Fort Defiance reopens for dinner and drinks in Red Hook after pivoting during pandemic

Fort Defiance premiered its new back bar during reopening the first week of June.
Photo by Alex Pearson Looney

Owners of one Red Hook restaurant would not let the pandemic close their doors — in fact, they defied the idea. 

Fort Defiance has adapted multiple times since the COVID-19 outbreak shuttered the city in March 2020 — namely moving to another storefront in the small coastal neighborhood the eatery has called home for over a decade, and operating as a general store and breakfast spot until last December. 

Now, St. John (pronounced Sin Jin) Frizell — also a co-owner of Gage and Tollner — finally has the opportunity to get back to what called him to the restaurant industry: serving great drinks. Those drinks are now available for the first time with limited eats from 5-11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and from 5-10 p.m. on Sundays.

“I am a cocktail guy. That’s how I got into the business,” Frizell said. “And cocktails are the thing I have always been focused on.”

Throughout most of the pandemic, Frizell operated a small general store out of his first location, also on Van Brunt Street, where he looked for ways to give back to his community. He moved down the street in June 2021 and, after reconnecting with his restaurant’s pre-pandemic fresh vegetable supplier, he decided to start selling the produce out of his storefront.  

“I was trying to figure out a way to be useful to my community,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “I called [my supplier] up, and they were still selling their winter [vegetable] boxes. So I reached out to some people on Facebook… and I said ‘Hey, would people be interested in this?’ and people were.” 

With many skeptical of crowded grocery stores and grocery delivery services being overwhelmed, Frizell said many of his neighbors were asking for him to sell more than just vegetables, so he started stocking some dairy items and other basics. 

“This was two weeks into the pandemic and people were afraid to go to grocery stores, and all the grocery delivery apps were all totally overwhelmed,” he said. “So people were really psyched and they were like, ‘Hey this box of vegetables is great, but can you get some butter or some milk, steaks or some chicken?’” 

And the list kept going, he said.

“I started working with some of our vendors to get some other stuff,” he added. “And pretty soon we were like a little de facto store.”

But when outdoor dining opened up across the city, Frizell wasn’t able to take part in the program because his location had bike racks and a fire hydrant out front he couldn’t block.

“At the old Fort Defiance, we didn’t have any outdoor seating and at our old location, there was no place to put it,” Frizell said. “I couldn’t do the street seating that people do at the old place because there was a fire hydrant and a bike rack in front of the store.”

But when a local property owner approached Frizell about a space he had opening up near the intersection of Van Brunt and Wolcott streets, he lept at the opportunity that would provide him with more space, inside and out.

“It [was] one of the best properties in the neighborhood,” he said. “I couldn’t say no.”

The Warwick Bramble.Photo by Alex Pearson Looney

Frizell opened his new location in August 2021, serving up brunch and slinging grocery items, but had to wait to transfer his liquor license to the new space.

As a restaurant owner with 12 years of good standing with the State Liquor Authority, and because the new location had a liquor license under the previous owner, Frizell thought it would be a simple, maybe three-month process. It ended up taking close to a year for the issued approval.

Frizell said the authority deemed his location too close to a church, despite there being a bar there before him, and even questioned the business owner on how his relocation was funded. Frizell said he raised funds through a site called Wefunder Investment — which the authority claimed to have never seen before.

“There had been a bar there for 25 years,” he said, adding that he later changed the entrance to appease the SLA. “Then, we used this regulation crowdfunding to raise money for our move. Our community here was so supportive we raised $100,000 in three days.”

Originally, the SLA wanted Frizell to have all 107 of his donors fill out a personal questionnaire to show they didn’t have an interest in investing in a brewery or distillery because investing in both areas is not permitted under the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law.

“They were like, ‘Well all 107 of your investors have to fill out a personal questionnaire,'” he said, “which is like 13 pages long and gets into like criminal history, all your past work experience.”

He was soon forced to close brunch and the general store in December, as he awaited the new liquor license.

“I had to close the store at the end of December because we were losing money,” Frizell said. “I couldn’t afford to keep it open.”

But in a surprise decision this May, the SLA approved Frizell’s application, claiming that since the investment amounts were small, a list of names of the investors with a personal questionnaire from the lead investor would suffice.

“Finally, the license came through in May, just last month at this point,” he said. 

A mural painted on the outside of the new Fort Defiance.Photo by Alex Pearson Looney

The business owner did not waste any time reopening. Frizell reopened Fort Defiance the first week of June, serving dinner on a limited Thursday to Sunday schedule. He plans to expand to brunch on weekends, starting July 8, and the general store is expected to return in August.

“I had to start to generate some revenue,” Frizell said, “so we opened all of a sudden the first week of June.”

Since then, the Red Hook restaurateur said he’s seen an outpouring of support. He is especially grateful for all of the returning and new faces he sees enjoying his food and drinks in his new back bar room, which he adds has some of the charms of the old Fort Defiance location, but fun flavor to usher in the new spot.

“It’s been amazing. The outpouring of support is just incredible,” Frizell. “The bar room behind the general store is really beautiful. It’s a little like the old room but also something a little new. It’s really spectacular.”

The joy feels mutual, he added.

“People are just really, really happy we’re back.” Frizell said.