Ask anyone who’s been to Sunny’s in Red Hook to define the bar, and they’ll come up with a host of different answers: A bar. An institution. A destination. A relic. It isn’t easy to find just one word to entirely capture the establishment’s character and lasting impact, but most people come around to this truth about the spot: Sunny’s is special.
For decades, Sunny’s has operated as a local-favorite watering hole, but it’s also served as a community center and reminder of a long-ago Red Hook, one that’s undergone much transformation in recent years. Even so, Sunny’s feels timeless thanks to its eclecticism: While its walls and shelves are lined with dusty tokens of the bar’s past, the stale smell of cigarettes still perfumes the air, and a record player spins Leonard Cohen tunes, it’s also where you can dance until 1 a.m. or, on Sundays, take sculpture classes. It’s where you might spot a famous jazz musician or catch a glimpse of an award-winning actor shooting scenes for a new TV show–though you’ll never find an actual TV in Sunny’s.
Proprietor and namesake Sunny Balzano estimates the bar has been in his family since the 19th century, though he personally took the helm in the mid 1990s. During that time the establishment, without a proper liquor license, operated as the Red Hook Yacht and Kayak Club and became a gathering place for the neighborhood’s growing community of artists, musicians, and writers. For some, it was an artistic oasis; for others, a different world entirely.
“[New York Press writer Paul Lukas] took me in and I just felt like I was walking into this magical universe,” says author Amy Sohn (The Actress, Run Catch Kiss), who first visited the bar in the late ’90s. “There’s only a few bars like that in the whole country–another one is Montero–where you feel like you’re entering another world and you just want to reorganize your life to be there all the time.”
In the early aughts, after closing temporarily, the establishment reopened with the help of Balzano’s wife, Tone, and increasingly added events to its programming of live music, theater, and visual arts. Included in that lineup was Sundays at Sunny’s, a reading series running once a month from 2002 to 2011 that featured literary luminaries like Sohn as well as David Rees, Nick Flynn, and Meg Wolitzer.
“[The idea for Sundays at Sunny’s] was sort of to make a kind of salon so that it wasn’t just about the readings, it was about creating a little kind of [haven] where writers and publishing people and, you know, book-related people and just plain readers could all get together,” says Gabriel Cohen (Red Hook, Neptune Avenue*), author, writing teacher at Pratt, and the series’ founder. “It was really more than just a reading series. It was, I think people really enjoyed the combination of the quality of the readings, but also being in that really special bar.”
Over the years, Sunny’s has seen its fair share of change as well as hardship, the most significant of which came at the hands of Hurricane Sandy. When damage from the storm forced the bar to close — a trial Balzano says he “didn’t think [they] were ever going to survive”–it was an exceptionally hard blow for the owners as well as the artists who’d come to see the bar as a second home.
“[Hurricane Sandy] was a double tragedy because not only was the bar closed, but we all lost that thing, that connection, that Sunny’s was like a community,” says musician Smokey Hormel, who travels from Hudson to perform at Sunny’s every Wednesday night. “It made me realize how important it is to have a meeting place, sort of an open environment like a bar that’s kind of anything goes, you can say whatever you want, it stays in the bar. It was so important in communities, and that was just as important as having a place to live, almost.”
After that 10-month hiatus, the bar reopened two years ago on August 29, the owner’s birthday, and according to Balzano has been doing better than ever, which he emphatically attributes to the tireless labor of those who work at the bar and the folks who joined in the recovery effort.
As Red Hook continues to become the home of big-box businesses like Ikea and Fairway, and as famed bars like Montero consider making way for continued real-estate development in the borough, Sunny’s ability to not only survive but thrive is especially telling of its esteem in the community. And much of why the bar is so beloved can also be attributed to the man himself.
“To put it mildly, Sunny’s a character,” Cohen says. “What I was impressed by at first was the way that he had with people. That, I mean, literally the second time I walked into the bar I sort of felt like I was being welcomed back as a regular, and he just had this way of making people feel welcome.”
Sohn adds: “The brilliant thing about Sunny is that he makes you feel as though he knows exactly who you are and what all of your accomplishments are, even though [laughs] he probably doesn’t actually know your name. He just makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room, and he nods, you know, as an introduction is made as though he’s deeply familiar with you.”
For some, Sunny, a painter and artist who used to travel in the same circles as Andy Warhol, also holds a certain fascination because of his personal legacy.
“Sunny, you know, he’s such an amazing character and kind of really like a historic figure,” Hormel says. “Like, he’s kind of the last of the Beatnik artists. He’s kind of what we all aspire to be.”
While Balzano, who lives upstairs from Sunny’s, doesn’t make many appearances behind the stick these days, his presence is still felt throughout the establishment. His large abstract paintings hang over booths opposite the bar, and there are, of course, those aforementioned family mementos woven into the space’s decor. But, more important, the atmosphere is still one of warmth and welcoming among the caring staff and patrons alike, a quality some say is increasingly disappearing from the modern bar scene as neighborhoods continue to be gentrified or as technology dominates our attention. Sunny’s is an escape from that.
“It’s like a magical little world on the waterfront,” Cohen says.
Sunny’s, 253 Conover Street; Red Hook
*This article originally mistitled Gabriel Cohen’s book; we regret the error.