Bars are starting to look a whole lot like each other, but in an economic climate where the small guy often takes the fall, tiny bars armed with focus and imagination have an unusual opportunity to attract attention and thrive.
— Alia Akkam
It was packed as usual at Amor y Amargo, the bitters-centric watering hole in New York’s East Village, on the night that Shai Zvibak dropped by. The chef/owner of nearby Mediterranean restaurant Local 92 was impressed by the bevy of stirred drinks graciously turned out in the tiny room with the six-stool bar, and so he approached beverage director Sother Teague. “Shai said, ‘You guys kill it in this little space. I have a little space, too,’” recalled Teague.
Teague and Amor y Amargo barkeep Max Green took a gander at Zvibak’s underutilized lair, a former private dining nook so awkwardly shaped that Zvibak had a difficult time booking it for large parties, and immediately they saw its potential, re-imagined as a bar. Together, Teague and Green — who serves as co-owner and head bartender — transformed the narrow room into Blue Quarter, an 18-seat den that telegraphs the Middle East and Morocco. A clever list of $15 tea-inflected cocktails complements Zvibak’s cooking, which yields such dishes as Israeli meatballs and labne flatbread.
“Tea, whether it’s a syrup or infusion—and we’re also toying around with smoking—is the thread that runs throughout the menu,” said Teague. For example, the refreshing Rough Cut, with its mix of gin, Suze, and cucumber, is buoyed by jasmine oleo. Mint tea joins Aperol, blanc vermouth, and white rum in the Not my Presidenté, and Earl Grey heightens the Scotch-coconut water-paprika concoction Soon to Ripen.
Beyond the drinks there is retail shelving devoted to fine teas, and fitting details like copperware, tagine pots, and the blue door complete with keyhole that looks as if it were plucked from a Marrakech riad. These are whimsical, heartfelt touches embraced by Green, who handled Blue Quarter’s design solo. “It was an empty box and he drew up the plans and had the contractors build,” Teague said. Such an intimate level of involvement is indeed a boon for small bar owners, but an attention to detail also benefits those guests, as Teague described them, who are “willing to have a more experiential evening instead of just going out to the corner bar for mediocre drinks.”
Small, cozy bars, from the no-frills dive where customers find comfort in Corona and Jameson shots, to the subterranean speakeasy sending out Daiquiris in vintage coupes to couples ensconced in velvet banquettes, have long enticed patrons. Likewise, bars that illuminate a certain style, say the tiki cocktails at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, or the Mexican-inspired ones at Clavel in Baltimore, resonate.
Yet as the bar landscape grows both more saturated and uniform in appearance, with concepts sprouting outposts across the country and globe and menus and interior design blandly mimicking each other with frequency, tiny places filling thoughtful niches shine brightly through the clutter. Consider Gori Gori Peku in Minneapolis, the Japanese whisky bar with some eight seats tucked above the restaurant Kado No Mise. After Shigoku oysters and chawanmushi, high rollers come here for Hakushu 18-Year-Old nightcaps. In cities like New York, where soulful, cherished locales disturbingly shutter regularly, unable to compete with more financially empowered establishments, bars are a bright spot, proving that creativity on a small scale does not have to disappear; in fact, it can flourish.
Everybody Wants Something
Initially, Amor y Amargo — part of artist-turned-entrepreneur Ravi DeRossi’s prolific hospitality empire — was launched in 2011 as a six-month pop-up. Seven years later New Yorkers continue to cram the joint for amari Sazeracs and other cocktails that capture the complexity of bitters. “Our success is driven by our singularity of focus. We’re good at what we do because it’s the only thing we do,” explained Teague. “I’m not particularly excited to go to a diner where I can have pancakes and baked clams on the same table.”
A little bar fueled by a single-minded vision is the distinct, ambitious type of set-up Teague gravitates towards. Blue Quarter only made its debut last month, and he’s now hard at work opening the Windmill, a larger 25-seat shrine to French specialties like Pineau des Charentes with the team from Le French Diner on the Lower East Side.
Teague is not alone in his affinity for the diminutive. At Wanpaku, the ramen shop straddling Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods, customers slurp noodles and then head back to the Hidden Pearl, the newly opened, 18-seat cocktail bar from Leif Huckman of the equally breezy Williamsburg bar Donna. Subtly channeling tropical Japan, the Hidden Pearl’s cocktails come courtesy of Donna beverage director Jeremy Oertel and his wife Natasha David of Nitecap. Along with a quartet of easy-drinking highballs, there are also more adventurous drinks like the $14 Windrush Generation (white miso-infused bourbon, Jamaican rum, Amaro Nonino, banana, Castilian bitters)
“New Yorkers don’t like a one-stop shop for all their eating and drinking needs. They want to discover the best place for a slice of pizza. The best place for a steak. The best place for a cocktail. The answers to these are never definitive and probably have alternatives within each five-mile radius,” said Huckman. To truly stand out, Huckman believes a bar should only open when it’s certain that what “you plan on offering you can do with a reasonable level of expertise and that you’re providing a service to an area that already isn’t being offered, or isn’t being offered to the level you hope to achieve.” Small bars driven by a clear-cut vision that don’t attempt to please the masses from the get-go are particularly poised to make an impact. From an operational perspective, Oertel thinks it’s also simpler to manage the flow of service at a small bar and “make sure that the staff isn’t overwhelmed. If each night is more predictable it’s easier to staff accordingly. The drinks can also be a little more complicated and nuanced,” he explained.
Focus Turns a Profit
William Tigertt and Taavo Somer opened Freemans on the Lower East Side in 2004, invigorating a neglected alley off the Bowery, and it turned heads with its then ground-breaking combination of quirky taxidermy décor and rustic American cuisine. Nearly 15 years later, a staggering milestone for New York’s precarious culinary scene, Freemans remains beloved, and now for an additional reason: earlier this year Tigertt and Somer introduced Banzarbar upstairs, in a one-time service bar and storage area.
A 20-seat ode to the circa-1929-1931 explorations of the British Australian (and) New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, it was “an opportunity to make something special bring in new customers,” said Tigertt. Overseen by Eryn Reece, formerly of Death & Co. and Mayahuel, the bar’s $20 cocktails like Tour Through Khari (blanco tequila, mezcal, blanc vermouth, turmeric, curry leaves, ginger, lemon) certainly compel, as does the five-course, $95 tasting menu of low-ABV cocktails paired with seafood. “New, interesting concepts and challenges create new energy that you’re not going to get from a cookie-cutter concept,” said Tigertt. “You don’t need to appeal to everyone, so you can have a stronger point of view.” Like Oertel, he mentions elevated drinks as a perk of the smaller format, along with “higher end glassware and service that would be impossible with a higher volume venue.”
Despite the selections at steeper price points, filling seats at Banzarbar is not a challenge because there are enough customers seeking such distinct, offbeat permutations of luxury. It’s a philosophy that’s also worked well at the Milk Room in Chicago. Rounding out Land and Sea Dept.’s collection of second-floor bars at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel, this eight-seat hideaway led by barman Paul McGee is where to revel in vintage cocktails that weave in antique spirits like Bols crème de cacao from the ‘70s and 1950s Campari. There’s nothing cheap about the Milk Room, which requires a $50 deposit per person, the cost of which is then applied to the total bill, to make an online reservation. But guests have no qualms about the expense, because they know what they are paying for is one-of-a-kind-cocktails and a majestic display of rare booze bottles surrounded by candlelight.
For Teague, whose bars are certainly more financially accessible, it’s worth “living on slim margins” to create transporting getaways that “are on the edges. That’s what I want to do for my livelihood. The middle zone, those bars with thirty beers on tap, Edison light bulbs, and crowds flowing into the street, I will definitely go to those places, I enjoy going to those places, but they’re not the places I built.”