Of course we forgot the map. The map, so lovingly adorned with the locations of the bars we had scouted on the internet, with a little path drawn to assist us in finding them. Of course we forgot it. There we were at the Pier 11 Water Taxi Terminal at 5:30 on Saturday evening, hunched over a smart phone, hurriedly piecing our plan back together before the phone died. An inauspicious start for sure, especially considering how we didn’t want to wing it in a neighborhood with a history of violence going to back to the 1830s. Alas, with only a couple of the addresses recovered, we boarded the water taxi.
We examined our boat-mates. Most appeared to be IKEA-bound, with the vacant expressions of middle-aged adults who spend their weekends buying furniture. The boat did not have a bar. After a twenty minute ride through placid waters, we arrived in Red Hook. The sun had set during the boat ride, casting an ominous darkness over our disembarkation.
Our plan was to walk to DeFonte’s Sandwich Shop which, according to the Internet, is world famous and not to be missed. First, though, we had to get into Red Hook proper, which required a ten-minute walk through the IKEA parking lot. No sidewalk? No problem! As intrepid explorers of New York’s nooks and crannies, we valiantly dodged cars and minivans until we passed out of the bright lights of IKEA and into the real Red Hook. The rest of our boat-mates had disappeared; it was just us against the Hook now.
The area right outside of the IKEA is not a friendly one. Foot traffic is nonexistent (although that’s true for every part of Red Hook not immediately outside a bar). It’s overrun with abandoned warehouses and empty lots (also true for 99% of Red Hook). Cars full of Swedish furniture blow by at 40 mph. The only person we saw was urinating in a dilapidated children’s playground. No picture could capture just how alone you feel in Red Hook at night–not “by yourself” alone, but “end-of-humanity” alone. A little bit of fear crept into us.
And then we hit the projects. It wasn’t clear whether or not this was better than the run-down urban blight we had just walked through. The thought of delicious sandwiches helped us push on.
And of course the damn sandwich place was closed.
Initial impression of Red Hook: fuck you, Red Hook. We walked over to Van Brunt avenue, which is Red Hook’s main drag. It was a better-looking block (relatively speaking) with rowhouses, a gas station, and the faint sound of humans. We saw a bar that, despite hours and hours of Red Hook research, was not on our list of bars. Welcome to Bomba.
Bomba Billards and Bar
Arrival time: 6:30pm
250 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn NY
I mean, I guess this is what we were looking for. The bar was completely empty except for the bartender, Irene, who had been out sweeping the street before we came in. The lights were bright and Lord of the Rings was on the T.V. When we walked in, Irene hustled to mute the T.V., dim the lights, and turn on some Jason DeRulo. Now it’s a party. Saturday’s special was 2 beers for $7. There wasn’t anything on tap. We each got a bottle of Aguila, a Colombian beer, and looked around the bar.
The bar is….strange. Coming in, we saw a dominoes table by the door and pool tables in a back room. So it’s a low-key hangout place, right? But behind the bar are dozens of bottles of wine. Nothing like swilling pinot while throwing bones. Irene explained: the bar was supposed to be upscale, with draft beer and a full kitchen, but she ended up settling for bottles, a popcorn machine, and a pretzel rack when the city held up her license and she spent six months paying rent with no income. We asked if Bomba catered to the project crowd; she says no. (Actually, what she said was a little more colorful: “If a project guy comes in, I just don’t show him hospitality until he leaves. But the project people usually keep to themselves. Sometimes we get some well-groomed blacks in here, and that’s okay.”) We also asked who DID come to Bomba…to which Irene just kind of shrugged.
In the unlikely event that you are in Red Hook and dying to play pool or drink cheap bottled beer, Bomba’s your place. But, as a bar that has only been open for two months, there is both room and time for improvement.
A block down from Bomba are both Brooklyn Ice House and Red Hook Bait and Tackle, but at 7:00pm they couldn’t have had a more different feel. Bomba was barely open, but Brooklyn Ice House was so crowded we couldn’t get seats. We went next door to check out Red Hook Bait & Tackle.
Red Hook Bait and Tackle
Arrival Time: 7:10pm
320 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn NY
Styled like a hunting cabin out of the North Woods, Bait and Tackle didn’t really fit with the harsh industrial environment outside–and neither did the prices. It had more taxidermied animals inside than most natural history museums, but instead of giving the bar a creepy “Deliverance” type feel, the dead animals just seemed like pawns in some hipster interior decorating contest. The condescending bowtie-wearing bartender confirmed what we suspected: this place might have real fur but it was faux Williamsburg. We asked Mr. Bowtie if they had any happy hour specials and his reply was “everything’s one dollar off, now that’s pretty special right?” Well, not really when its usually $4 for a can of Tecate. We looked around to see who comes to this place. Other than “lilly white,” (we doubt they’ve ever had anyone coming over from the projects, well groomed or otherwise) you can’t really characterize the clientele: there was a woman breast feeding at the bar, there was a group of formally dressed older people drinking wine and there were some young people (artists?) lounging in the back playing on their iPads. Despite the hunting theme, the Big Buck Hunter console in the back wasn’t working and we didn’t feel like playing pinball so after draining our cans we headed out to try the BBQ next door at Brooklyn Ice House
Brooklyn Ice House
Arrival Time: 7:45pm
318 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY
God, who are these people and where did they all come from. Every street in Red Hook is completely deserted, yet both Bait & Tackle and Brooklyn Ice House are packed. Unlike Bait and Tackle, though, the Ice House deserves it’s popularity. The space is cozy and comfortable, with zero standing room but a decent amount of seating at both tables and the bar. Their booze selection is extremely large and caters to both beer snobs and thrifty drunks. We each ordered a $5 “Highbeam” (a Miller High Life and a shot of Jim Beam). Top-notch and inexpensive, the food put this bar on a different level. Two pork shoulder sliders for $5? A cheese-stuffed hot dog wrapped in bacon with sweet potato fries for $6? Yes. Yes please. We’re just getting started: Hershey’s Kisses adorn the tables, board games are stacked in a corner (for the record, Jenga is a stellar drinking game) and Big Buck Hunter (fully operational) sits in the back.
Leaving the Brooklyn Ice House, we could feel the alcohol finally having its effect. We were no longer in scary Red Hook; instead, we felt like we were safe in the all-encompassing bosom of Anywheresville, New York. Our voices grew loud and fearless as we traipsed to our next stop, the Red Hook Lobster Pound.
Red Hook Lobster Pound
284 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn NY
Arrival Time: 8:30
The first thing you should know about the Red Hook Lobster Pound is that it is not a bar. It’s a place that sells lobster rolls. But since they were open till nine and the Internet says they make the best lobster roll in New York, we figured why not give it a shot.
The second thing you should know about Red Hook Lobster Pound is that their lobster roll costs 16 dollars. The other options were an $8 lobster BLT (not really an option since they were out of bacon) and $8 lobster mac and cheese (not really an option since who wants to eat lobster covered in melted cheese?). We split a $16 dollar lobster roll.
For that price we were expecting a monster foot long sandwich. (Though, to be fair, the Big Bar Hunter team has minimal lobster roll experience, so we really have no idea how much they usually cost. Going on the idea that they’re basically just sandwiches with fancy meat, $16 seems like a foot’s worth.) Our roll was closer to six inches . Disappointed but past the point of no return, we trudged into the back room, which is decorated to make it more like the coast of Maine and less like part of an industrial wasteland (what is with places in Red Hook pretending they’re in Maine?). The sandwich was pleasantly surprising. Although undersized, it was just bread stuffed with lobster covered in butter. No filling. No mayonnaise. No nonsense. If you really like lobster, you might love this place.
34 Van Dyke Street Brooklyn NY
Arrival Time: 8:55
We arrived at Rocky Sullivan’s at a little before 9. Rocky’s is the closest bar to the ferry terminal, and the last ferry would be leaving at 9. The question hung in the air: do we settle with our cursory tour of Red Hook and safely leave? Or do we push on into the wee hours, leaving only when all bars have been investigated, and exiting through the heretofore undiscovered land route through Brooklyn? We examined the exterior of Rocky Sullivan’s: a neon sign beckoned. We took the plunge.
Rocky Sullivan’s is a place where you expect to see peanut shells on the ground. The big space is occupied by wood tables, benches, and barstools behind a no-frills bar counter. Fancy, this bar was not. The crowd skews old and white. It wasn’t really a dive, though–many people were eating dinner with their families.
Not feeling the scene, we thought it would be a good time to take a break. (And yeah, on a pub crawl, Bud Lite counts as a break) We went into the large back room, which had been set up as an auditorium but was being converted into a concert hall. It was quite a cool, versatile space. We hung out, recuperating in peace, until the music started. Then it got weird. A choice lyric from the fanatically Irish rock band:
“The Red Hook Saints are lifting weights / A riot’s about to start”
And that was how it felt, too. The music was too loud for the space so we got a move on. We left Rocky Sullivan’s with trepidation. We had two bars left on the crawl, and the walk to Sunny’s was taking us to the most deserted part of Red Hook. Escape was seeming less and less likely.
253 Conover Street Brooklyn NY
Arrival Time: 10:10pm
Walking into Sunny’s, it was immediately clear that this bar embraced Red Hook. No Maine themed decorations here. That’s probably because Sunny’s is not an outgrowth of the new artist colony but a vestige of the once-famous Red Hook waterfront. Stepping inside, we once again had the bizarre experience of going from desolate streets to a packed bar. The front room at Sunny’s is narrow like a ship’s galley, decorated with a mix of things that seem like they were either left over from the port’s heyday or were found on the street. Every space at the bar was taken and so were all booths. Most people were drinking out of coffee mugs. We were impressed: “wow, a bar that serves grog!” No, Sunny’s is a bar, not a time capsule or pirate ship. They just serve drafts in coffee mugs, probably for the same reason they are only open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays: because they can. With no room in the front, we moved through a small room that felt like it used to be a kitchen and passed into the backroom. If the front room exudes old Red Hook then the back room personifies the new Red Hook. Strange artsy photos decorated the wall as if it were an amateur art gallery but no one was here for the art. They were here for the music.
Welcome to the best bluegrass jam session in the city. At first there were only a few people around the sides watching, but as more and more instrumentalists kept arriving, adding layers to the sound and drawing a larger audience. Soon almost twenty people were playing guitars, banjos, and mandolins together. The room seemed transformed into to some smalltown gathering in rural America. We sipped our beers, amazed by what was going on and put off the last leg of the crawl, which would now be conducted in the lightly falling snow.
220 Conover Street, Brooklyn NY
Arrival time: Drunk
Ahhh, the bar that advertises a $35 beer. The vitriol we have reserved for you. Unfortunately, the bar was closed.
Fuck that bar. We went back to Brooklyn Ice for more sliders and to plan our escape from Red Hook. Breaking into a car? some sort of airlift? We eventually took to wandering the streets, thumbs outstretched, awaiting the sweet kiss of death by hypothermia. We even peeked in Bomba Bar now filled with a eclectic mix of well-groomed people. And then–what?! A bus! The mythical B61. We boarded, knowing only that it was headed out of Red Hook. Soon we were underground, speeding away, heading towards safety, towards home.