New Yorker Spotlight: Dominatrix Turned Restaurateur Erin Norris on Her Red Hook Restaurant, Grindhaus
A former construction manager, music publicist, Bergdorf’s window dresser, dominatrix and dungeon owner, Erin Norris has lived enough lives to make all of us feel like a bunch of old fogies. The founder of one of Red Hook‘s newest eateries, Grindhaus, the sassy blonde is the embodiment of the resilience, edginess and charm that defines New York City.
Back in 2008, Erin set out with the goal of bringing a sausage parlor and beer hall to Red Hook, but as was the case for many in her ‘hood, Hurricane Sandy had other plans. After a long (and expensive) rebuilding effort, Erin finally opened the doors to Grindhaus in 2013. Things may not have gone as planned, but even so, she managed to create something that went far beyond her dreams. Today, Grindhaus is one of the city’s best restaurants, luring in the most discerning of food critics, from the palates over at Zagat to New York Times restaurant critic Peter Wells (who, by the way, even had her dish him seconds).
But beyond food, Erin is all about her waterfront neighborhood and the colorful characters that make it one of the most inimitable places in all of NYC. We recently caught up with Erin to get an insider’s look.
Image and window design by Dain Gordon
You have a very interesting, eclectic past. Can you give us a little backstory?
Erin: Lets see… I was born a gemini with ADD, so right there are a lot of forces going on that are at odds with each other all the time. There are so many parts of the brain to satisfy, so I’ve always had to keep stimulated by doing a million things at the same time. My mom always used to say I wasn’t happy unless I had a circus around me, which is pretty much true. Funny enough, the idea for Grindhaus came about in a dream I had and it was the place where the circus folk would retire at the end of their day—partly inspired by the Pavel Tchelitchew painting called “Sleeping Pinheads.” Somehow that translated into what it is now. I should probably see a shrink.
Red Hook inhabitants have a different mindset from the rest of New York. How has the community influenced your business?
Erin: Red Hookers are pretty damn creative. Red Hookers that live and remain here do so because we ARE like-minded. We are fine with having cars and driving, we are fine with being far from public transport, we all huddle together and suffer the cruel, cruel winters. We make our own holidays and parades and in general are super supportive of one another.
The neighborhood is still recovering from from the effects of Sandy, what still needs to happen?
Erin: The f$&^$g sewer system needs to be overhauled! We flood constantly, the catch basins on each corner reek of ass/death/cadavers/squid as soon as the temperature hits 75. I am constantly calling the DEP to suck/snake the drains. They were already heavily taxed and compromised pre-Sandy. Imagine: Everyone’s spare bucket of paint or shellac, or the other pails of gunk one keeps in their basement, now in your local drain. The sewer pipe is like the artery of an obese person. What needs to go in there is a stent, not more cholesterol.
Why did you choose to open up a restaurant in Red Hook?
Erin: I’ve been here well over a decade. If I ever got tired of Red Hook, I would be screwed because there is no other place I could imagine living in the metro area. I was at the crossroads of what I wanted to do; I had been a music publicist, a band manager, acted in some stuff, a construction manager, window dresser, dominatrix and dungeon owner, bartender, bar manager, resto manager, but in a strange way it is all related or a least it is related to what I am doing here. Every skill I have acquired over the years has been tapped in order to get this done. I just wish I was more of a hustler—or at least better about rounding up money! I’m admittedly shit at that financial part of things. Probably because I’m from poor Irish stock!
Where does the name Grindhaus come from?
Erin: I woke up with it. I woke up with the notion that I had to do this restaurant after throwing a homemade sausage party with a friend of mine down the street, Jens Veneman, who also became my contractor. Originally, it was going to be a sausage parlor but what happens when you begin to transform a tiny dump into a destination, well, the space actually dictates what can and can not be done with it. Oh, and floods. Mother Nature will also strike down your ideas and show you who is boss. Bitch.
Red Hook can be a little hard to get to, where do your patrons usually come from? Within the neighborhood, Brooklyn, or other boroughs?
Erin: There is an interesting mix of locals and intrepid types. On one of the coldest, snowiest days the first winter, a couple trekked from upper Manhattan, took the train to Smith/9th and walked from there. They arrived with helmets made of ice, basically, but it turns out they were Russian and didn’t really give a shit about the weather and once they sat and felt the warmth of the space, they thawed out! I provided towels too, to absorb the wet. They had heard a few good things about us and made the trip. We do get a fair amount of locals, though it does surprise me when I run into people I see in passing and they don’t know we opened up! I had threatened to cartwheel naked down Van Brunt Street when we opened up, but it was too cold! My marketing game is a bit off, admittedly. There is just so much to do when it’s a skeletal crew of me, no partners, and a chef.
You were recently reviewed in the New York Times and your chef won a two-star award from the critic. After all your struggles, how does being recognized like this make you feel?
Erin: The aftereffects of a glowing review in the New York Times and its impact on a tiny, out of the way space is another conversation in itself. I’m not swimming in it as a result, if anything the opposite. I still need time to put it all into words.
Apart from Grindhaus, where do you like to hang out in the neighborhood?
Erin: Everywhere! Since I never get to go anywhere—because I’m mostly broke from this endeavor and every pair of shoes I own has holes in them—I tend to stay local. I can get away with the barter system a little bit, and I get that industry courtesy, so I hit them all:
Bait and Tackle Bar. It has been my local since it opened. It’s my Red Hook version of the great Max Fish. You can catch up on all the local hearsay and be privy to the latest unfurling of, or projected gossip. I worked there for a few years and it’s just one of the best places. The owner, Barry O’ Meara, is an umpteenth generation Irish publican and takes incredible pride in running one of the cleanest “dives” out there. There’s no food involved. It is one of the last bars in NYC, I believe, to dodge the new “must have some type of comestibles” ruling, which is nice because sometimes you just don’t want to smell like food.
Image via Brooklyn Crab Shack
Brooklyn Crab Shack. I’ve been loving this spot these days. The Jonah crab roll is always satisfying and the view is stunning.
Hometown BBQ thoroughly satisfies the “I Need Meat” craving and the owner, Billy, is probably one of the most generous dudes out there. He’s like a big, beating heart in a vest on two legs with tattoos, and he has the insane ability of putting fire to protein. Billy always parts the BBQ seas for us, giving us smoker space when we need. Sometimes I find myself at both of those places before having to battle Fairway on a weekend. You know, Courage Juice!
And then there’s the Good Fork. These Forkers were the culinary trailblazers of Red Hook along with the late, great 360 restaurant. Such nice people. I joke that owner Ben Schneider is the laziest man in Red Hook, but I do it dripping with sarcasm. He’s always building stuff, rallying troops to build more stuff for parades and whatnot. Unreal. He and his wife, Sohui (a chef) run the joint.
Fort Defiance will always provide me with a solid cocktail and sound advice.
The ladies, Monica and Leisah, from home made bklyn are probably responsible for Grindhaus even pressing on post-Sandy, I swear. They dragged me out, sat me down and just f$&^$g insisted that I go on when I wanted to walk away from this (not that I could afford to). That was a real eye opening pep talk. They also helped get me access to funding. Those ladies are neighborhood cheerleaders and I have a lot of love and respect for them. they have this alternate space down the street called Atelier Roquette and they use it both as a private events space as well as opening it up for community gatherings. Top notch.
Kevin’s is right next door as we commiserate on a regular basis and both maintain a healthy sense of humor about the state of things.
A Swingle. Photo via Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie flickr
I also drop in on a daily basis to Key Lime Steve’s (a.k.a. Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie down by Valentino Pier). Grab a Swingle (frozen key lime pie dipped in dark chocolate on a stick, holy crap) or the limeade and shoot the shit. I have a Jack Russell, Willis, who was sired by Mango and Mammey whose human parents are Steve and his wife Victoria, who are the owners. Steve is one of the reasons I was so attracted to Red Hook. He is so unabashedly opinionated (ex. with a caller: “Are you open ALL day?” Steve: “Whaddya mean? From midnight to midnight? Cos that’s all day.”) and before I moved here, I thought to myself “If this is what the locals are like, I wanna be in their camp. We can put marshmallows on the same stick.” I was able to penetrate his lack of time for “interlopers” and we’ve been friends ever since.
Pioneer Works. All the culture I get these days is from that place. It’s the shit!
And then there is Sunny’s. Everything you have ever read about it is true. If you’ve ever heard or read something negative, you should dismiss that person at once; they are soulless and stupid.
What would you like to see more of in Red Hook?
Erin: I would like to see more business off-season. We are basically the Montauk of the metro area; we have an on-season of April- October, then we are the coldest loneliest place in New York City in the winter. But we are still here! And we now have more ferry service. So, come down en masse! We ALL promise not to let you down! And if we do (or if you act up) each of us business owners will know about it!
275 Van Brunt Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231
Image via Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie flickr