We opened the doors on the last day of spring: June 20, 2009, almost a year after we signed the lease. We weren’t ready—construction wasn’t finished, we didn’t have a liquor license, and the gas wasn’t on in the kitchen, but we didn’t have a choice. The build-out was way over budget, and I owed money to half a dozen different contractors. The money I’d raised by selling shares of the restaurant to my friends and family was gone; we needed to start making money, and fast. Our chef improvised a menu of cold dishes and sandwiches; to drink, we sold lemonade and coffee. In dark moments—and there were a lot of dark moments—I would calculate how many cappuccinos I needed to sell to pay off, say, the plumber. The number was always in the tens of thousands.
In our first week of business, dozens of neighbors came by to wish us luck. As I introduced them to our staff, and to each other, I felt a new community forming, one that would sustain our business for years to come. In August we got our first review, from The L Magazine, a scrappy biweekly digest: “Yes, Fort Defiance, which is named for a Revolutionary War stronghold…is worth traversing the city’s thick and steamy summer air and journeying far past the reaches of the F train… into the depths of Red Hook—because a solid $8 cocktail, much like freedom from monarchy, is worth fighting for.” Five out of five L’s—a rave. Business picked up, and we never looked back.
Now, with three summers under our belt, things have changed. The contractors have long since been paid, we offer our employees a group health insurance plan, and Dhrubo, his handyman days behind him for good, curates a killer wine list. Fort Defiance has hosted wedding parties, birthdays, and this winter, a memorial. Couples who had their first date at our shop have come back to celebrate their first anniversary. Last summer, when Hurricane Irene was approaching New York, the city all but shut down its infrastructure—but not Fort Defiance. With no subway, our cooks were stranded in Queens, and Red Hook was under a mandatory evacuation order, but we opened that Saturday morning anyway. Our waiter Garrett—a jazz guitarist by trade—got in the kitchen and started frying eggs, while my girlfriend Jen and I shucked oysters till our hands were raw. Later that night, with the restaurant dark and gale winds howling outside, we made a big pot of fried chicken and andouille gumbo to serve the following day, after the storm had come and gone. We figured our neighbors would need a cup of coffee, a decent Manhattan, and a bite to eat, someplace close to home.
St. John Frizell is an award-winning writer, bartender, and owner of Fort Defiance, a critically acclaimed café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which opened in June 2009. Frizell’s writing on food, travel, and cocktails has appeared in many publications, including Bon Appétit, Saveur, Fine Cooking, Islands, Time Out New York, Epicurious.com, Oxford American, Edible Brooklyn, and Edible Manhattan. Knives of Glory, a culinary graphic novel cowritten with Gabe Soria, will be published by First Second Books.