by Jason Diamond
The last few years have seen no shortage of requiems written for the dive bar, or simply the kind of place that you might pass by without thinking much of it, but feel some sense of loss when you hear it’s closing up — the neighborhood bar, where you can get a can of beer from the American Midwest and a shot of cheap whiskey with little fuss or muss. The types of places that New York Times Magazine “Drink” columnist Rosie Schaap wrote about in her memoir Drinking With Men, are being replaced by specialty beer bars, places with expensive drinks made with cheap ingredients by inexperienced bartenders under the banner of “craft cocktails,” and worst of all, places that never seem to have enough room at the bar.
“Most people want community more than cocktails, and that’s what neighborhood bars offer,” Schaap told me recently. “Great neighborhood bars aren’t an antiquated idea; they’re timeless.” Yet these bars, where you go once a week to see your friends or shoot the shit with the bartender who gives you a buyback after a couple rounds of Jameson, are becoming harder to find. And when you do find one, you just worry about its inevitable demise, or worse, the wrong people discovering it. “The middle-of-the-road places with nice consistent service, the places where you always have a seat, where you can actually hear what the people you came to hang out with are saying, those don’t really seem to exist anymore,” Vicki Lame, a book editor in New York, told me.
Those kinds of bars, the ones with the old neon lights, beat-to-hell seats, and imported beer lists that consist entirely of old bottles of Heineken and Corona, are often wrongly called the “dive bars” by the new neighbors who spend just enough money just carelessly enough for you to know that they have too much. “I’ve seen the term used interchangeably with ‘neighborhood bar,’ which I think is incorrect,” Michael Neff, who has spent a lot of time on both sides of nearly every kind of bar, told me. “Some people call any bar that is dirty or bad or beaten up ‘a dive,’ which is closer but not always the case. If every crappy bar is a dive, then is every dive crappy?”
The East Village bar that Neff and his brother Danny resuscitated this past spring, Holiday Cocktail Lounge, was, for the most part, a place that people called a dive. It isn’t in its new incarnation, but it tries to recreate the look and feel of the old bar. Opened in 1965 and closed in 2009, a few weeks before the eighty-nine-year-old Ukrainian immigrant owner and bartender passed away, Holiday had become thoroughly run down before the renovations. Commenters on the blog EV Grieve began laying odds on what the space would become — 4:1 on a ramen place, fro-yo, or cupcakes; 7:3 “an artisanal joint”; 5:2 another Starbucks, 9:4 another bank; and 11:7 for a 7–11 — but the building’s new owner, Robert Ehrlich, founder of Pirate’s Booty, wanted to keep the bar as close to the way it has been since the mid-sixties, and enlisted the Neff brothers to help him. They cleaned it up a little bit, restored an old mural they found during the renovation that dates back to the thirties (when the space was called the Ali Baba Lounge), and added some food and cocktails to go along with the cocktails, which average around thirteen dollars or so. “We decided to run it like the come-as-you-are, drop-in kind of bar that it has always been,” Neff told me, adding that “people came to the Holiday because they felt like they were part of something, and we wanted that to continue.”
The problem is that a bar on St. Marks place or anywhere around the East Village or Lower East Side can’t be run that way anymore. Anybody is welcome there, and can be a “part of something” so as long as they can afford to pay double, or even triple what drinks used to cost at the original Holiday Cocktail Lounge. One could plausibly argue — and some have — that the new version is a perfect emblem of the exact cultural forces that are eradicating neighborhood bars, one rent-hiked block at a time. In a VQR piece about the self-proclaimed “Best Dive Bar In Los Angeles,” writer Aaron Gilbreath pointed to the King Eddy Saloon, and how the skid row bar that Charles Bukowski and John Fante used to drink in “was starting to market its authenticity, a process which inevitably diminishes authenticity,” and that the bar regulars (“Drug addicts and working class people drink side by side, along with prostitutes, drifters, ex-cons,” and all sorts of other people, according to Gilbreath), were slowly being displaced. Look at reviews of the bar, and the word “hipster” is used more often than not to describe how the bar has ruined itself, catering more to people that celebrate winning the prize “for being DTLA’s most obnoxious friend group.” If that’s the kind of clientele that inhabit the King Eddy now, will people keep wanting to go there? Dive bar chic is one thing, but nothing can seal a bar’s fate like the diminished authenticity Gilbreath wrote about.
Keeping a place that serves drinks open is a difficult task no matter where you do it. As the bartender at my current favorite local bar, Sharlene’s on Flatbush in Brooklyn, told me, “You need to get at least half a million to open a bar in New York anymore. You need investors and shit,” before launching into the laundry list of organizations trying to shut you down, from churches that he said he’s seen petition to get new bars from getting a liquor license, to the health department and other local officials with power to wield. I learned this at my first real neighborhood spot as an almost-adult, which was also my first introduction to just how hard it is for bar owners to stay open. I never learned the place’s name because it didn’t have a sign on the door, and Googling “Logan Square bar closed 2000” doesn’t help much. What I do remember was there were maybe seven bottles of liquor on display, they served Budweiser, Bud Light and Old Style, and Heineken was the most expensive thing on the menu.
The old lady that ran the bar once told me that when she moved from Germany to Chicago and settled in the neighborhood that she learned Polish before English so she could talk with her customers. A few days after a December blizzard that dumped over a foot of snow on the area, my stir-crazy roommates and I braved the snow and walked to the bar, only to find a “closing party,” and all the bottles of booze they had in the house were on sale for whatever they paid the distributor for them (I bought two bottles of root beer Schnapps for ten dollars and a bottle of vodka from Poland for four). I asked why they were shutting down since the place was always filled with loyal customers, the lady told me in her jumbled German/Eastern European/Great Lakes English accent, “The powers that be don’t want any more bars like this.”
The bar was another victim of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s reign, during which he ruled the city with the same “puritanical streak” as his father — outlined by Whet Moser in his 2012 Chicago magazine piece, “The Decline of the Chicago Neighborhood Tavern: A Daley and Demographic Legacy.” Long before Chicago’s various neighborhoods like Logan Square began being touted as “upscale” and “trendy” by realtors, a thousand liquor licenses, some dating back more than sixty years, were revoked between 1990 and 2005, the second Mayor Daley believing, just like his father before him had, that local taverns are a blight for neighborhoods and needed to be phased out.
In New York City, not surprisingly, it’s the property owners who are doing the most damage. Hogs and Heifers, the biker bar that opened in the then-unsavory Meatpacking District in 1992, closed this past August after the owners wanted to raise the bar’s rent to sixty thousand dollars a month to stay located in the spot that is now an iPhone 6S Plus’s throw from an Apple Store. Other places, like Trash Bar on a stretch of Williamsburg that didn’t have a movie theatre or fancy resturaunts on it when it opened in the early aughts, closed after their lanlords reportedly wanted to jack the rent up by four hundred percent. In the ideal version of this scenario, it makes way for spots with small batch whiskey and nine-dollar IPAs from craft breweries like Evil Twin to go along with charcuterie plates and oysters, even if not everybody wants those things. The other option is that the place gets converted into a bank or the building is knocked down to make way for more condos.
Artist John Tebeau, whose collection of illustrations of New York City’s greatest bars throughout the ages, Great Good Places of New York, is set to be released by Rizzoli next year, tries to see both sides of things. “It might be a new golden age for truly great bars, who knows,” he ponders after I ask him his thoughts on the vanishing neighborhood bar. His reasoning is simple enough, “I like plenty of the newer ones. Sure, they’re not ‘classics’ yet, but a lot of them are damn solid and will become or have already become neighborhood mainstays.” He mentions Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn, recalling that owner St. John Frizell “wanted a “great good place” in his neighborhood, “so he opened his own in 2009, and Red Hook wins.” Red Hook, one of the most cut-off Brooklyn neighborhoods considering its lack of subway stops, isn’t exactly the Pale of the Settlement (there’s an IKEA and a Fairway grocery store there, along with a number of great little local businesses that are surviving alongside the newer crop of restaurants and bars that are moving out there), but it’s essentially a last refuge for bar owners like St. John Frizell.
Maybe Tebeau is right. The rush to over-populate our big cities will probably have to taper off at some point. Those new bars will someday be old bars, those that are left having survived the test of time and escalating rents. Maybe there’s hope that the neighborhood bar, the one with the bartender that offers buybacks and the broken-in seat you live, can make a comeback. Or not.
Photo by j. lindsay