The days of sidling up to a bar in New York may feel like distant memories. But bartenders and business owners are fighting to bring them back by building imaginative solutions for the beverages, and the hospitality, that have been in such deficit over the past 11 months.
Some of these intrepid ideas involve new ventures and virtual bar experiences, while others pivot from traditional bar service entirely. One upstart is resurrecting an ancient technique to sell shelf-stable libations to-go. Another sees safety — in the form of rapid tests for Covid-19 at the venue entrance — as the new luxury.
In every story told here, there is resilience and a reimagined future. Here’s how a handful of NYC’s bar owners, workers, and newly minted entrepreneurs are attempting to survive and succeed in this pandemic.
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Speakeasies Out on the Street
When Raines Law Room opened in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, it was the perfect example of the speakeasy style that many cocktail bars were emulating in 2009 — unmarked, hard-to-find door, tin ceiling, the works. With no standing room allowed, it was not easy to get in, which was the icing on the exclusive, hidden bar cake. These are not the sorts of places that thrive with indoor seating restrictions.
“Something that’s unique to all these frontline industries — and I hate to put us in the same category as health care, but we’re also some of the most affected — it’s like, ‘Come up with genius ideas while you’re kind of broke and uninsured!’” Meaghan Dorman, bar director of both Raines Law Room and Dear Irving, says. But bar people are immensely resilient, so Dorman opened up the bar’s intimate backyard and worked to obtain a bike lane permit in order to seat even more guests out front, in plain sight.
Though Dorman never thought she’d see a concept like Raines Law Room with a patio, it’s an increasingly common phenomenon in the streets of NYC. Even Attaboy, another infamous and elusive bar of New York, is now serving cocktails right out in the open on Eldridge Street.
“We’ve just really had to rethink how we can translate our philosophy into the only business we’re allowed to do right now,” Dorman says. For all of her bars, this entails not only in-person service, but a focus on to-go cocktails and virtual class offerings as well.
Paying for Safety is the New Luxury
In order to enter City Winery’s flagship location at Pier 57 in Hudson River Park on the West Side of Manhattan, both guests and employees alike are required to take a rapid Covid-19 test.* On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, patrons are responsible for the cost of a $50 test — a fee whose full amount goes directly to the testing company — and can spend their 15-minute wait for the results sipping on complimentary bubbles. Those who test positive for Covid-19 are sent home after being offered a follow-up PCR test with 24-hour turnaround, but they are not permitted inside. A negative result is rewarded with entrance to the restaurant, where all other safety protocols, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, are still enforced.
Michael Dorf, founder and CEO of City Winery, believes that offering tests at the door is “not just a scientific and social responsibility to keep people safe,” but an example of an expanding definition of hospitality. By ensuring that everybody inside what he refers to as “the bubble” has acquired a negative test result, City Winery is able to add another layer of comfort to the hospitality his restaurant venue provides. “And at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to start to see [the need] to check people’s certificate of vaccination,” he says imaginatively.
Dorf believes there are “a lot of psychological considerations” to take into account to make guests feel as safe as possible, “and that’s our job,” he says. “Just like providing good bathrooms, we need to provide a good, comfortable situation for consumption. If people don’t feel safe, then they’re not going to come.”
Since City Winery is usually also a live-music venue, Dorf foresees thorough safety measures carried over for concerts when gathering restrictions are lessened. Until City Winery can host shows with an all-inclusive, test-and-ticket price for revelers, it is offering virtual concerts through its CWTV exclusive streaming series. Dorf says he is open to using it as an incremental offering for audiences who are unable to attend live because of logistics, “but we don’t see that at all in any way as a substitute.” As with its virtual wine tastings, he sees this more as a temporary bridge to connect people in a very solitary time, but also feels pushback on virtual gathering “because there’s so much of it,” he says. “And what we do really well, which doesn’t work in a Covid world … is bring people together.”
The Rise of the Salon
“My apartment, a brownstone with a large parlor, fireplace, and view of the Chrysler Building was my metropolitan dream. I was gutted at the thought of having to leave it,” recalls Georgette Moger-Petraske, a freelance food and drinks travel writer who lost her work last March. When her roommate moved out around the same time, keeping the apartment didn’t seem likely. Then she stumbled upon an 1860s perfume counter from Louisiana in an antique store during a day trip upstate. “I fell hard at first sight,” Moger-Petraske says of the beautiful bar-like structure. “Taking into consideration how much everyone was really missing bars and restaurants and attempting being home bartenders, I hatched a plan.”
The plan was to teach the fundamentals of classic cocktails like the simple yet elegant ones served at the storied speakeasy Milk & Honey, which was arguably the first of its kind in New York City to gain rabid popularity in the early aughts. Late owner Sasha Petraske and Moger-Petraske’s book, “Regarding Cocktails,” is filled with recipes for the at-home bartender and a fitting touchstone for any class. And so, with a little help from a PPP loan and a friend on the North Fork of Long Island with the Yennecott oyster farm, “Regarding Oysters” was born.
Moger-Petraske’s unique salon brings small groups into a Covid-safe learning space. During a two-hour session, guests are welcomed into her Murray Hill apartment with hand sanitizer and temperature checks before being treated to a class in cocktail-making and oyster-shucking at the little antique bar that had caught her eye so many months ago. “The salons are very intimate and there’s always a celebratory feeling in the air,” Moger-Petraske says of her small, reservations-only classes that will gather in honor of birthdays, engagements, and date nights.
Between the roaring fire, crystal clear Hundredweight ice cubes, and vintage barware that she has collected over the years, Moger-Petraske is able to present the feel of a curated bar to her students. The essence of hospitality is palpable. “Our favorite NYC dining rooms and bars put just as much consideration and passion into their establishments,” she says. “From the fold of a napkin to the charm of a miniature salt boat, the clarity of the cube chilling your Penicillin, to the delicate Depression-era coupe your Water Lily is served in. It’s my hope that in the absence of our beloved bars that my guests feel inspired to create some of this magic in their own homes.”
Your Friendly Neighborhood Grocer
St. John Frizell, owner of Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn, tried to make his restaurant function as a delivery and takeout business for a short while back when nobody knew how long the shutdowns would last. Since sending out quality meals in to-go boxes is no simple feat and can require menu changes and more, “it was a question of how much investment,” says Frizell.
“Is this the best way to invest the money that I have left? And I decided it was not, so we closed the restaurant in late March,” Frizell explains. Not long after, he reached out to family-owned organic farm co-op Lancaster Farm Fresh to see about obtaining some of its CSA boxes. He found that enough people in town were interested in claiming one of their own to set up an online store on Fort Defiance’s website. Getting a box of beautiful vegetables through contactless pickup outside the closed restaurant was a popular notion in a time when nobody knew how Covid was transmitted and the supermarket was to be avoided. Business grew and soon people began asking for other items. “And I wanted other things too, like, cheese and milk, and eggs, and bread, and just started to build from there,” Frizell says.
It was decided then that the change for Fort Defiance was going to have to be permanent, not just a temporary closure until things got back to normal for restaurants. “That was an important decision because you can’t really ride two horses at the same time,” says Frizell. “You have to make a decision and just go for it with your whole heart.” The new iteration of Fort Defiance as a general store has since gotten into the mail-order and holiday catering business as he and his steadfast team roll with the punches of what their neighbors in Red Hook might need.
“I don’t want this to come off as corny, but [what] we went through, you have to ask, ‘How can I help?’ Like, ‘How can I be of service here?’” Much like when Hurricane Sandy flooded Fort Defiance and most of the neighborhood in 2012, “we were all kind of in the same boat as we are now. We all had problems, but we were all very ready to help each other at the same time,” Frizell recalls of his community.
As another way to reach out, he started a newsletter called The Fort Defiance Gazette with announcements of new items in the store, promotions, and more. “It’s also filled with the same kind of bullshit I would talk to people about across the bar. They’re still getting the content from me, whether they like it or not,” Frizell laughs. “But it’s another way to connect, and then people email me back all the time. So there’s this dialogue happening, it’s just happening in a different space.”
Room-Temp and Ready To-Go
“Our business really came about as we were watching our industry fall apart around us and feeling really sad and helpless about that,” says Blake Walker, co-founder of drinks delivery service Day and Night Cocktails. He and fellow Amor y Amargo alum Sean Johnson mitigated grief with conversations about possibilities for projects, contemplating styles of cocktail to best suit a pandemic hellscape. They settled on the “Scaffa” — a room-temperature and undiluted mixture of spirits found in Jerry Thomas’s 1860s “The Bartender’s Guide.” Recently appearing on menus at bars like Amor y Amargo and the late Pegu Club, the Scaffa also boasts the at-home allure of being shelf-stable, so it won’t take up space in the refrigerator.
Unlike many to-go models that can arrive alongside complicated instructions, Day and Night’s drinks are poured from their bottles without fuss. “What you get is exactly the way we would serve it to you if you were sitting across the bar from us,” Walker explains. Each menu features a fresh, bright “Day” cocktail alongside a deeper, richer “Night” mixture. For those not sold on the warm drink concept, think of cold as a flavor inhibitor and know that the professionals have layered some very indulgent ones in there.
Refreshingly, Day and Night isn’t only about the drinks — like bartending, it’s about taking care of people. “We decided right off the bat that we’d do a donation for each sale to an organization called Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, which is a mutual aid organization in Bushwick that I was volunteering for,” says Walker. After the murder of George Floyd, all profits for the month of June went to the Movement for Black Lives. Because of the smaller scale of the venture, Walker is also able to have an encounter with every customer. “I don’t take that for granted at all,” he says. “Having that personal interaction [is] the closest that I can get to the across-the-bar experience that I’ve missed so much about my job as it was a year ago.”
By the time Walker and Johnson’s workplace reopened to tackle outdoor dining, they already had their own regulars at what was becoming more than just a side hustle. “It made us turn towards Day and Night as a potential alternative because, at least for us, the experience of going back to work was not pleasant.” Less money for more effort with the added bonus risk of catching a deadly virus is a hard sell.
Instead, Walker started working full time on Day and Night Cocktails in December, quickly finding a way to make it a fully legal enterprise. He can now pursue an LLC and, with that, the potential of permanence. “We also are open to the possibility that this is meant to be a to-go concept,” Walker says. “It’s impossible to know exactly what drinking culture is going to look like on the other end of this, and I think that there may be some kind of a liminal time where both the to-go and physical bar spaces coexist.”
Are all of these innovations and modifications to the classic bar experience worth it if they don’t somehow improve the way hospitality workers are treated or protected?
For Day and Night Cocktails, the commitment to supporting good causes extends to its own hurting community. “Something that remains incredibly important to us is that whatever our participation is with this industry, on the other side of Covid, we just want to make sure that we’re working towards an industry that takes care of its own better,” Walker says. “We want to be a part of that rebuilding process.”
The real pain of newly vacant real estate where beloved bars once were is hard to ignore and important to acknowledge. There will be more empty storefronts as time trundles on, with plenty of talent waiting in the wings to fill them with new concepts. “It’s going to be a really opportunistic time,” Walker observes. Hopefully, the entrepreneurs jumping at these opportunities will have more than just profit in mind.
“Our guests need to understand that we’re not expendable and disposable, and our government needs to know that, too,” says Walker. “We need to remind each other all the time that our work is important and valuable and we shouldn’t be [a] disposable commodity that’s part of this gajillion-dollar industry. We have to do a little bit better [of a] job taking care of each other.”
As creative as bartenders are getting with side gigs and business-wide pivots, many want to get back to the bar as much as patrons do. “It’s all just so antithetical to what we love to do that I just can’t wait to serve someone at the bar again,” Dorman says longingly.
Despite everything, I do detect enthusiasm when speaking with these hospitality professionals about what the future holds for bars. I want to believe that fantastic transformations lie ahead, because perhaps it’s not a return to “normal” that we should crave, but a hope for an evolution. Dorman gets it right when she says, “It feels like the music has definitely changed at our party or something.” Here’s hoping for a better playlist on the horizon.
*At the time of publishing, City Winery is temporarily closed.