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Lenny Bruce Tagged on Obscenity, Run Extended at Cafe Here 

Comedian Lenny Bruce and Howard Solomon, manager of the Cafe Au Go Go, 152 Bleecker Street, where Bruce is heading the bill, were arrested and taken to Sixth Precinct headquarters on Charles Street last Friday night. They were booked on charges of giving an “indecent performance.” On arriving at the police station, Solomon was served with a summons from the License Department.

The arrests were made at about 10 p.m. as Bruce was preparing to go on for his only show of the night. When he failed to appear most of the audience asked for their money back and left. Comedian Irwin Corey, who was in the audience, went on in Bruce’s place.

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Bruce and Solomon spent the night in jail and were released after arraignment the next day. Solomon was released in the rec­ognizance of his lawyer. Bruce, who has been arrested on obscenity charges in several cities and has one conviction on ap­peal in Chicago, had to post $1000 bail.

The two were told that the police had taped two of Bruce’s shows, his second show last Wednesday night (which actually began at 12:01 a.m. Thursday) and his first show last Thursday night. They were also told that the tapes had been played for a grand jury, which found that there was sufficient on which to charge them.

Solomon says the police told him that the original complaint about Bruce’s performances had come from the License Department. Acting License Commissioner William Barlow refused to comment on this. Instead he issued the following statement: “In view of the fact that a hearing is scheduled before this office on Thursday, there will be no comment on any phase until a determination has been made. We do not want to prejudice the case in any way by making any comment.”

Solomon had originally planned to operate the Cafe Au Go Go as a cabaret (which would permit dancing as well as entertainment) without liquor. He told The Voice that the License Department had indicated that he would receive a cabaret license and that he had proceeded with the renovation of the basement premises on the assumption that the license would be granted. He said his application had been filed last May, and that in December the License Department told him it would only grant him a coffee house license, which does not permit dancing.

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Bernard O’Connell, then License Commissioner, refused the license on the grounds that if dancing were permitted and no liquor were served, minors could be admitted and that they would go there to dance and then hang around until all hours of the night. Solomon told The Voice, however, that he had made it clear to the License Commissioner that he would “Abide by the letter of the law” governing cabarets and would not allow minors into his cafe unless they were accompanied by adults. He finally opened Cafe Au Go Go as a coffee house on February 7.

Vanguard Okay?

Solomon also pointed out that Bruce had appeared at the Village Vanguard last January and February and that he had given one-night performances to sell-out audiences at the Village Theatre, Second Avenue and Sixth Street, on Thanksgiving Night and the night of March 28. Neither of these establishments received complaints from either the police or the License Department.

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Bruce and Solomon will be tried on April 23 in Criminal Court. Ironically, Bruce’s arrest will serve to extend his run at Cafe Au Go Go, which was originally scheduled for one week and would have ended Sunday night. Since he has to be in town for his trial on the 23rd, he will go on performing at the Au Go Go until that date.

An Emergency Committee Againt Harassment of Lenny Bruce was formed over the weekend as a result of the arrest. The committee is circulating petitions addressed to Mayor Wagner. The petitions charge “that ‘obscenity’ has become a cudgel against free speech and only encourages intimidation of performers and their public.”

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The Wonderful World of the White Horse

West Village I: The Wonderful World of the White Horse
June 22, 1961

The young man fresh out of Dartmouth College left the $8-a-week room he’d just moved into on Greenwich Street and ventured into the oppressively muggy late afternoon. Although a newcomer to the West Village in that summer of 1951, he made tracks to the White Horse Tavern like an old-timer. People at Dartmouth had told him about the “The Horse.” Traditional watering-place for writers, longshoremen, Bohemians, pub crawlers, socialists, and just-plain-drunks, it was the kind of scene he’d dreamed of.

“Dartmouth” looked around at the West Village as he marched along, taking in the grimy streets, the weary brownstones, and tenements, the massive brick warehouses. There was something backwaterish about the neighborhood, tired. Looking on down 11th Street past the NY Central elevated line, then the elevated West Side Highway, he spied the ramshackle docks. They seemed lifeless too. The whole scene reminded him of the arid, yellowish-brown desolation of a 1930s Depression painting. But it was quiet. And quiet — plus cheaper rents — was why he’d chosen the neighborhood over the rest of the Village.

As a matter of fact, that quiet was symptomatic of what had happened to the West Village since its raucous, teeming Irish immigration days. By 1951, those dozen or so historic blocks extending from Hudson Street to the North River, and from Leroy up to Gansevoort, were so much at ebb tide the city had long before marked them as a blighted area. Not that they really were slums. But the city makes strange distinctions, and though Dartmouth didn’t know it, the redevelopment axe hung heavy over his new home as he walked along that day.

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Summer Commandoes

On the corner, the afternoon picked up. Three neighborhood Irish kids in ragged clothes and 25-cent haircuts popped up like summer commandoes from behind a line of rusty garbage cans. They took one look at Dartmouth’s Brooks jacket, his button-down shirt and rep tie, and squawked, “Hey, faggot, why don’cha go back to Ha’vard!”

Dartmouth winced. But he never looked back as a shower of stones whistled demonically past his ears.

And then he fronted the White Horse on Hudson and 11th. Multicolored with checkered trim, ship-shape square, it emitted a low drone of talk from its open door. This was Dartmouth’s big moment. He was landing on Bohemia’s shores after four dry years in New Hampshire. Man!

Inside, the Horse was gloomy but cool. Dark was the ornate wood paneling, with saloon-Victorian lamps, decorated by tiny horse heads hanging down from the ceiling. An English pub, no less! The heavy, old-fashioned bar was crowded with men, most of them in sweaty work clothes with ILA buttons on their caps. In the adjacent backroom a few other people, including a man with a Smith Brothers beard, poked at chessboards.

A Navy Vet

The men were making one hell of a noise. An elderly man they called “Ernie,” with a great white towel around his expansive midriff, shoved beer at them by the gallon. Timidly Dartmouth joined the men, feeling conspicuous in his Brooks clothes. He was. A stocky, red-faced type, with shirt sleeves rolled over his knotty, proletarian arms, frowned and muttered something as the young man nudged by him. Dartmouth felt uneasy. But what the hell, 18 months in the Navy had put some muscle on him too (it was tough in Philly in ’46 mothballing those destroyers and inventorying 3 million bars of soap).

He ordered what the longshoremen were drinking — half-light, half-dark beer — and drained his thick white mug. The frowning man was looking him up and down. Only the frown had pulled down to a scowl of gale force 10. Dartmouth belted another ’alf and ’alf. Courage, as it does occasionally to all men, came to him. The scowler tacked unsteadily alongside, his breath that of a hundred hop-fat breweries. “Hey,” he said.

Dartmouth refused to acknowledge the battered face glowing there in Heinz-tomato ripeness.

“Hey. Hey you, necktie,” the sodden voice persisted.

Slowly Dartmouth turned to his antagonist.

“You wanna know sumpin? Used to be guys like you never come in here. Now you’re on the joint like flies. You’re ruinin’ the place. Why don’t you go back uptown?”

Dartmouth was getting mad. Which was unfortunate.

“Hey,” the scowler persisted. “I’m the kinna guy belongs here. I belong in this part of Green-witch Village, not you.” Suddenly his face beamed with pride. “You know why? I’m a sailor. A ship’s engineer.”

“A ship’s engineer,” Dartmouth grinned coldly. “Well, where’s your engine?”

Goodnight, Sweet Dartmouth. When flights of 6th Precinct cops have borne you to your rest at St. Vincent’s you will be glad to learn the jaw was not broken — only badly bent.

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No Outsiders

Those were the breaks in 1951. The West Village could still brawl once in a while, and the longshoremen, truck drivers, or white collar folk (many of Irish descent) whose families had lived around there since the 1870s and ’80s, just didn’t take to outsiders. The ship’s engineer who clobbered Dartmouth was an extreme, of course, and his aggressive kind were usually kept in line by Ernie Wohlleben, the man who ran the Horse for nearly five decades. But once in a while things did get out of hand.

The Horse had already gone through whole phases of West Village history — even by 1951. And because it was such a durable pub, it reflected those changes about as readily as any popular neighborhood bar does. A longshore hangout since the ’80s, it survived the roughest days of what was known as the American Ward, when the Hudson Dusters gang used to pick fights with its customers and occasionally break the windows. Another indication of how solid a part of the community the Horse was by the end of World War I was the effect Prohibition had on it — that is, damn little effect!

In the late ’30s, the Horse again reflected changing times, but entertaining left-wingers in its backroom. Singing of radical songs became a nightly procedure back then, and though Ernie was a patient man, when the lyrics got around to bomb-tossing and unfettering of chains he got annoyed. “Listen,” he said to the radicals one night, “can’t you sing those songs as much as possible in some foreign language?”

Literature Moves In

After the Second World War, the Horse stated going literary. And it was Dylan Thomas, of course, who gave the joint such poetic class. Thomas used to stop while on U.S. lecture tours, bringing a whole coterie of admirers with him. It is often said he took his last drink there, before dying in late 1953. But the Horse was still no intellectual spa. A day or so after Thomas died, somebody passed the hat for his widow.

“Thomas. Who’s he?” a longshoreman wanted to know.

“Some drunk who used to ball it up in here,” his companion enlightened him.

Around the same time, a series of Sunday afternoon literary-political discussions started in the backroom. Norman Mailer, Calder Willingham, Oscar Williams, Vance Bourjaily — these were a few who held forth, sometimes by the hour. But the discussion tended to wander, the afternoons to get longer, and finally the whole thing fizzled out. “We wanted to transplant ideas, but we picked the wrong hothouse,” a participant said later.

So the White Horse changed. As more and more people like Dartmouth discovered the West Village, so the balance of population shifted from the Gaelic. The area was removed from the slum map in 1954 and renovations started. Rent went up. Dartmouth, by the way, had made it into a $110-a-month two-room garden job by 1955. But there were certain old-time elements in those blocks who resented this invasion. Some had good reason too, for they were losing their apartments to renovators. When property started getting scarce, a longshoreman earning $5,000 a year is hard put to compete for space with a copywriter pulling down $8,000.

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McCarthy Evenings

Politics reared its ghoulish head too. That was during the McCarthy hearings. Some patriotic West Villagers who approved of “good old Joe” decided the people who congregated at the White Horse must be Communists, atheists, or fags. They were different, weren’t they? So fights started in the streets. Then one night a bunch of these stalwarts invaded the Horse smashing beer mugs over peoples heads and kicking in the front windows. Minor variations of this took place all through that time. Diplomatic Ernie tried smoothing things over, but only when the draft grabbed the McCarthyites and directed their hostility toward North Koreans did the tensions ease off.

Other Voices, Other Bars

To return to friend Dartmouth. By the late ’50s, he was a big man in the Horse. Everybody called him by his first name, and the owners let him keep a tab. But ingrate that he was, he took to wandering to other pubs for variety. Up to El Faro on Greenwich and Horatio, he drank and played Lola Florez records on the jukebox. Back down on Greenwich and Perry, it was the poetry readings at the International Bar that caught his attention for awhile. Sitting alongside longshoremen, writers, and anyone else who drifted in, he listened to Bridget Murnaghan and the others by the hour. The International, too, had its hour of poetry before lapsing into somnolence.

Sometimes Dartmouth missed sitting and having a drink with the Irish. They’d been vanishing slowly from the Horse (some of them from the West Village altogether). He found them still, in the Cathedral Bar on Christopher, or in the waterfront Foc’s’cle with its sailors from Norway, truckers from Tulsa, and its star character, Popeye. Popeye, who loves the hop, gets so full of it he takes to directing traffic on West Street. He has three whistles for his work — a giant blaster for trucks, and average tweeter for cars, and a tiny peeper for jeeps and scooters. “I’m a federal traffic expert,” Popeye hollers as a truck driver in a 10-ton semi glares down at him. “President Kennedy just gave me sleeping privileges in the Red Ball trucks.”

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‘Horse’ Today

And what of Dartmouth’s Horse today? Although many of the longshoremen have gone, writers, painters, editors still gravitate there. The poet in residence is Delmore Schwarz. But college kids literally pack the place on weekends, and its nearly impossible to find a place to sit down. In the backroom, Socialists, like Mike Harrington, discuss the world but don’t cut loose with the radical songs anymore. They folksinging crowd which had come in over the the past few years makes all the racket now. The indomitable Clancy Brothers, Logan English, and others sing of their ethnic backgrounds until the little room rocks. They have displaced politics.

Dartmouth can’t stand the singing. He can’t stand the outsiders either, or the weekend crowds. “It isn’t the same,” you can hear him griping, “you should have seen it 10 years ago. Real people then!” And he’s become a loyal West Villager too. With the people once again thinking of redeveloping the neighborhood (it has improved tremendously in 10 years), he’s ready to man the barricades against the Planning Commission. Just ask him the next time you’re in the Horse. He’ll grab you by the shirt, back you against the old grandfather clock, and tell you what a great place his neighborhood is by the hour.

 

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An Irishman Bemoans St. Patrick’s Day

The Irish Renaissance? A terrible blather is born
March 23, 1972

This piece is dedicated to Frank McCourt who, with the wisdom of Solomon, spent the day lying on his bloody Irish arse.

Sweet sufferin’ Jesus, thank be it is over for another year.

I’m no good at these occasions of calendared merriment. I go mad with depression on holidays, and for good reason. At Christmas it is demanded I be gentle beyond my means, on New Year’s I’m called upon to be a lunatic with a monkey’s hat on my head, at Easter there is a suit to be bought I can’t afford, and on St. Patrick’s Day my consumption is expected to equal the reserves of the Grand Coulee Dam. As a man grows older, he longs to pass his life away in a rosary of innocuous Wednesdays.

Now as a race the Irish are no more mediocre than any other group in large numbers, but this year they were enraptured with their own purity. Since Northern Ireland began to dominate the headlines, there has been flap about an Irish Renaissance or what-have-you, and every paddy in sight has bored me wit the beauty of us all.

In point of fact every non-Irishman I met also mumbled leprechaun lyrics in my ear. Greeks quoted Yeats, Jews sang ballads, and Croatians gave me clenched fist salutes. Irishmen who had developed their biceps by throwing bricks at peace and civil rights marchers compared themselves to the Vietnamese and the blacks. A terrible blather is born.

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The whole experience kept me in a maudlin drunk for two weeks. The only green I sported was what I was hacking out of my lungs every morning, and by the end of it you could have written “Goodyear” across my liver. My mailbox was stuffed with pleas for every Irish cause from Derry to Harrisburg, and the Irish-American Cultural Society (that must be an elite group) demanded a contribution of $50, $100, or $150 from me, which was an insult beyond repair. I rationalized that if I was a trophy of their culture they should have been sending me checks.

Total strangers elbowed their way to the bar to discuss our “literary tradition.” I said fine, let’s talk about the Daily News and the Brooklyn Tablet and the Baltimore Catechism. But this didn’t seem to satisfy them, so I had to recite how we had starved O’Casey to death and turned Shaw and Wilde into the best bogus limeys since Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., how Joyce, soused in Paris, trembled over nightmares of hell for sins of self-abuse, and how Samuel Beckett has adopted a foreign tongue. But there was no stopping them. They mistook all this bile for vaunted Irish wit and hugged me, pronouncing I was a regular ould sod brother.

Radio and television shows beckoned me to take on the airways to extol my heritage. What in the name of hell did these people want to know? I had cauliflower ears courtesy of the nuns. Every time I get acid indigestion I check into a hospital for a biopsy, fall on my knees, and say an act of contrition, because of my esthetic concern over which band of angels I will end up singing with.

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Certainly they didn’t want to know about my early sex life, because if they did, all they would have had to do was air a minute of silence on their networks. I was terrified to leave my home in the morning for fear there would be a group of sociologists on my doorstep waiting to kidnap me off to the Smithsonian: “Authentic Ethnic Found in Wilds of Village.”

But when the day finally came, sanity returned. There was the parade in all its glory, with Jack McCarthy narrating on tv in a borrowed accent so heavy St. Christopher couldn’t have shouldered it. McCarthy was adorned in a white fireman’s hat, presented to him by one Raymond Gimmler (best remembered for staging the pro-war march of 1965).

As one women’s college group passed, Jack cooed, “Their proudest claim to fame is that they produce Catholic mothers,” a curriculum, one presumed, that started with a drop of holy water and ended with a splash of sperm.

But one has to admit Jack knows the nature of every Irishman’s dreams — to make a fortune in the new country and spend it in the old. He spouted blessings on Irish Airlines and various hotels and resorts in Ireland, and you knew old Jack was in for a grand summer.

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They came in legions: the sons of every county, those out-of-step high school bands (we reserve our rhythm for the sheets, not the streets), the good nurses, the good clergy, the good civil servants all paunches and pensions, and the Grand Marshal himself, proudly stating that that very evening 2500 Friendly Sons of St. Patrick would be attending a dinner at which Spiro would be the guest speaker. Agnew was to repeat his triumph on Sunday morning at a breakfast of the Holy Name Society of the Police Department before 3500 wildly cheering guests.

When our Renaissance came marching by, wearing black armbands and chanting at the pols in the grandstand, they were told to keep their arses moving; or else it was time for a commercial interruption. Jack put a final benediction on the whole affair with his patented tagline: “May ye be a half hour dead before the divil knows it.”

As I walked into a saloon that night in my beret and shaggy locks, a fireman with the face of an uncooked roast beef looked up and snarled, “Hello, Pierre.” It was the first honest comment I had heard in weeks, and I was tempted to say it was grand to be back among my own.

I have lived as Irish-American for 35 years. I have endured it, and it is too late in the march for me to believe we are going to become champions of humanity. Which is not an insult, since I don’t believe any other race has a franchise on that claim either.

So I hope that by next year all the blather fades, and the cynical gilders of humanity spend their day in church with the saints and let the people have the street. If not, look for me to be marching in the middle of the parade, carrying a red, white, and blue banner, and loudly proclaiming: “Ireland, Get Out of America.”

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Love, Longing, and Lunch on Restaurant Row

If you fold up Manhattan like an old receipt kept in your pocket, the block of 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues known as Restaurant Row is right in the middle crease. Thus designated in 1973 by Mayor John Lindsay, Restaurant Row is a little filthy, a much overlooked, worn-out, and grit-gilded stretch of sagging apartment buildings and saturnine dining rooms. It certainly is no longer what Lindsay intimated it was — if it ever was that — when he asked rhetorically, “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” 

By then, the area around it was already on the decline, but the Row itself, once owned by the Astor family, was a beacon off Broadway, a strip of class that acted as the Maginot Line against the strip clubs and titty bars of Times Square. It served the tony theater crowd, and though a few blocks east the rough trade of the Deuce went down, in the dining rooms of Restaurant Row Broadway stars and politicos supped in style. Alas, of the sixteen original restaurants, many have since shuttered. Not even the most charitable of critics could call the survivors best at anything but their own survival.

Restaurant Row isn’t exactly failing, nor is it thriving. It seems to have achieved a diminished equilibrium. There are a fair number of empty storefronts, especially on the south side of the street, and a steady incursion of well-respected, well-run, but ahistorical Japanese restaurants — including Sushi of Gari, Sushi Seki, and Ikinari Steak. There’s now a nail salon, a few crumb-bum bars — not scuzz enough to be angel-headed; not class enough to be swank — and the disconcerting arrival of fast casual concepts including Bareburger and Pure Ktchn, which is, apparently, too pure for vowels. But to a remarkable and, to me, surprising extent, Restaurant Row has maintained its charms. Plural because, as I am to find out during this extended stay there, lunch charm is different from dinner charm, which is different from night charm.

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The allure of diurnal eating is the mostly empty dining room: Being this alone in New York is a rarity and a pleasure. It’s like an instant day hike to Harriman. Take Le Rivage, a French warhorse first opened in 1984 by the family Denamiel. Like most restaurants on the row, Le Rivage has a spray of menu options displayed on the sidewalk, from lunch prix fixe, lunch à la carte, pre-theater, happy hour, etc. There are deals advertised here that rarely correspond to deals actually offered once inside. Frequently, the prix fixe menus are accompanied by more caveats than a politician’s apology.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but be charmed as soon as one steps into the dining room. “Bonjour!” says a small, gray-haired, owlish hostess, “vous êtes seul?” “More than you could ever imagine, lady,” I think to respond. Instead, I do that which I hate done: I reply in the language of the cuisine of the restaurant in question. “Oui, l’enfer c’est les autres.”  

The place itself is large and low-ceilinged. The decor is grand-mère chic. There are both white tablecloths and white carpet, a rarity in this linenphobic restaurant scene. The walls sport oil colors of French country scenes, and the menu is about as by the book as Bob Mueller. Whereas at hep downtown neo-bistros, where riffs are being composed on classics like trout amandine and moules farcies, here the classics prevail. Let the youngsters have their Coltrane. This is the Rodgers & Hammerstein version of “My Favorite Things.” From the lunch prix fixe, I order a potage aux legumes; a glossy green soup, it tastes no more and no less than what it is, liquefied potato and leeks served warm. Next is a chicken cordon bleu, a dish as old-fashioned as calling the MTA the El. Though ill-served by a broiler, this version is passable. That it still gives pleasure reflects the underlying wisdom of whosoever first combined breaded chicken, a slice of salty jambon de Paris, mushrooms, and a blanket of béchamel sauce. Re-emerging midday into the crest of the August heat wave after the meal — Salut! A bientôt! — is like waking up after a bender. The sun, the people, their inability to walk properly on a sidewalk. I make it a few steps before seeking refuge in Brazil Brazil, the restaurant next door.

My favorite song, “Águas de Março”the live version with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina in which they both start cracking up, plays on a stereo in the ghost-town room. Paintings of thatch cottages surrounded by flowers on the Côte D’Azure are replaced by those of brightly colored huts in Paraty and capoeiristas mid-kick. The only other diners are a pair of elderly Brazilians and a young Brazilian tourist family. That’s a good sign. The chef here, Antonio Werdam, lives in Astoria, home to much of New York’s Brazilian population. As Le Rivage rolled down the center of the lane, so too does Brazil Brazil. This is basic shit, Brazilian food 101.

The menu starts with salgadinhos, “small salty things,” like pasteis — fried envelopes filled with salted beef or cheese — and coxinha de frango, a dewdrop-shaped fritter of shredded chicken, the kind of food you cop at the botequim lining the beach in Rio. Of the mains courses, my favorite is the feijoada, a hearty black bean and meat stew served with a cassava flour called farofa and a molho de pimenton, a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and vinegar. One of the few well-known Brazilian dishes, feijoada often gets gussied up into some shmance deconstruction. But it’s best served on the ground level, with cuts and sausages you don’t often find except in Brazil, and in such pockets of the Brazilian diaspora that exist. Fuck virgins, when I die I want to be greeted by a caldinho de feijoada, a small pot of feijoada, with two slices of orange, a tangle of garlicky, thinly sliced collard greens, and a small mound of farofa.

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Then night falls and stagehands get ready for showtime. The tenor of Restaurant Row changes. The peckish tourists clamber off on their double-decker buses and the theater crowd comes. This lot is a far cry from the mink stoles and black-tie tales of Broadway crowds bygone, and not only because it’s so hot I sweat from folds I never knew I had. But at Barbetta, at least, some elegance remains. Barbetta, old regina of the row, founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, an immigrant from Piemonte, and still owned by his daughter, Laura. It was in the garden of Barbetta that Lindsay spouted his mayoral cant, and it was in the upper rooms where John Jacob Astor III lived, and it is in the dining room tonight where tuxedoed waiters weave, the old-man unicorn spawn of Emmett Kelly and Max von Sydow. One is Eduardo Maglio, a sexagenarian maitre d’ from Argentina, who thrusts upon me a very large menu. Barbetta is so old it has left a trail of anniversaries behind it. It’s celebrating its 75th on the door, its 110th on the menu, and its 112th in reality.

A mix of vintage and contemporary-ish dishes, the menu is written in a florid if approachable J. Peterman style no longer au courant. “Oven baked Onion filled with a delicate fontina puree — Wow!” reads one entry. Elsewhere on the menu the diner is admonished to “Eat like a Pope!” Pope Francis’s favorite food is bagna cauda, an anchovy-and-olive sauce from Piemonte — according, at least, to the menu of Barbetta. But I figured, What the hell? Why not eat like the pope? Alas, the bagna cauda here isn’t exactly divine. There’s no cauldron in which to bathe the vegetables. Instead the sauce comes pooled atop little roasted red peppers like a cat’s mess on a carpet. An unappetizing appetizer aesthetically, it actually overperforms, as the anchovies — often underplayed unconscionably — are admirably and assertively administered. Much more ethereal are the gnocchi. According to Eduardo, they are the best in the world, but by my word it’s otherworldly altogether. Less sickle cell and more globule, and so light they would float up from the Piemonte cheese sauce if not for the scattered toasted pine nuts and thin ribbons of basil, exactly fourteen gnocchetti come in the $19 half-portion. That’s $1.35 per gnocchetto, slightly less than a minute of therapy but equally soothing. Worth it.

I bid Eduardo farewell, snoop around the coat room and a strange small sitting room with an ornately decorated harpsichord, open but unplayed, and a collection of porcelain dogs, and never want to leave. This is my place; emptiness is home. But leave I must.

Joe Allen at his regular spot at his namesake restaurant

Full, of course, but intrepid, I head to Joe Allen, one of the few spots on the block worth visiting. Allen owns not only his titular bar and restaurant but Orso, a refined Tuscan restaurant next door, and Bar Centrale next door. The vibe at Joe Allen is less historic than at Barbetta and less neglected than at Le Rivage. It’s well-populated by 8:30 p.m. I sit at the bar, reading Alan Richman’s saturnine profile of the man himself, who apparently is quite reticent, and eating a major-chord cheeseburger — nice intervals, nothing added, fulsome. I bide my time until the George Gee Swing Orchestra takes the backroom stage across the street at Swing 46, one of the slate of nightclubs on the Row. Besides the formless bars that do not warrant a mention, there’s Bottoms Up, which, unsurprisingly, is a gay bar; the Ritz, similarly gay, though less titularly so; and Don’t Tell Mama, a piano bar where I will end my night.

Swing 46 is one of those places I’ve always dismissed as a tourist trap, but as I sit at the bar alone — je suis toujours seul — I realize how wrong I was. Down with the $15 cover but not the $2 drink minimum, I’m just outside the back room, where the band plays. It’s a good enough vantage point — one can hear them rip through “Take the A Train” and “The Shadow of Your Smile” and other classics — and, as I soon find out, this is where the close-knit community of swing dancers gather to talk shop. As Tori, a third-year student at New York Law School — she wants to practice estate law — tells me, “There’s even a Facebook group called ‘Swing 46 tonight?’ ” Here, on the banquette, the dancers change from their street shoes into shiny patent leather or sparkly ones. Dancing shoes! They come to wear dancing shoes and dance with one another in the back room of a midtown jazz club. Perhaps it is that the cocktail I’m holding, a Manhattan, is large and strong, or that I’ve had a few already? I almost tear up watching the bodies sway and swing in the other room. They hold one another and twirl as the music plays; meaning, connection, joy. The musicians trade solos, but no one’s alone.

Dancers take the floor at “Swing 46”

I gotta get out of here, too many FEEELINGS, not cool to cry. And anyway, next door at Don’t Tell Mama, the pianist is already onstage and I promised myself not to miss him. The piano bar is narrow and divey, more like a dorm room than a venue: a wall of mirrors and a few rickety tables. When I walk in, the tables are crowded with a few tipsy ladies with highlights in their hair, and a couple of theater queens sitting in the front in pastel polos, and a strange four-top of hipsters staring at their phones, and me, at the bar, drinking — by this point — seltzer but tipping the bartender generously. He needs it. He’s a big dude, baby-faced, named Tommy Dose. On the black-and-whites is a guy named Paddy, goes by Paddy on the Piano. When I walk in, he’s midway through Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” Paddy relies a little too heavily on bass-note flourishes, muddying the melody, but I know the words, love the song, sing along.

Tommy is doing a brisk business in watery domestics along with another bartender. Some sixty-year-old guy who looks like he wandered in from a lower-tier country club has taken it as a personal affront that Tommy has demanded a credit card to open a tab. “I’m not going to stiff you!” he says. “I know,” says Tommy, “but it’s the policy.” The man throws a twenty down angrily. “I told you I wasn’t going to fucking stiff you.” Tommy rolls his eyes, and I wonder how many of these small shitty interactions it takes to stifle the soul of a man.

And then, from the stage, Paddy calls to Tommy, and Tommy goes to Paddy. And it turns out Tommy can sing, boy can he sing. Accompanied by Paddy, he belts out that Hozier song “Take Me to Church” in a heartfelt baritone that, mostly, eschews vampy musical theater. If I almost bawled to Ellington and swing steps next door, this is certainly too much for me to process emotionally. Tommy is so big his head almost touches the ceiling, and his voice is so big it squeezes the drunks and the dicks to the margins. He fills the room with the sound and heart. It’s beautiful, one of those moments of benediction you pray for every day in this city. I should’ve known. Here in midtown, bartenders are singers and singers are bartenders and empty rooms are temples, and crowded rooms are sanctified, and the human condition, with its unyielding need to connect, is laid bare.

A Judy Garland impersonator gets ready to take the stage at “Don’t Tell Mama”

This is what I think: You can eat much better nearly anywhere else in New York. To answer Mayor Lindsay’s outdated question — “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” — the answer is in any of the current food courts or food halls that besmirch our city’s dining scene. But what you can’t get in a stall with a common dining room and free Wi-Fi is this depth of feeling, a complete immersion, an entire ecosystem. There is no other block like Restaurant Row, where dreams and desires, lunch and love, and the heartbreakingly tender chorus of the human heart are heard sung so clear. Not even in Paris.

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Bars FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Nicaraguan Noshing and Nightcaps at Chicha in Bushwick

“RUM,” promises the blazing-red neon sign announcing Chicha Cafetín and Cocktail, a splashy new Nicaraguan-inclined party hangar that opened in May near the Jefferson L stop. The letters cast a glow onto this quiet stretch of Randolph Street that recalls pre-revolution Havana or the best of Art Deco Miami. Thankfully, it’s no mere ornament. The bustling Bushwick warehouse restaurant offers around a hundred different expressions of sugarcane-based spirits doled out in tasting-friendly one- or two-ounce pours, from grassy Brazilian cachaças to El Dorado’s smooth, earthy Guyanese Demerara rums to cult bottles like Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum, an extra-aged black rum from Bermuda that’s nearly as syrupy and darkly sweet as the molasses it’s fermented from.

Blufields Swizzle cocktail; Chicha’s interior

One you might not have tried before is clairin, Haiti’s minimally processed, typically unaged rhum agricole made from sugarcane syrup or freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Only recently arrived stateside, it is to Big Rum what artisanal mescal is to mass-market tequila: a small-batch kindred spirit steeped in centuries of tradition and terroir marked by distinct characteristics that vary from producer to producer, and sometimes from batch to batch. Of the three available, I was bowled over by the full-bodied Clairin Vaval, which is fermented with wild yeasts and distilled in a custom rig built from, among other things, car parts. The intensely sharp clear liquor, so pungent it tickles your nose with an herbal astringency and peppery snap after each sip, is indeed a wild ride.

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Another, the barely milder Clairin Sajous, makes its way into one of partner and bar director Marshall Altier’s overtly Instagrammable $14 craft cocktails called the Blufields Swizzle. Stained a purplish ombre thanks to the addition of butterfly pea flowers, the tropical, fruity sipper mixes in banana liqueur and coconut cream, plus three other strong white rums (from Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Oaxaca), for a drink that looks and tastes like a trippy piña colada. Altier rounds out his beverage list with $13 cocktails on tap (the Nitro Cafecito, which mingles rum, cacao, cherry liqueur, and cold brew coffee, is particularly invigorating), Nicaraguan craft beer, zippy pitaya limeade, and sodas infused with both fruit and spice and made in-house. Whether it’s while posted up at the stunning, soaring bar with locals wearing vibe-appropriate florals and pastels that match the colorful design, sitting beneath a Nicaraguan wood backsplash next to a dozen rowdy off-duty high school teachers, or perched at the front countertop that looks out onto a nondescript beige brick building across the street, imbibing here is blissfully rewarding.

Chicha interior

So is much of the cooking from co-owner Vanessa Palazio, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants, whose familial ties and travels through the country inform a modern Nica menu full of rarely seen dishes that embraces the vibrancy of the restaurant’s decor and drinks program. In her hands, the Latin-American staple of chicken cooked with rice becomes arroz con pollo arancini ($12), a trio of Arborio rice croquettes laced with olives, peppers, and shreds of tender slow-cooked bird that speaks to the virtues of frying everything. Salpicon, a meat hash, takes a provocative turn as jarred short rib rillettes ($18) under layers of pepper jelly and smoked coconut. Somehow both refreshing and deeply beefy, it is spread onto giant, craggy chips made from puffed rice and beans, a nod to gallo pinto, the country’s version of the iconic Latin combo. Elotitos ($11) riff on the cheesy, peppery fondue of baby corn called guiso de chilotes. Repackaged as a handheld snack, the stack of tiny grilled cobs showered with grated queso seco are delightful when dipped into auburn-hued smoked guajillo chile sauce.

Quesillos angosta and baho-style pork, chicha belly

Then there are her quesillos ($4.50–$7.50), the open-faced, corn tortilla-bound street food loaded with melty hand-pulled cheese that’s somewhere between a taco and a sope in thickness. Before opening Chicha together, Palazio and her husband, Adam Schneider, ran a DUMBO pop-up specializing in the dish. Here, the rounds have been shrunk down to “bar bite” size. Made from masa milled in-house, all are worth investigating. The simplest highlights the cheese with a ladle of crema and plantain vinegar–pickled onions; the fanciest plunks sweet, well-cooked lobster claw meat onto a dark squid-ink tortilla. Best are the ones with shredded roast chicken and sour orange–cooked baho-style pork shoulder, which pack an al pastor–like wallop of flavor.

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Palazio also compellingly cradles pork shoulder with plantains and crispy rice in banana leaves for a large-format entrée of baho ($24) served with more tortillas, and sears skirt steak ($27) to an admirable medium-rare that’s perfect with jalapeño salsa and a nest of crispy taro root shoestring fries. Also ideal for sharing is whole roasted sea bream ($28), the flaky fish perked up by tomatillo-corn relish and a bright, acerbic vinaigrette tinted orange with achiote.

End your evening modestly with seasonal ice creams and sorbets ($9) — on a recent evening, watermelon was a juicy treat — or in a blaze of glory with maduras infiernos ($13), ice cream scooped into a bowl of crisp, fluffy plantain churros and set next to a puddle of booze-fueled fire. Or do as Chicha’s sign commands and send yourself off with a nip of rum.

Chicha
198 Randolph Street, Brooklyn
718-366-2114
chichanyc.com

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In “The Mere Wife,” Beowulf Goes to the ‘Burbs

On Tuesday, July 10, a group of literati and party people traded the crowded subway cars of the NYC MTA for Railway NYC, an equally packed nineteenth-century train–styled Greenwich Village bar simulating a ride around the base of smoke-covered mountains.

We were there to celebrate the launch of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a modern retelling of Beowulf, and everyone seemed a little nervous. The invitations promised “a world of monsters and fire.” No one was sure what that meant. “I literally have no idea what’s going on,” one attendee said when I asked him what he was expecting. Another hoped to avoid an interactive “Sleep No More situation.” He was mostly there for the spiced pineapple cocktails.

In The Mere Wife, out this week, Herot Hall has been transformed from a medieval Danish castle into a quaint American suburb, surrounded by primordial mountains hiding a trove of secrets. Dahvana Headley, known for her fantasy novels like Queen of Kings and Magnonia, as well as her co-editing work on Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures anthology, flexes her wit and classical knowledge while turning the entire story on its head, especially when it comes to the epic’s three main antagonists. Two lovelorn boys have replaced Grendel, the fearsome giant; Grendel’s mother, the “mere wife” of the novel, becomes a reclusive army veteran suffering from PTSD; and the dragon is now a renovated train furthering gentrification. The lake under the mountains, referred to as “the mere” in the novel, seems to take on a life of its own. In this reimagining, the world is wild enough to be familiar, but the monsters are not who we think they are. It was fitting that we were gathered to celebrate in the belly of the beast, or a reasonable facsimile of it.

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The book launch was the work of Farrar Straus & Giroux’s newest imprint, MCD, which aims to “interrogate established publishing practices and experiment with new storytelling formats,” according to Naomi Huffman, programmer for the night’s event. This is only the second launch MCD has hosted. The first, for Katherine Faw’s gritty feminist novel Ultraluminous, featured galactic manicures, tarot readings, and a panel on beauty and power. The point, Huffman says, is to reinvigorate the typical reading, which can seem hyper-exclusive and academic. “They’re devoid of storytelling,” she explains. “There’s little that’s surprising or engaging about them. MCD’s series intends to produce events that are as engaging as the experience of reading the book.”

Dahvana Headley, 41, was holding court in the back of the room, sporting a chainmail dress and over-the-knee boots that had a print faintly reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript. I asked her about the tattoo traveling down the right side of her arm in bold, Gothic print that reads aglæca.

“This word is the reason I wrote the book,” she said. “It’s a word that describes Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf, and Grendel. For Beowulf it’s often translated as ‘hero.’ For Grendel’s mother, it’s ‘monster’ or ‘hag.’… What it really means is awe-inspiring, formidable.”

Dahvana Headley is no stranger to fantasy. She studied dramatic writing at NYU and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and World Fantasy Award. She is also working on a translation of Beowulf, due out next year from FSG, which she says happened “wildly and accidentally” as she was working on The Mere Wife. In her translation, Grendel’s mother will be a human woman, as opposed to the “monstrous hell-bride” of Seamus Heaney’s translation.

To Dahvana Headley, Beowulf is a foundational text for understanding our world today. “Our political story-telling is totally based on it,” she explained. “The way that Trump talks about himself is based on that hero speech. I’m interested in pointing out the ways that that propaganda works, and the ways that equality isn’t served by that hero/monster binary.” Hence, the decision to refocus the typically masculine story on two women: Grendel’s mother and King Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow — Willa Herot in the story.

With the author’s friends and admirers edging around us, I headed back to the front of the bar, where Emily Kempf (a/k/a Magic Tatty) was setting up to tattoo flash on willing partygoers. A young woman stopped my friend and me. “The reading’s about to start,” she warned, “and it’s, like, ten minutes long; you’ll miss it.” Soon after, Dahvana Headley grabbed the mic and the musician and artist Dorian Wood started to bang out a chaotic version of “Chopsticks” on the keyboard in front of him. Dahvana Headley read the part of Willa Herot with a dry sense of humor. As Willa prepares for a Christmas feast, Dahvana Headley is coy: “It’s two days ’til goose, though that may have been a mistake. She’s never done a goose before, but who has?” The crowd titters appreciatively, and Wood closes his eyes to nod along with her rhythm.

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Just as onlookers started to get restless, a voice boomed from the back of the room, reading the part of Grendel’s mother. It was the woman who warned the reading would be starting soon: I later learned she was actor and director Kirya Traber, whose Undesirable Elements was previously reviewed in the Voice. Attention shifted, and then again and again, as a dizzying array of voices around the room were added to the chorus of narrators. Some were friends of Dahvana Headley’s, while others, like Traber, were professional actors. It was more performance than straight reading, and finished slightly over the promised ten minutes.

Everyone seemed to have something to say about what they had just witnessed. “Did we walk into Haiti three years after the hurricane?” one attendee asked, glibly signaling, I imagine, some level of confusion. Forgivable, perhaps, since The Mere Wife specializes in a sort of boundary-crossing consciousness: Characters slip in and out of fugue states, the lake narrates for short sections, and an army of suburban mothers speaks as a collective, often in riddles, much as in Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. It lends itself to confusion, but made for a lively reading.

“I love an author who understands the performance,” Traber told me after the reading. “I don’t think they have to be the same thing, but when there’s room to meander between a play, film, and writing, that’s exciting.”

It also seemed to draw a more diverse crowd than a traditional reading. That night I met two directors, several musicians, one magician, and one kid two weeks new to New York. And while some “got” the reading more than others, Huffman said she hopes she can engage with the average reader: “I want more of everyone else in the room.” That night, at least, was a start.

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A Brooklyn Barkeep’s Illustrated Guide to New York Watering Holes

John Tebeau lives the kind of life you thought was extinct in New York City. He spends three days a week behind the bar at Red Hook’s Fort Defiance, tending to a cast of regulars and visitors, many of whom have wandered in after a trip to IKEA, in dire need of booze. When he’s not at Fort Defiance, Tebeau’s in his Brooklyn Heights studio working as a freelance illustrator. He combines his two areas of expertise in his new book, Bars, Taverns, and Dives New Yorkers Love: Where to Go, What to Drink, which features his hand-drawn renderings of fifty bars from around the five boroughs, along with recipes and short essays on all things hospitality: whether to sit at the bar or a table, advice on engaging with your fellow drinkers, and quotes overheard at his regular Atlantic Avenue tavern, ChipShop.

The importance of a good bar was established in his life early on, as a kid in North Muskegon, Michigan. “It was normal for my parents to go out to taverns and stuff, to see their friends and have a few beers, so it was always normal for them to bring the kids, because it was the Seventies and Eighties,” he tells me over drinks at Brooklyn Inn, one of the bars featured in the book. “Kids would play pool and Pac-Man and shuffleboard, and the parents would hang out and bullshit, and everyone would eat together.”

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When asked about the distinctions between the categories he names in his book’s title — bars, taverns, dives — he explains that bars are drinks-forward, a tavern serves food, and a dive is, well, a dive. You know one when you see one, yet Tebeau believes they can be further sorted into two categories: “There’s one type that’s a disreputable bar that has unsavory clientele, something like that,” he says, “but the other kind of dive is an unassuming local bar that serves reasonably priced drinks to locals.” The best in Brooklyn, according to him, is Red Hook’s Brooklyn Ice House. “It’s got a surprisingly good kitchen,” he notes, while declining to out any of the “bad dives” by name. 

Tebeau, who moved to Brooklyn after spending time in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, and Manhattan, had gotten some attention for his drawings of Brooklyn bars after showing them at Fort Defiance and Long Island Bar. The publisher, though, wanted to cover the entire city, which led him to spots in Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx that he chose through a method of polling friends and scouring the internet. But Brooklyn is the most broadly and deeply represented, with twenty-one bars. The Bronx and Queens each get four, Staten Island six, and Manhattan fifteen.

“Population-wise, it’s huge,” he says. “Queens and Brooklyn are the most populous, so there’s just going to be more people and more bars because of it. There’s definitely a good locals bar feel here. And also because I live here. What gives me the right to decide that most of the favorite bars are in Brooklyn? Nothing. It’s kind of a personal book that way.” 

Each bar gets a section dedicated to Tebeau’s notes concerning what to drink and eat, how to get there, and even where to sit. One essay offers helpful tips for maintaining “ballast,” noting that “alcohol is a toxin, my friends, and can extract a steep price: the wrath of the booze gods, brought down upon you brutally, like Thor’s mighty hammer itself. This book is about the joy of social tippling, not getting spring-break wasted, so be smart and keep it fun.” Starch, fat, and salt are highly recommended, as is a post-drinking slice. 

Long Island Bar

Tebeau is careful, in the book and in person, not to use the word “best” about his selection; these are simply his favorites, and the method was unscientific. And because of the nature of New York real estate, there were apparently fifty-three chosen spots: While working on the book, Tebeau had three bars in his back pocket to replace those that made the initial cut but might close while it was still in production.

“The whole time I was writing the book, I was expecting some place to close before I finished it. That didn’t happen — out of fifty bars, in five boroughs, none closed while I was working on the book,” he says. “Then it went to the printers, and one closed [Red Lantern Bicycles]. In ten years, some people will look at the book and more places will probably be closed. It’s a moment in time.” McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened in 1854, has been around the longest. 

This is a common refrain in the world of watering holes: When Amanda Schuster, editor-in-chief of the website The Alcohol Professor, was writing last year’s New York Cocktails, the potential for closures was constantly on her mind, and three have shut down since her book hit the market last September. “Mayahuel was the first to close, announced just before the book was released,” she says. “Then we lost my beloved August Laura in Carroll Gardens around Thanksgiving. Though not officially a cocktail bar, Sunken Hundred is closing in a couple of weeks.”

Many factors are at fault, according to Schuster. While no one expected Mayahuel, an iconic agave spirits bar, to shutter, the others were a bit too offbeat to survive the current New York City economy.

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“August Laura and Sunken Hundred are both tragic circumstances of trying to keep a business afloat in an economy that doesn’t favor creativity in less-traveled sections of a mostly residential neighborhood with tons of competing businesses,” she says. “The people who truly appreciate those kinds of venues — a quirky neighborhood bar focused on esoteric Italian ingredients and an upscale, authentic coastal Welsh restaurant with a seaweed martini — aren’t the same people who can afford to visit them regularly. People with deeper pockets favor their more famous neighbors. Even if you fill every seat a night in a great cocktail bar in south Brooklyn, it’s tough to get ahead unless the seats constantly turn over. Not filling them is death.”

And so we can expect that Tebeau’s book might soon be more time capsule than guidebook. It could be saved, though, by its catholic approach to the city’s bars, giving equal space to brewery tasting rooms and neighborhood places in New Brighton rather than focusing on the hyped cocktail go-tos. His approachable writing can remind even the most hardened regulars why they find themselves darkening the same door night after night, and the bright, bold illustration style brings a soft, awestruck eye to common sights. It gives you access to a friendly bartender without leaving the house — but might also get you to hop the ferry to Staten Island and talk to whoever’s on the next stool. You’ll want this book, like your chosen local pub, to stick around.

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Saying Goodbye to Grassroots Tavern

Normally I am fascinated by the constant mutations of St. Marks Place. When I met a friend for our last pitcher at the soon-to-be-shuttered Grassroots Tavern in late December 2017, I was convinced the world was ending.

As we walked down the block to 20 St. Marks Place, I tried to count the neighborhood’s incarnations —the spot that served food via vending machines now sells hot pot; the Papaya Dog has shut down, but that space used to house a karaoke bar, anyway; the head shop I got my piercings from in the tenth grade is still going strong — but I got dizzy and confused. This was the street that ate a 7-Eleven. Survival was a struggle here, and somehow that was exciting. When I was applying to college, I was asked which historical figure I’d like to have dinner with, and I wrote an essay about eating falafel with Andy Warhol on the steps of the Chipotle that had previously been his Electric Circus. I predicted that he would share my affection for St. Marks’ confused commercialization.

In that context, Grassroots’ presence seemed a bit inscrutable. As its name might suggest, it has always been tied to activism. The Villager writes that the bar’s owner, Jim Stratton, who also founded the Downtown Independent Democrats, had hoped to create an inclusive space in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, with East Village residents crowded into tiny apartments, Stratton envisioned Grassroots to function like your living room. For over four decades it welcomed radicals, students, and the broke from throughout the city. It wasn’t trendy or corporate. It was huge, covered in graffiti, and sold $7 pitchers. It was timeless in the face of St. Marks’ perpetual evolution. On December 31, 2017, it ceased to exist. Stratton and co-owner Douglas Bunton, refusing to raise their prices to accommodate a rising rent, shuttered Grassroots for good. In its place, Bob Precious, owner of Murray Hill’s The Ginger Man, has applied for a liquor license to operate a new bar.

I started going to Grassroots some time around Occupy Wall Street, which is how a lot of young people seemed to find it. Grassroots is where I learned that my best friend from high school, Hristo, was plotting a move to Syria that would eventually become a Voice cover story. It’s where I got into heated debates with my anarchist friends about love, intersectionality, and the grunt work of revolution. It’s where I met strangers who became friends as we mourned Heather Heyer’s death. It’s also where my former colleagues and I gathered when we heard the Voice would end its print edition.

In my last moments with Grassroots, I wondered if there was anything I could learn from the closing of my favorite bar. 2017 was, after all, a year that trampled some of us at breakneck speed. Suddenly, it was acceptable for white liberals to wonder, more vocally than before, if I was worthy of inclusion in the workplace and in higher education. Diversity was the enemy of progressive causes. I found myself having to argue that Nazism was morally corrupt to willfully obtuse antagonists posing as rationalists. Women reopened countless traumas, only to be lectured about sex panics after a few companies fired prominent men in lieu of enacting structural change. Gothamist and DNAinfo, whose daily reporting largely made local, grassroots organizing possible, were demolished altogether. Surely this was all a portent of a doomed 2018.

Details from inside Grassroots Tavern

“We can never set foot in the new bar,” I declared petulantly, after Hristo and I rehashed the year’s injustices. “We’ll be crotchety New Yorkers talking about what this place used to be,” he agreed. “We’re so old,” I said, but really we are 25. Sometimes I wonder if kids who grew up in New York age faster than transplants. So many of us have had to let go of the places we loved over and over, whether they’ve been demolished or reshaped entirely. The Fort Greene Hristo and I grew up with in high school is gone. It seems like we’ve lived several lifetimes watching scaffolding go up, mourning a landmark, and remarking on all the high-rises. When we tried to describe walking through Fort Greene in 2017, all we could say was, “Have you seen those 30-year-olds riding scooters to work?” In the face of gentrification, we are infirm.

Then, saying goodbye to Grassroots, I tried to milk some lesson from St. Marks, as if it had taken on a zen mastery of the New York minute. How could I live through all these impossible changes? When I peered into empty shop windows, there was no reply. C.O. Moed of My Private Coney knew exactly why the place seemed impenetrable. “St. Marks is — well, maybe it’s not dead, but it’s deadened. Maybe it’s been Botoxed,” she told Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York before lamenting, “I feel erased.” I feel that way too. 

Grassroots felt safe until the end, though. I felt safe when I spun out about fascists hoarding bitcoins and no one looked at me like I was crazy. Instead, Possum, the bartender’s dog, came up to play. During our last drink, Hristo and I wracked our brains for solutions to problems that were much bigger than us. Between long pauses, we decided we had no choice but to believe in people. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was more than I had been able to process under the avalanche of tweets and news alerts and reminders that everyone was using retinol cream but me.

“Eat the Rich” and “Grassroots Forever”

2017 was an uninhabitable year as a woman of color, a writer, and a New Yorker. I watched helplessly as white supremacist groups expanded influence online and in public, as financial interests neutered local reporting, as the city got more expensive and more broken. Everything about 2017 seemed to be rejecting me. Grassroots reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that there was still a place in this city I could call my own.

It’s easy to imagine Grassroots’ closing as another blow to my sense of community. But I’m heartened by Stratton and Bunton’s decision to stay true to their vision. They offered cheap drinks for good people in an expensive city for as long as they could. It’s a reminder to put people before places. There will surely be more closures, forced or otherwise, to come. Hank’s Saloon has already announced it will be closing at the end of this year.

Though it seems like there’s nothing left for us, that’s never true. There are so many pockets of this city we make homes out of. In 2018, I hope we can all find one another.

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At Grant Achatz’s First New York Outpost, Spirits Takes Flight

The only person who made pumpkin anything seem interesting this fall was Grant Achatz. With one Instagram picture of a crystal clear slice of pumpkin pie, the Chicago chef behind Alinea, Next, and the Aviary got the attention of the food-obsessed and Vogue. This is the man whose flagship restaurant serves you an edible balloon filled with helium: If you expect to see a gelatinized distillation of pumpkin poured into a classic pâte brisée on anyone’s feed, it’s his.

That’s why New Yorkers began to salivate over the prospect of the Aviary, his cocktail bar, alighting in the city earlier this year. The Eater headline began “Holy Crap” because Achatz is arguably the most celebrated chef in America. Finally, with the arrival of this not-so-humble cocktail bar, you wouldn’t have to hop a flight to Chicago to experience his vision. Now gastro-adventurers can enjoy Aviary classics on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Columbus Circle, where a stay can run you up to $14,000 a night. Micah Melton, who started at the Chicago location as “ice chef” in 2011, now serves as beverage director of both locations. You can reserve your à la carte, three-course ($110), or five-course ($165) tasting, but note that single-seat reservations aren’t allowed. 

Grant Achatz

A key aspect of the Aviary’s appeal, which opened in Chicago in 2011, has been that the bartenders are held to the same standard as Alinea’s Michelin-level chefs. When he opened the original, Achatz said he wanted to create the drinking version of his famed restaurant. We could arguably give the bar credit for making the presentation of a cocktail as important as its flavor, or use its success to explain why high-end chefs are now collaborating with spirits brands, like Olmsted’s Greg Baxtrom with the Botanist Gin and Michelin mainstay Alain Ducasse with Grey Goose. Which is all to say that while the bar’s arrival in New York is new, little about its experience feels fresh. That’s what happens when you change an industry.

The bar sits just below the hotel lobby, open to it. Most of its 90 seats are plush couches and chairs situated over low glass tables, accented by gold light fixtures. This could be any old hotel bar until you notice the glass wall behind which the bartenders are working, filling vessels with drinks; it’s the only part of the room that looks truly contemporary — a lab lined with booze instead of beakers — despite a complete renovation. Then you’re brought a dark-red amuse-bouche with deep hibiscus flavor, like the most pleasant cough syrup you’ve ever tasted. This isn’t a regular bar, you remember, not even a very fancy regular bar. This is what their website calls “an interactive journey.”

They’ve changed the menu up in this edition to playfully mirror local customs. In the Wake and Bake ($27), the flavor of everything bagel replaces the original oatmeal, with orange, coffee, and rye rounding it out. In the Rocks (NYE Celebration) ($29) allows you to pull back on a mini slingshot to crack open an ice sphere mimicking the Times Square ball; it’s a boozy one with a kick, bringing together scotch, bourbon, champagne, and cassis with a bit of Szechuan peppercorn. There’s also a New York Sour Eh? ($18) featuring egg white, red wine, spiced pear, and rye. My friend, who’s a bartender at a different Manhattan hotel, pointed out the clever fact that they’ve listed flavors first and spirits last under each drink, forcing you to consider the cocktails as a whole before making a quick judgment based on your go-to booze.

Wake and Bake

We went with the three-course pairing, leaving our selections of cocktail and small dishes up to the staff. Their riff on the Michelada, the Micahlada, with miso, yuzu, coriander, Japanese whiskey, and Evil Twin Bushido beer, came out first, presented in a footed pilsner glass. The whiskey gets lost, and — despite being bright and juicy, with a pleasantly salty finish — the cocktail is essentially an $18 brunch drink. It was paired with what’s listed on the menu simply as Pineapple, which sees the fruit served two ways, cold and hot, with a smattering of mole; the two approaches are most delicious when tasted apart.

The Heart of Stone, a classic from Chicago poured a bit at a time out of a clear, custom-made canteen called the Porthole that allows you to see all the drink’s ingredients as they steep, combines pistachio, peach, Fresno chile, lapsang, and bourbon. You only find the satisfying nuttiness on the nose, and as the drink sits, its initial softness makes way for the heat of the chile and smokiness of lapsang; when paired with a salty, fatty bite of coconut and heart of palm with avocado (or yellowtail, if you’re not vegan) in their ceviche, the combination becomes pleasantly beachy.

Then there’s the Boom Goes the Dynamite, with rooibos, vanilla, violet, verjus, and rum served in a smoking orb, which comes together as a floral rum hot toddy. It’s served alongside their Not Ramen (named for its lack of pork) dish, and the flavor marriage doesn’t fully jell. My friend was brought the Carrot Cake Ramos, a well-shaken feat that truly puts all the elements of the cake in a glass, but we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around why it was served with noodles.

Upon paying the bill, we were taken over to the Office, the speakeasy set behind the kitchen. This is another transplant from Chicago, for which you can make a separate reservation or ask for a peek, and it does feel like a well-off old man’s home office, with typewriters and books for decor and the bartenders in more classic suspenders-and-mustache attire. The small selection of house cocktails run $23 apiece, and you could blow a hefty chunk of cash on any of their other drinks made with old, precious booze, like the $600 Wet Martini (featuring pre-Prohibition selections) and a $355 Daiquiri (starring Jamaican rum from 1943). The list — including Cynar and other liqueurs infused with black truffle — is focused on dusty bottles, which is how you get those prices (though even a vanilla sundae for two runs $35, and three of the four beers available are priced at $20 or above).

In an evening of new-to-us cocktails that nonetheless felt uncannily familiar, one of the best moments was when bar director Aidan Bowie decided to bring over our drinks and spilled a Carrot Cake Ramos on my friend’s pants, after which he apologized profusely and brought over the manager’s card in case my friend would like to have them dry-cleaned on the house. Instead of dashing off back to the kitchen, he crouched and chatted a bit, his accident having created a moment of unexpectedly pleasant human interaction. It was like being at a bar.

The Aviary NYC
Mandarin Oriental
80 Columbus Circle
theaviarynyc.tocktix.com

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Bars Equality Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Queer Havens of Jackson Heights

Glen Lorenzana has worked at Club Evolution in Jackson Heights for seven years — longer if you count the days it was known as Club Atlantis. During tonight’s Friday happy hour, as he’s serving patrons, a woman enters the bar holding a black plastic bag. She grabs Lorenzana’s palm and hands him a fresh mango.

“Felipe! That’s my mom!” Lorenzana yells to a customer. As the patrons pass around a karaoke microphone, Lorenzana’s mother walks around the bar, sipping seltzer, collecting kisses from people on barstools.

The moment is a reminder of how the world outside the thriving constellation of Latinx-centric LGBTQ bars on and around Roosevelt Avenue, Queens’ counterpoint to Manhattan’s Christopher Street, bleeds into the clubs. In addition to sharing patrons with the Ecuadorian restaurant across the street and the taqueria down the block, on weekends these bars draw Latinx visitors from Long Island and the Bronx. According to Lorenzana, Los Angelenos often seek out the Queens scene when they visit; he even has regulars who visit every couple of months from Guyana.

The Jackson Heights scene operates on the idea that those inside are family, providing a community that goes beyond the bars themselves. Club Evolution’s owner has been Lorenzana’s uncle (gay, not biological) for twenty years. And Lorenzana’s phone never stops buzzing, as bar patrons new to the U.S., intimidated by Manhattan and not confident in their English, text “Glen the Real Estate Agent” for help finding jobs or housing.

“Going to one bar is like entering your uncle’s house, then another is your grandmother’s, then go to another, it’s your cousin’s house,” says Jorge Lozano, manager at Hombres Lounge, located just off Roosevelt Avenue on a quieter block of 37th Avenue.

The bar scene has been vital to queer visibility in the area. According to city councilmember Daniel Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights and nearby Elmhurst, the first Queens Pride festival began in a now-defunct gay bar on Roosevelt and 81st Street called Bachelor’s. In 1992, with the neighborhood still reeling from the murder two years earlier of Julio Rivera, killed by three gay-bashers in a popular cruising area, Dromm and other organizers, with the owner’s permission, brought in a coffee can decorated in homemade wrapping paper and collected $54 from drunk patrons. That led to further support from over half a dozen neighborhood bars’ patrons and staff, including Club Evolution’s owner Eddie Valentin, who donated $2,500.

Jackson Heights was selected as the site because only its community board would issue Dromm and the other organizers a permit — and then only if they agreed to advertise the festival as a “community block party.” The event drew 10,000 people, thanks to the bars. “They allowed us to come in, make announcements, and take money,” says Dromm. “They already had the crowds; we just needed the people to turn out.”

Sixteen years ago, the bar scene offered refuge to Lozano as well. He fled discrimination in Mexico and moved to Queens, where, within a few months, his then-boyfriend introduced him to the clubs. “That was a huge relief for me, because I felt free,” Lozano said. “I could be Latino and be openly gay.”

After last year’s Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Jackson Heights residents marched through the streets to Club Evolution to hold a vigil that was multilingual and community-driven, a contrast to the much-maligned Manhattan vigil that featured such straight white celebrities as Nick Jonas.

What draws them, people agree, is the undeniable sense that these spaces don’t sacrifice either their LGBTQ identity or their latinidad. With Latin music like cumbia and bachata on regular rotation, the bars encourage dancing and intimacy.

“Here, you have to grab somebody,” says Mario Tehuitzil at Hombres, a short walk from his home in neighboring Corona. As a bonus, he says, in Queens he can relax and not worry about his accent. At Manhattan bars, he often has to field the question “Where are you from?” based on his accent and skin color: “At some point in the night, I know I’m gonna get that question.”

Daniel Puerto, who emigrated from Colombia eighteen years ago at age seven, says that local residents can introduce people from outside the area to their culture through music or food from the many restaurants near the bar. “Some people meet randomly one night and end up eating together at Pollos Mario at 3 a.m.,” he says. “That’s beautiful.”

Part of the neighborhood’s lack of pretense is its working-class mentality, according to Puerto, of “striving to survive.” That shared sense of survival means not only spending their money supporting local businesses, but showing their fighting spirit in public: In 2016, Hombres chose a warrior aesthetic — gladiator helmets and thong sandals — for its annual NYC Pride March float, to convey that the community was committed to fighting against hate, especially attacks on the transgender community.

“We are representing minorities together, strong, not being afraid,” Hombres co-owner Carlos Zuluaga says.

That sense of camaraderie keeps the bars’ family growing. Puerto recently began bringing his younger sister, who is also LGBTQ, to Evolution. After a few weeks, he recalls, she asked Puerto when they’d return, “because it feels like a family.”

“It was nice to know that for a young Latina woman, that Evolution also has that reputation of being of a place where people ask, ‘How are you doing?’ ”