When St. John Frizell opened Fort Defiance in Red Hook in 2009, the small tavern’s casual vibe, standout brunch, and excellent drinks made it an instant hit in the neighborhood and a destination for curious diners. Last year, Frizell converted Fort Defiance into a general store, selling produce, to-go cocktails, and other necessities for pandemic-era living. The move was a business necessity as COVID-19 forced dining rooms shut, one made by plenty of other operators at the time, but even once he was allowed to reopen as a full-capacity restaurant, Frizell decided to run with the shop, announcing in June that Fort Defiance, home of the city’s premier Irish coffee, wouldn’t reopen as a restaurant. But when he closed to rejigger the space for this purpose, he realized he had a problem, like a sagging kitchen and other necessary upgrades. He says he realized he only had two real choices: invest $100,000, or move. The decision was easy, and he relocated to a new space, at 347 Van Brunt, that’s right up the street and twice the size of the original.
“This allowed us the ability to build-to-suit our new mission,” Frizell explains, “instead of trying to retrofit it in a place that was built solely as a restaurant.” That new mission is to open a Fort Defiance that is something of a hybrid of Fort Defiance (restaurant) and Fort Defiance (general store). “I don’t know of any gourmet grocery that has a barroom in the back,” he adds, “but that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
There are some comparable other businesses: Any bodega or deli that has a restaurant squeezed in, like La Esquina Del Camaron Mexicano, does something similar, though not necessarily “gourmet.” The Bushwick store Foster Sundry is maybe the closer, daytime analog, offering beer, cider, and wine on tap alongside its menu of sandwiches. And Mekelburg’s in Clinton Hill offers a curated selection of grocery items upfront, along with a bar and caviar-topped baked potatoes in back. But, generally speaking, every neighborhood needs a spot where you can sit down for a Negroni and leave with lettuces for dinner.
At the new Fort Defiance — which is currently open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. — the front room is a combination café and store, with a produce case, deli case, and, soon, a freezer. There’s a menu of prepared foods (gazpacho and ratatouille both make appearances while we’re in the midst of prime tomato time), as well as breakfast and lunch items like a broccoli melt with Gruyère, or a BLT with hot-pepper mayo. (Dinner is still on the way.)
Frizell says he considered having an on-site butcher, but ultimately went in a more plant-forward direction, instead investing in a bakery setup. His chef Aaron Taber has some experience baking bread, though Frizell says the idea for including a bakery came from a friend’s sourdough bread, which they started selling in the store. At the new shop, they’ll have homemade bagels alongside country and Pullman loaves, English muffins, and baguettes. On the sweeter side, Anna Lockwood is contributing scones, cookies, hand pies, and other pastries. (At the moment, there’s no Irish coffee, or any other drinks for that matter, because the original location’s liquor license hasn’t been transferred over yet; Frizell says he applied four months ago.)
The other big change is that Frizell is now thinking, for the first time, about expansion. In the past, he thought of Fort Defiance as a one-off business. “I just felt the character of the place was very tied into where it was, and I didn’t think it would work anywhere else,” he explains. But now that he’s moved — albeit only slightly — he says it’s opened his eyes to the possibility that new stores, supplied with baked goods and drinks and grab-and-go salads, would make sense, well … everywhere.
Fort Defiance, 347 Van Brunt St., at Wolcott St.; 347-453-6672