Our latest installment of Shift Diaries slices through the Big Apple. Drinking here is important for those who care deeply about the artistic nature and communal aspect of proper imbibing., and not because it’s the birthplace of cocktail culture’s revitalization and the scene’s epicenter. Indulging in New York’s bar experience allows people to capture the spirit of the city’s pastiche of boroughs and neighborhoods in a way that the flash and dazzle of towering skyscrapers and neon tourist attractions cannot match. To demonstrate this, we talked to four bartenders scattered across different parts of the city to see how they curate this essence on a Friday night.
Location: Pub/Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn
Shift: It’s a Friday afternoon in Red Hook. The sun is shining, and I’m walking across the cobblestone street to my bar, iced mocha in hand. It’s a bit warm and a little stale when I walk inside, so I say, “What’s up?” to the chef, plop my bag on the bar, clock in, and start pumping the A/C. It’s 2 p.m. — time to stock some wine and beers, and time to cut and juice some citrus. We open at 4 p.m., and other than the kitchen staff, I’m solo to set everything up, from the casual dining room to the two backyards and the entire bar prep. I love it. No one bothers me, and I speak verbal lists to myself as I set everything up.
Because we open earlier, it’s either popping off or a slow burn until 6 p.m., when the locals start rolling in. Six- month-old baby Ella and her dad usually visit me first — she’s the best customer of the night. They’re followed by local artists and sculptors; lawyers who work from home and bring their dogs; and moms and their kids getting out of camp for the day. It’s a nice pace until around 7 p.m., when the server/runner shows up and we get hit with the backyard dinner rush and the bar fills up with couples from the next walkable Brooklyn neighborhood. We’re serving rosé on ice and a lot of draft beers, making Martinis, and making a lot of shaken cocktails. This is a whirlwind, but it’s always surrounded by a lot of laughs and jokes. We’re in a confined neighborhood that no one leaves, so everybody knows everyone and their business.
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When you think it’s all over and send home the server/runner, that’s when the late night begins. Bartenders, barflies, and restaurant owners start rolling in around 11:30 p.m. Sometimes, it’s a shot and beer, a 50/50 Martini, or an Old Fashioned variation with aged rum and smoky Scotch. Either way, there are a lot of shots and jokes passed around, this customer paying for that customer and people losing a friend to the backyard for a cigarette. Sometimes, I look at the clock and realize it’s 2:30 a.m. — we close at midnight supposedly — and I have a little freak-out and kick all the patrons out to the curb. I count the money, turn off the lights, the bar stools upside-down on the bar, and take out the trash and recycling all alone. Last thing I do is clock out, close the gate, and lock it up. I’m tired and it’s so quiet. I call an Uber. It’s been a good night.
Location: Bar and Bar-focused General Store in East Village
Shift: I usually get up a little bit later than noon. I’ll shower, dress, and check my email. Once I leave my apartment, it’s straight to an espresso. Then, it’s into work at 2 p.m. for our weekly meeting amongst our GM, owners, and front-of-house director. It lasts about an hour. Now, it’s time to open the gates for our retail shop. Once the shop is open, I’ll spend some time straightening up, then I’ll move onto bar setup. Our bar doesn’t shake drinks or have juice and sugar, so it’s a pretty straightforward process. I’ll get ice, fruit for twists, and get money from the safe. Maybe I’ll eat now or wait until early in the service. The bar opens at 5 p.m. Friday is our busiest night, so the action happens early and often. We run a two-person team; the floor person (a.k.a. the “sweeper”) works the crowd in the store. I take care of the bar and make all the drinks. Last call comes around 12:30-1 a.m. Cleaning up and closing down the bar takes about an hour to an hour and a half. Depending on the night, I’ll either catch a drink after or just head home. Generally, I’ll fall asleep around 4-5 a.m.
Location: Bar in Queens
Shift: I love my Fridays. I try to make my commute enjoyable, so I put on my headphones, queue up some Bad Bunny, and bike across the Queensboro Bridge. I get to the bar 45 minutes early every week. I reset my well to how I like it, and I make myself my second coffee of the day. This time, it’s a carajillo. We open at 4 p.m., and the bar from fall through winter is busy from the start, so my carajillo is gonna hit the spot. By 7 p.m., we have the full staff: three bartenders, two servers, a host, and a barback. On Fridays, I get to work with a few of my favorite colleagues, which makes it more fun. The dinner crowd is out, I’m on my corner making the 10th bartender’s choice, my favorite regulars will be here by 8 p.m., and the party begins. I won’t have a chance to chat with the team, so I show them love by throwing pebble ice at them. Somehow, three hours just goes by, and it’s 11 p.m. I got to play DJ, so I’m still pumped. We start slowing down, so we cut one of three bartenders. We get close to midnight, and I got a few minutes before my guests want their second and third rounds. So what do I do? Make pineapple Daiquiri shots and ring the bar’s bell like there’s no tomorrow. Our team knows exactly what that means, so everyone gathers by the service station, just in time to get crushed by the late-night crowd. It’s hectic, but I live for the rush — I want to be building rounds of four or more drinks. It hits 1 a.m., and I’ve been cut for the night. After closing my well, I get a cocktail and sit down to chat with the industry regulars that stopped by for a nightcap. We talk about the night, complain, laugh, make fun of each other, take a few shots, and say our goodbyes for the week. Doors are locked, lights out!
Location: Bar in Greenwich Village
Shift: Bar shifts take place outside of normal time. If I could use a train analogy, picture a train that travels the distance of one passenger in the time it takes you to make one drink. To someone observing the train, it would appear to be one very busy person, standing in one place. To the passenger, however, they are each being prepared a unique cocktail, selected specifically for them by someone who appears to be moving the very earth under them with every shake and stir.
This is why when the bartenders discuss time between each other, we measure time in “9:30s.” It’s roughly the halfway point of service and generally the busiest part of the night, but it’s also a symbol of time dilation — you feel like you’re halfway through your shift, but you’re not. For example, on a particularly long and busy shift, you might experience “9:30” at 7:15 p.m., then again at 8:45 p.m.. While some nights, you can make it all the way to last call and not realize the clock had passed 9:30 hours ago. Regularly experiencing more than three “9:30s” in a shift is likely brought on by dehydration.
The first “9:30” is a good time to check and see if the ghosts — that is, anxieties that may occasionally contain fears of one’s mortality — are fed. No one knows for sure what ghosts eat, so it’s important to diversify your rituals and superstitions throughout the shift. You don’t get to pick your ghosts, but you are under no obligation to feed a ghost you don’t feel comfortable feeding. Every ghost feels entitled to your space and will never be dissuaded of the dilution.
Closing duties can be a struggle if we don’t stay focused. It’s easy to get stuck staring at a clean bar, feeling like you missed something. We don’t get to know how many Fridays we have left, and when we finish our side work and clock out, this one is over. Will you one day join the ghosts, wishing you could be real again for just one more Friday? Did you experience everything, or did you push through too hard and miss the night’s best “9:30s”? Eventually, we leave and remember there’s a world outside this place. We learn to live without fear of regret because we left all the love we had to every visitor, through every drink.