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When I was a kid, I would hold my nose for two blocks, running full speed past the Gowanus Canal on the way to pottery class. It’s spiffier now - I probably couldn’t afford a co-op with a "canal view" - but still, it’s the Gowanus.

So what was Smith Street chef-restaurateur Alan Harding thinking when he named his latest venture The Gowanus Yacht Club? He was kidding. But he wasn’t quite kidding when he put out a sign reading: "Like camp but with beer."

Sufficiently inland from the wafting canal, on the corner of President and Smith streets, the Yacht Club has merrily set up camp, grilling hotdogs and burgers, and selling beer at near-wholesale prices.

The result: wholesale drinking, and one of the most laid-back scenes to happen on Smith Street since, well, Alan Harding.

Back in 1997, Harding joined a few pioneer Smith Street restaurants by opening the French bistro Patois (followed by French-Asian Uncle Pho). What ensued could be called a bistro boom. Today, Brooklynites can stroll from Carroll to Bergen streets, comparing menus. The phenomenon has also sparked a backward commute, luring Manhattanites to this dining destination.

Harding thinks we’re getting bored.

"Every restaurant on Smith Street is the same: same rent, same ingredients, same prices," he says. "I’m happy I have a loyal customer base, but there are five restaurants on the block using Asian ingredients. It’s not cool anymore."

So what is? This summer, it’s hot dogs. And $1 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR).

Harding reduces the latest trend to a simple formula: "People are interested in going back in time. PBR talks to everyone’s college days, or time they spent vacationing in Florida."

There’s definitely a tailgating vibe - irresistible to anyone who’s been out of college long enough to feel nostalgia for watery beer.

The $2 draught beer, Duff, is a nod to the fictitious brew favored by Homer Simpson. Rumor has it the stuff is actually Budweiser, but those of us who reached drinking age watching "The Simpsons" can appreciate the lowbrow connoisseur-ism implicit in ordering a Duff.

In this spirit, the guys I went to the beer garden with took on the challenge of sampling most of the 11 offerings from the oil drum-turned-charcoal-grill. They enjoyed several varieties of wurst ($2-$3), a Polish Kielbasa (a special that night), quesadillas (another special) and even a vegetarian "Notdog" ($3).

Hardly chef food. And while there are imported beers like Jever Pilsner and Dentergems Ale ($4) and three wines by the glass ($5), it’s clearly the $1 and $2 brews, including a "Can du Jour," that endears this place to a predominantly 25- to 30-year-old crowd.

Harding said he opened the Yacht Club because "the neighborhood needed an outdoor gathering place that was more affordable." He’s friends (and now partners) with the owners of the adjacent Bagels by the Park, and had long wanted to "showcase the corner."

He’s succeeded on both counts. At first glance, the place feels like someone’s backyard ("only hipper and more relaxed," Harding points out). Trellises and umbrellas define its boundaries. The decor could be termed slapdash-nautical, thanks to a few seaworthy tchochkes.

The camp-with-beer experience really hits home when it comes time to the hike out back. A single portable toilet, although clean, is still a portable toilet.

"I chose to lower my fixed expenses," Harding explained. "If I had to build a bathroom I would need to charge $8 for a Pabst."

The cheerful fans of the place don’t seem to mind roughing it. But are the neighbors happy campers? After all, Harding has bestowed his outdoor drinking establishment upon Carroll Gardens, where heretofore the loudest disturbances have been ice cream trucks in summer and a Christmas tree lot broadcasting carols in December.

Harding views the issue as a "double-edged sword": homeowners who complain about the noise, he says, have seen their property values skyrocket with the bar-dining boom along Smith Street.

"Of course," he concedes, "everyone has a right to peace." So the stereo is turned off at 10 pm, and the Yacht Club closes earlier than necessary. The nights I’ve been there, the place has been packed, yet not rowdy - just good people, re-living spring break, but more calmly.

Harding also does some "community handholding." When a woman across the street complained about the late-night clinking of glasses, Harding assured her that he’d talked to the dishwasher, who would be "more mindful."

To skirt these issues by enclosing the Yacht Club would mean building a structure "in keeping with the character of the neighborhood," since the corner is landmarked. Harding prefers to leave the yacht club at the mercy of the elements - it’s open seasonally, from Memorial Day through Halloween - rather than pursuing historical correctness.

"This was once a cow manure-infested lot where people sold vegetables," he said.

Smith Street has always stood out from the surrounding neighborhood. In my memories it is populated by guys munching pork rinds, pouring libations into the gutter from brown-bagged beverages and arguing into the night.

I’m glad that those guys don’t look like they’re going anywhere. I hope they won’t mind if I hang out on Smith Street, too, downing smoky sausages, toasting Homer with a Styrofoam cup of Duff, and pondering life on the Gowanus into the night.


The Gowanus Yacht Club, 323 Smith St. at President Street. No phone. Open Memorial Day through Halloween (weather permitting). Hours: Monday through Friday, from 4 pm to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, from 2 pm to midnight. Cash only.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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