why that is. Suffice to say, I think Red Hook is ready to get over that.

EB: So am I. What’s the name mean?

SF: Fort Defiance is named after a Revolutionary War fort that was built in Red Hook during the lead-up to the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn. The Continental Army built forts here and on Governor’s Island in an attempt to control the entrance to the East River. The plan worked, kind of—the British never made it into the river, which allowed Washington and what was left of his army after a pretty crushing defeat to retreat to Manhattan, and then to New Jersey, and to live to fight another day. It’s generally thought that the tides and the weather had more to do with the British fleet’s inability to sail upriver than any silly little fort, but you can’t name your bar after a tide.

Furthermore, I figure if you’re going to make fancy drinks in South Brooklyn, your bar better have a pretty tough name.

“I wanted a place where everyone would feel welcome—where you can get a cup of coffee in the morning, a glass of wine at night, where kids can come with or without their parents.”

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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.