Hope & Anchor Diner
The American institution of the everyday neighborhood restaurant only still exists, like vacant apartments, in such places as Red Hook. Not quite an exception is rural America, where one can find roadside diners making enormous omelets of farm-fresh eggs for guys in yellow "CAT DIESEL" hats before dawn. Those are places in suspended animation, however. A true neighborhood restaurant tumbles with the times and keeps its balance.
The mainstream of diners took a plunge with Northeastern suburbia. It started when the men who built the region's Acropolises and Academies retired. Suddenly a stranger appeared at the register. The next to go was often the Garden State Brickface and Stucco exterior. A late-80s remodeling wave swept away the jukeboxes and the oil paintings of Athens, replacing them with mauve-upholstered booths and walls vertically striped with useless mirrors. The prices jumped to $9.50 for a club sandwich. From Maryland to Maine, it was a hive mind gone mad. Today, Greek diners are for travelers, divorced dads exercising visitation rights and, late on Friday and Saturday nights, the sort of high school students who receive cars for their driving-age birthdays.
The scene in New York City was similar though not quite as depressing, if only because the severity of money pressure here precludes such an excruciatingly gradual demise. Here, restaurateurs who had fed neighborhoods held on until the Roaring 90s before selling out to absentee owners (or getting forced out by Starbuckses and Gaps). The new wave of coffee shops flaunted "style," which is to say they lacked the menu diversity, atmospheric serenity and respect for breakfast of a proper diner. Any that happened to serve decent food, no matter how quietly, ended up overrun. People from far and wide are starving for neighborhood restaurants.
I'm not here to tell you that there's a revival of neighborhood restaurants going on in Brooklyn. That's something I would dutifully report if I worked for a publication that primarily serves non-New Yorkers, such as The New York Times. At the risk of flattering the reader, allow me to suggest that you know about the revival, and that you've been to several of the restaurants that would be included in a Times roundup on it. What I hope will be news to you is that one neo-diner, which would probably be omitted or mentioned only as a minor instance of the trend, is actually its culmination.
Hope & Anchor of Red Hook is a place one can comfortably eat at five times per week.
Of course, one is unlikely to do that if one doesn't reside in Red Hook. That might be part of the restaurant's success. Even more impressive, however, are the odds against someone who doesn't reside in Red Hook entering Hope & Anchor even once. Of course strangers who show up are treated hospitably. Red Hook is still the city, even though certain twists of human and natural geography have made it an enclave. The key is the effect of enclave status on a new diner's simulation of classic neighborhood-restaurant reliability. When whatever arrives from beyond the borders is noticeably foreign, that which proves to fit inside those borders is automatically woven into the fabric of society. That's why even though Hope & Anchor opened in June, it leads a movement begun much earlier in Williamsburg, DUMBO and Cobble Hill. There's just nothing special about choosing to be in those places.
Hope & Anchor's setting is its anchor. Next come the same staples as its inferiors in more restless Brooklyn neighborhoods. Breakfast all day, featuring cinnamon French toast, buttermilk pancakes, tofu scrambles, eggs, chorizo hash, hot oatmeal and Kellogg's cereal. Burgers, tuna melt, a club sandwich, veggie pitas, grilled cheese and the BLT. All of the above are $6 or under. Snacks are also traditional: hot wings, pierogies, fried squid. The salads and entrees are more innovative.
Trying the liver at Hope & Anchor just to be zany and enjoying it very much?that's special. The menu says the bacon-and-onions-garnished dinner entree ($9) is balsamic-glazed and from a calf, but my experience was not so gourmet. The liver was like tenderized fatty steak, well-done in butter, and it caused me to feel stronger right away. Mom was right. The bacon proved necessary to offset the organ's characteristic aftertaste (more of an after-consistency, really), and fortunately there was enough of it to accompany the high pile of liver on my plate. I actually took leftovers home to eat for lunch the next day. The only downside was a careless error: not enough onions.
Hope & Anchor's owners also started Panino'teca 275, a bar and Italian sandwich shop on Smith St. I praised the older restaurant a few months ago for its pitch-perfect tone of Southern-European slackness. While toasting irons compact Panino'teca's sandwiches into melted little treats, some subtler mechanism works in the opposite direction, cooling and loosening the day's hours.
Hope & Anchor is not only American but New English (the name is a Rhode Island motto; one of the owners is from there), so it's naturally more businesslike than its sibling. Yet once again form follows function. The room plays on nostalgia via such details as a rotating dessert display and a selection of old-fashioned cocktails (try the fine whisky sour), while the decor as a whole aims for a sturdy Brooklyn timelessness. And though the name exemplifies a Generation-X tic?assigning value to the arbitrary?the restaurant's preservation and reinvention efforts are exacting. Hope & Anchor is a modern neighborhood restaurant, not a throwback.
A selection of plucky American wines introduces the restaurant's sense of adventure. Every bold move here, though, is balanced by a serving of sentimentality. Did Greek diner owners go through something similar when they put gyros and spanakopita, hotdogs and fried flounder on their menus? You can't call it pandering if the wistful need is justified. Hope & Anchor's taste inspires reflection even as it runs toward the crowd-pleasing.
Salads are available come 11 a.m., and dinner is only served after 5 p.m., possibly out of respect for breakfast; few wish to face challenges in the morning. A Cobb ($7) goes for it with blue cheese, tomato, avocado, chicken, bacon and egg. Mixed greens get a lemon dressing. The watercress salad ($6) is flavored with pureed mango and mint leaves, which go together surprisingly well?coming off simple, New Worldly and fresh.
Rhode Island clam cakes ($5) demonstrate the traditional side of the equation?they are lumps of fried dough with not a whole lot of clam chunks inside, precisely like at the boardwalk. I felt no affinity for them, but it hardly could have been clearer that the person who put the item on the menu loves it deeply.
The specialness of choices comes up again at dessert-time. One of my Hope & Anchor dining companions probably resembled the 70s toddler she once was as she devoured an order of chocolate pudding ice-box cake ($5), which is just pudding (quite possibly Jell-o brand) layered with crumpled-up, mushy graham crackers. It was a powerful one-two punch for her. The other dessert options?apple pie a la mode, peach tart, banana cream pie and chocolate layer cake?go for the same effect.
The forward-looking aspect of the neo-diner project manifests in the dinner entrees. That's the case even with the liver, which must have designed to transcend habitual pessimism. Monkfish with chickpeas, calamari, green olives and soft, spicy chorizo (optional?Hope & Anchor invites special orders on its menu) in tomato broth ($12) had the same light quality as the watercress salad, and tastes as good. Marinated skirt steak with fresh green beans ($10) was tasty and tender. There's also grilled pork loin with vinegar potatoes and herb salad ($10), mushroom lasagna ($12), gnocchi with sun-dried and fresh tomatoes ($11), herb-roasted chicken ($10) and a seared tuna steak with ham, lemon butter and a potato pancake ($12). These aren't tough dishes to do well. The main thing is that they're done right.
The hope at Hope & Anchor seems to be for creative simplicity. You can eat a three-course meal there and connect the dots from flavor to flavor, mentally drawing what might turn out to be an early ray of some dawning corner-store culture: rustic yet knowing, at times sophisticated but never striving. Everybody wants some of the old thing and some of the new thing. I think Hope & Anchor is an early articulation of an idea our offspring will assume was always part of the country. We'll know it's not quite authentic, that it's a self-conscious construction, maybe only culture at arm's length. Culture it is, though. A far cry from a Frenchman making cheese from an 800-year-old regional recipe, sure. But a far cry from McDonald's, as well.
Hope & Anchor, 347 Van Brunt St. (Wolcott St.), Brooklyn, 718-237-0276. Closed Mondays.
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