Even if you are among the millions of New Yorkers who do not live in Red Hook, there are many reasons to visit Fort Defiance: the muffuletta, a round of Sazeracs, that famous Irish coffee, and, more recently, a cocktail to have before heading home with a rotisserie chicken. Since opening 15 years ago on Van Brunt Street, St. John Frizell’s restaurant-turned-grocer-and-bar has been a neighborhood fixture and an unlikely destination in its own right. Now, its run is coming to an end. The restaurant will close for good on December 3, Frizell announced via the restaurant’s website and social media.
“This is essentially a pandemic story at the end of the day,” he tells Grub. The relocation of the restaurant, coupled with a yearlong wait for a liquor license from the State Liquor Authority, meant they took on “an exceptional amount of debt” from the SBA. “At that point, everything had to go right in order for us to succeed — and that’s just not what happened.”
During the COVID shutdown, Frizell transformed Fort Defiance into a general store, selling produce, pantry staples, and to-go cocktails. In 2021, he moved it from its longtime corner location to a new space a couple blocks up. The reasoning, he explained then, was that it would’ve cost too much to retrofit the original space for Fort Defiance 2.0 (about $100,000) and turn it into a proper gourmet grocer with a barroom.
This ended up causing new headaches, namely that delay in getting a liquor license transferred to its new location. For a while, they tried to run Fort Defiance without the license, assuming it was coming “any day” in September or October. Then the months dragged on. In December, Frizell temporarily closed the restaurant, only reopening once the liquor license arrived. When that finally happened, Frizell talked about the restaurant’s longevity, and how many of his younger employees were people who grew up going to Fort Defiance with their parents. “It feels like we’re fulfilling our mission of being an institution,” he said at the time.
What happened? “We’re just out of road. There’s no chance of us getting further investment. I can’t go out and seek money because I can’t realistically promise that money will be repaid,” he says. (In his announcement, Frizell also says he hopes to find “someone wonderful” to take over the space.)
Looking back on the last 15 months, Frizell says he felt like he made some bets that didn’t work out, coupled with bad luck. Does he feel the restaurant would be open in 2024 if not for the SLA? “I don’t know if that’s true. I might’ve found out earlier that this wasn’t going to work,” he says. The final straw came in September, when he found himself facing the reality that he couldn’t pay both his rent and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans he took during the pandemic. “I haven’t taken a paycheck from Fort Defiance since the PPP loans, which was 2021,” he says. “This might be the first time you hear this, but it’s not going to be the last. There are people out there in the same boat as us, who are experiencing those EIDL payments for the first time in the last few months. It comes as a shock.”