As summer sinks into a steamy New York City, bars are settling into once-familiar patterns. Piña Colada machines are unearthed from basements. Shade becomes the most coveted commodity on the patio. And on weeknights, wine bars and dive bars alike are filled with the charming, awkward, and sometimes charmingly awkward chatter of first dates.
With retro cocktails like the Dirty Shirley and Espresso Martini flooding bar menus across the city, are older (a.k.a offline) ways of meeting people experiencing a similar resurgence? Older generations might bemoan how apps have killed dating rites of passage like sending drinks to a stranger across the bar or meeting beneath the disco ball, but anyone who has been to a New York City bar lately can attest: Dating IRL isn’t at risk of dying out.
“A couple months ago, everyone was making sure to be spaced out and on their phones on apps or Zoom” says Dana La Plante, general manager at Ode to Babel in Brooklyn. “Now, everyone is kind of opening up to each other and buying people drinks.”
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The popular Prospect Heights bar is known in the neighborhood for drawing a crowd with Afropunk-themed DJ sets and tropical cocktails fortified with gin distilled in-house. Both are potent reasons to stake out a spot on the plant-filled patio, but as summer has begun to heat up, the crowd itself has proven to be a major draw. “Everyone is getting a shot for somebody else and cheers-ing each other,” says La Plante with a laugh. “Someone will stand at the bar and just ask a stranger if they want to get a shot.” Sometimes it leads to a conversation, and perhaps even a lasting connection. Other times, the moment of connection ends as soon as the shot glass hits the bar.
Meanwhile, at Short Stories, a very pink bar popular with a younger, cowboy boot-clad downtown contingent, Cupid comes in the form of an extremely blue, Spicy Margarita.
“It stands out in the lighting even when it’s really dark, and all of the sudden I’m seeing it kick- starting conversations,” says Tom Reaves, the late night bartender at Short Stories. “‘I [hear] it when I’m walking the floor, running drinks, behind the bar. ‘What is that? What are you drinking?’ They’ve made their in and don’t even realize it.”
“We definitely see a lot of kissing in the booths, that’s for sure,” agrees Joey Hayes, general manager and part owner at Short Stories.“For late night, we’re constantly trying to keep people from going downstairs into our office to try and hook up. There’s definitely some romance vibes brewing in here, but we’re still trying to figure out whether they plan to meet up here, or if it’s serendipitous.”
It’s undeniable that apps like Hinge, Bumble, and Lex are driving a large percentage of first dates, both at Short Stories and everywhere else. Dating app revenue climbed to $5.61 billion in 2021, according to Blackstone Group, with over 323 million users worldwide. But for those who want to sort through potential suitors offline, the bar is still the place to be.
As Pride month hits its stride, queer bars are especially experiencing a surge in customers who are eager to find love (or something along those lines) offline. When Cubbyhole, an iconic West Village stalwart for the lesbian and queer community since 1994, put out a call on its Instagram to hear from couples who met at the bar, the responses –– over 30 couples in less than a day –– flooded in.
“Cubby seems to be the brick and mortar app, if you will,” says bartender Deb Greenberg. “When you’re going out, yes, it’s to have fun, but everyone has the hopes of meeting someone, and when you go to Cubby, you know you can be yourself.”
Greenberg has witnessed plenty of meet cutes in the 12 years she’s worked behind Cubbyhole’s bar, including what seems like half the bar staff. After publicizing some of the couples who found love at the jukebox or beneath the canopy of paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling, it seems like there’s even more interest. “When I opened up the DMs, it was unbelievable,” Greenberg says. “So many people were saying, ‘I’m going tonight, hoping to meet my soulmate.”