Travel Back in Time at Vinegar Hill House

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Vinegar Hill isn’t an obvious place to put a restaurant: just a half dozen cobblestone blocks of Greek Revival row houses tucked between the Navy Yard and DUMBO, as if a piece of old New York had been transported through time and dropped into the industrial waterfront. But Sam Buffa and Jean Adamson, who worked together at the Lower East Side’s hard-to-find Freeman’s, were both taken with the nearly forgotten BK neighborhood. When they saw a snug space on Hudson Avenue was available, they knew that they had to open their own place there.

Yes, the name Vinegar Hill House sounds like a parody of a Brooklyn restaurant—a fantasyland where creeks burble with aged balsamics, reds and rices. But while artisanal acids sometimes trickle through the haute farmhouse kitchen, the neighborhood was named for a 1798 battle of Irish Rebellion at Vinegar Hill in Wexford, Ireland, in an effort to woo Irish immigrants to the hood in the 1800s. The phrase Vinegar Hill is actually the English transliteration of the Irish Cnoc Fiodh na gCaor, which means “hill of the wood of the berries.”

Buffa and Adamson moved into the carriage house out back, set to work, and in late 2008 opened the 40-seat restaurant, channeling the neighborhood’s vintage vibe. Tables are made from reclaimed butcher block or hurricane-felled first-growth mahogany. Lighting fixtures are fashioned out of driftwood. Pipes from an old church organ hang behind the copper-topped bar.

A wood-burning fire isn’t there for ambience—it’s where the crew cooks up signature Americana recipes like the cast-iron chicken, which comes to the table in the namesake pan, moist and meaty with crackling crisp skin, or the Red Wattle country chop, a hearty slab of heritage pork served with pimento cheese grits.

Adamson developed those dishes as opening chef, but has since turned the kitchen over to Brian Leth, formerly of Prune, Blue Hill and Allen & Delancey. Leth has added his own sense of flavor and whimsy to the menu—his housemade croutons are bathed in chicken schmaltz, bacon gets a caramel kho glaze and Long Island fluke is served with a tangle of foraged greens, briny uni and creamy yogurt. A dish of pappardelle with snails, watercress and walnuts was inspired by the tiny garden gastropods often found in freshly harvested cress.

They’ve recently added a wine bar next door named Hillside, but on a summer night the most transportive perch is behind the original. Take a seat in their back patio, order a craft cocktail like the Low Resolution—three rums, lime and honey, topped with sparkling white. Take a sip, look up past the strung lights at the stars and prepare to forget where—or when—you are.

Photo credit: Vicky Wasik

Lisa McLaughlin

Lisa McLaughlin writes about food, drink and cultural trends for Time magazine when she isn't busy trying to figure out how to grow hops on her windowsill.

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