Meet The New Neighborhood Bar

neighborhood bars
At Fort Defiance, a comfortable corner bar in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, the day’s newspapers are neatly hung on sword-like library sticks. Spotting them is a bit jarring—it’s like coming across a feral street- corner phone booth—and recalls an earlier information era, a time before barstool sitters were afflicted with scoliosis from hunching over smartphones.

The newspapers, in truth, don’t see much action. “People don’t typically take them down,” admits St. John Frizell, who opened the bar in 2009. “But they’re there.”

And it’s important that they remain, if symbolically, he suggests. In the inventory of far-flung elements that comprise a fine local bar, Frizell wants to ensure that customers are exposed to information from all sources—from print, from bartenders, from people sitting next to them on a barstool (and, yes, he has Wi-Fi).

“Ideally at a neighborhood bar you’re getting lots of new opinions,” he says. “You’re being exposed to new things, new experiences, new people. I remember when those sorts of bars existed in Brooklyn and throughout New York City. There’s a whole generation coming up that doesn’t know this.”

The demise of the classic corner bar—whether it’s reached dive-bar status or not—has been readily documented. In fact, few swan songs have been as prolonged, loud and melodramatic. (“Yuppies Are Killing The Dive Bar,” reads a Newsweek headline from 2014. “A Sobering Future for New York’s Dive Bars” warned the New York Times that same year.)

FortDefiance-inside-crdt eric medskerAnd it’s true—many historic watering holes have shuttered in recent years, with Doc’s Clock in San Francisco (which lost its lease earlier this year and will close in 2017), Club Foot in Chicago, and T.C.’s Lounge in Boston among them. This steady drip of demise stems in part from economics— many have been driven out by rising rents in newly resurgent urban neighborhoods. And the customer base has in many cases died off or moved on—one defining trait of these places before they close is a melancholy emptiness. They become places where nobody actually drinks, but everybody laments when they’re gone.

What’s more, our standards of a night out have risen. A new generation of drinkers demands more—less duct-tape on the bar stools, fewer sad and raving drunks, a better selection of tasty beverages both bottled and mixed.

Bars have never been static places, but they have always evolved and changed, adapting to new demands and shifting social standards. And as the old guard folds, new bars move in to take their place in the community. These new neighborhood bars generally aren’t the destination bars that get the press—faux speakeasies and themed bars and places famed for advanced mixology. They’re more like distant cousins to the shuttered dives, but better dressed and with cleaner fingernails.

The best new neighborhood bars have the familiarity of a corner stalwart, but with nicer bathrooms and better-curated music.

The bartenders may be familiar with beakers and eye-droppers, but choose to spend their energy on being a proper host, mixing customers rather than cocktails. “It all comes back to Oldenburg,” says Frizell. “I wanted this to be a specific kind of place—where you could go after work and before you go home, catch up with friends, meet new ones, and find out what’s going on in your community.”

“Oldenburg,” as you may know, is Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist whose 1989 book The Great Good Place has become the Magna Carta of the new neighborhood bar. In it, Oldenburg lays out his view of the rise and fall of what he dubbed “third places”—neither home nor work, but a welcoming spot that serves as something in between. His view influenced a generation of sociologists and social thinkers, as well as entrepreneurs: Starbucks’ Howard Schultz embraced this notion so enthusiastically that he’s often incorrectly credited with coining the “third place” phrase. “It’s really clear what the problem is after you’ve read that book,” says Frizell. “There’s no place for people to get together and meet each other.”

Rolling With the Punches

From the time of early grog shops and gin palaces, bars have served a role as community centers in cultures of every stripe. People build a cluster of houses, and invariably a bar opens nearby.

mulleady's-pub-road to tralee-crdt charity burggraaf“We’ve been here almost since the beginning,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, who in 2003 acquired Elixir, a venerable corner bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. In his research, Ehrmann discovered that a bar had existed at this spot as early as 1858, shortly after the first residents ventured out from downtown to settle in what was then farm-and-orchard country surrounding a Spanish mission. Over time, it evolved and reflected each era: it was a classic wild-west saloon in the late 19th century, burned in the fires of the 1906 earthquake, was rebuilt in grand Edwardian style, then served as a soda fountain during Prohibition. It eventually became a gay Latino bar, then in the 1990s a craft-beer bar with 62 taps. Sold again, it was soon ignored by its new owner, who let it go. “It was run-down, smelled to high hell, and had a bunch of Irish bartenders who ignored everyone,” recalls Ehrmann.

When he bought the place, it had 20 bottles on the back bar, eight of them Jameson. But Ehrmann also acquired the sort of bedrock authenticity that only time can confer—not to mention a nicely worn, century-old mahogany bar. After a two-month top-to-bottom renovation, he reopened with the goal of becoming “an exceptional neighborhood bar.” He launched with a cheap-beer-and-a-shot list befitting a neighborhood of scruffy bars and tattoo parlors. As the neighborhood morphed, so did Elixir. In 2005, Ehrmann began incorporating fresh ingredients and top-shelf spirits in his cocktails, garnering attention and becoming a popular pre-dinner destination.

But as the rest of the neighborhood upscaled, and new restaurants and bars overtook him, Ehrmann refocused on his original goal of serving as a community hub. “I always wanted it to be that third place and offer a reason to come back and stay—above and beyond just a place to drink,” he says.

He hosted pub-quiz nights and brought in charity bartenders to support local causes. Rather than pushing fancy cocktails, he brought depth to his whiskey collection. Essentially, he was circling back to his beer-and-a-shot roots, but at a higher level. He was listening to the neighborhood, and adapting to its needs. “I’m never going to have the energy to keep up with the kids,” he says. But he can keep up with his neighbors, both old and new, by making sure they find what they need when they walk through the door.

A Family Affairoccidental-sean kenyon-vertical-crdt aaron colussi

Sean Kenyon is a third-generation barman who last fall opened a second bar on a single block in Denver’s booming Lower Highland neighborhood. The new bar, Occidental, is adjacent to Kenyon’s earlier venture, Williams & Graham, a lauded, award-winning speakeasy-style cocktail lounge. “Occidental is the bar I wanted to open when we opened Williams & Graham,” Kenyon says.

He had to bide his time for a few years, but he finally got his wish when he and his business partner, Todd Colehour, took over an adjoining space. Williams & Graham is dim and quiet, and you enter through a swinging bookshelf when summoned. At Occidental, garage doors open to the street, walls are decorated with spray-painted cassettes, Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry mark the bathroom doors, and the soundtrack is louder and more punk-tinged. “One of the things that makes a neighborhood bar is music,” Kenyon says.

Kenyon says opening a destination bar first helped pave the way for his second bar. It allowed him to get a sense of local dynamics and to build trust with neighbors—so when his more open, potentially more disruptive bar arrived, people on the block knew what to expect.

Like Ehrmann at Elixir, Kenyon tweaked the drinks at Occidental to suit his neighbors. “We don’t have traditional neighborhood-bar wells,” he says, eschewing the plastic bottles of bottom-shelf brands. “Our neighborhood demands a better product.”

Those who want a finely crafted drink can still migrate next door to Williams & Graham, where drinks are measured by jigger and served by bartenders in shirt and tie; at Occidental, drinks are free-poured and bartenders wear T-shirts and jeans.

Kenyon acknowledges that while he opened with some concrete ideas on how a neighborhood bar should operate, it’s ultimately determined by the customers. “Occidental will define itself over time,” he says. “You can’t just open a bar and say, ‘This is going to be a neighborhood bar.’ The soul of the bar has to develop on its own.”

Playing the Part

Like Kenyon, Travis Stanley-Jones, who acquired Mulleady’s Irish Pub in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood in 2006, has learned that a successful neighborhood bar needs to earn its role in the community, not just declare it. It’s as much about process as place. “It’s like a piece of wood that we had to keep sanding down, figuring out the grain,” Stanley-Jones says. “And then we found our success by building a metaphorical house with white walls. We put a little of our personality in it, then we let our staff paint the walls, and then we let our customers come in and put their mark on it.”

Located on two floors of a 1904 house, Mulleady’s already had roots in the community when Stanley-Jones bought it. He had visited April Bloomfield’s Spotted Pig in New York and initially thought it might be worth replicating that sort of upscale bistro fare, but the neighborhood wasn’t ready for it, so he switched to more familiar pub fare—shepherd’s pie, sandwiches, burgers—which kept the regulars regular.

Another switch was in staffing the bar. At the outset, he sought out bartenders with rising prominence in the cocktail world. “God bless them, but they were mercenaries,” he says. “It wasn’t great.”

mulleady's-pub-henry-garnes2-crdt charity burggraaf

Now he focuses on finding people who mesh well with the bar’s neighborhood vibe, and about a third of his bar staff actually started out as customers before moving to the other side of the stick. And like many neighborhood-bar regulars, idiosyncrasies are what make Mulleady’s stand out most. Stanley-Jones was irked one day when trying to get a document notarized; it was inconvenient and cost $15. So he paid for most of his staff to become licensed notaries; locals now drop in for a pint while getting legal documents taken care of. He also struck a deal with a local farm to provide eggs, so someone on the way home can stop by for a cocktail and pick up a dozen eggs. These offerings may yield little cash, but they pay ample dividends.

“If you’re sitting and having a pint, and a guy next to you gets something notarized and an hour later a guy walks in and asks for eggs, that makes an impression,” he says. “And for a little place, that’s our advantage.”

Back in Brooklyn, St. John Frizell says that he chose to open a neighborhood bar not only out of desire, but necessity. Red Hook is an inconvenient trip from just about anywhere; launching a fancy destination cocktail bar would have been a steep hill to climb. He knew he’d have to attract a diverse clientele from the neighborhood.

“You’re opening a business,” he says. “You’re not doing anyone any favors. You open, you take the pulse, you adapt and you try to serve the neighborhood.”

He started out with morning coffee service (“I met people in the neighborhood I had never met because they don’t go out to bars at night,” he says); he tinkered with his food menu and offered basic cocktails priced lower than other New York bars, along with more aspirational drinks inspired by his longtime fascination with cocktail writer Charles H. Baker, Jr. (he even created a small curio cabinet with artifacts connected to the writer). “I originally thought there would be some pushback about serving fancy drinks, but that never materialized,” he says. “It’s cocktail’s moment.”

While the definition of a neighborhood bar may be as fluid and hard to nail down as that of a dive bar, one common trait is that they leave a void when they’re gone. Frizell learned that in the fall of 2012, during superstorm Sandy. Seawater from the storm surge pushed up into the neighborhood, flooding many homes and businesses, Fort Defiance among them. The basement was submerged, and the ground floor awash with nearly two feet of water.

When the storm hit, Frizell was at a financial crossroads and deciding whether to continue with the business; the easy route would have been to take the insurance and move on. “It was a good excuse to walk away.”

But two days after the storm, he was mucking out the bar, and people started showing up, offering to help. Some were customers, others were volunteers who’d wandered into the neighborhood. “The days went on, and I kept showing up because I knew they’d be there,” Frizell says. “And I still didn’t have a plan.”

After a few more days of clean-up, he realized that in the three short years he’d been open, he’d crossed a threshold without knowing it. “My relationship became more custodial,” he says. “It was less about creating something—after the storm, I realized what I wanted to create was already there. It became my job to take care of it. It’s my responsibility to keep this place going for the community.”