Nita Nita: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood Bar

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[Illustrations: Jessie Kanelos Weiner]

It's after 10:00 p.m. when I disembark from my flight—LAX to LaGuardia—but I save cab fare and take the Q70 bus to the 7 train, then transfer to the G to get to Brooklyn. Though I've spent the last two years in Los Angeles, the transit connections are still second nature, and I only have one bag. This is a short trip. A crazy trip, on a bartender's wages.

By 11:00, I am sitting at booth L1 at Nita Nita, the bar and restaurant that was my workplace and second home before I left town. Before I can dig into my bowl of smashed sweet potatoes—made with cayenne and chorizo and a perfectly unspeakable amount of butter—Sam comes up and hugs me.

"I can't believe you're here!" she says, smiling.

My old boss looks wrung out despite her wide, Jersey-girl smile. But I don't tell her this; I want to keep things light. Nita Nita is closing tomorrow, after nearly 10 years serving beer, comfort food, and hospitality on Williamsburg's north side.

I can hardly believe it, either, I say. But I've known since the email from Sam to her staff and alumni showed up in my inbox a month ago, announcing the bar's impending closure. It took less than a day to decide I wouldn't forgive myself if I missed it.

***

It was in that same booth that Sam had first interviewed me, five years back. I'd been laid off from my office job and was starting an MFA program in the fall. It was March. The busy season was about to start, when Sam would open the back garden and increase the bar's capacity by two-thirds. She hired me as a server and advised me to invest in a pair of running shoes.

The sneakers were essential. The space was a 950-square-foot rectangle, with a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet built along one wall, adjacent to an L-shaped cherrywood bar that took up most of the floor space. The server sprinted back and forth from the garden to the kitchen, handwriting orders on carbon tickets and shoving the dupes at the cook, busing dishes, delivering drinks to a mass of customers who always, it seemed, had been waiting too long on those balmy summer evenings. The mismatched tables had names and numbers assigned apparently at random, bewildering new staff for months.

Nita Nita occupied a different universe from the corporate country clubs and sports bars where I'd worked in younger days. There was no concept or theme. The decor was a jumble of friends' artistic contributions. Throughout the space were dark metal fixtures made by an artist named Fara'h, who was hired at the year-old Nita Nita to make a decorative mirror and quickly became the in-house sculptor. She and Sam married in 2013.

The offerings ranged from $5 boilermakers (listed on a chalkboard as the "Genesee-quoi") to $12 cocktails made with locally distilled liquor. Jeffrey, the bar manager, was always on a mission to class things up. Too clean to be a dive, not slick enough to be hip, Nita fell into that precious gap that makes a good local joint. It always felt like Sam had put together this space just so she and her pals could hang out, and invited the entire neighborhood.

I acclimated quickly. I'd grown up in a brood of siblings, and the chaos was more comfortable to me than the eight-hour days I'd been working at a desk.

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Employees ate and drank for free at all times and were encouraged to be one another's regulars. Bartenders took months off at a time to go on tour with their bands or take art residencies upstate. One dishwasher would send one of his many roommates in his stead when he got a gig. It was cash-only until the early 2010s, pinching every dime while maintaining a 3:1 buyback tradition for nice people. A single, hands-on owner made it all possible. No decisions were arbitrary, particularly the ones that involved firing, rehiring, re-firing, and settling for the friendship of a few core staff members.

Pat came to Nita Nita from that loft full of musicians. Built like a lightning rod, with a blond amalgamation of hair and beard, he washed dishes for two years before being promoted to barback, then was promoted again one night when the bartender walked out, never to return. Pat wound up tending bar for almost a decade, and, while he was largely uninterested in drink trends, his regulars were loyal. He refused any communal iPods or the music-streaming services Sam brought on in later years—he'd only turn on his own playlists, which incorporated everything from the Cramps to the Raincoats to live Erykah Badu.

I asked him via email why he stayed on so long, even as the neighborhood changed and became populated by people he disliked. He was quick to answer: "Sam offered a rare opportunity to secure the 'financial' part of my life, leaving the extra brain power for the 'art' part of my life." A common story, I thought. But he continued: "To do so at a place/on a job/for a person I could stand behind morally kept my conscience clear." The clear conscience was the bar's MO. With all that cash on hand, it was dangerous to have anyone in house with a less-than-devout sense of honesty. Pat added, with what I knew was a smile: "Who but Sam would have put me in charge of their business??"

On the days I opened after one of Pat's bar shifts, I learned to forgive the disorder in which he inevitably left the space. He'd won my loyalty, too.

***

By 2015, Williamsburg had transformed from a quiet, not-so-nice neighborhood to a pretentious and scrappy haven for artists and scenesters, to something entirely different. There was a towering hotel a few blocks down on the once-desolate Wythe Avenue. The restaurants were "concepts," and there were upscale cocktail dens all around.

As the neighborhood began to command some of the country's highest commercial rents, it seemed like everyone but Sam was expecting her to give up. This little homey place with the ladybug decals on the wall had become a point of confusion to the scene-seekers who flooded the area each weekend. When Sam started out, though, the bar's DIY vibe was the norm.

It took her a full year to open, she told me over the phone. I'd called to get the details of the bar's early years, back before we met, when I was still trying to hack it as a respectable admin assistant and the waterfront condos were twinkles in the eyes of developers. Sam was a dancer from New Jersey who had worked in the bar and restaurant industry her entire adult life.

The first place she opened, in 1996, was a "coffee lounge" in New Jersey: BYOB, open mics, art installations, "the whole 90s thing," according to Sam. It is, she noted wistfully, still going strong after 20 years. She moved to New York City after selling that shop, ready for the next challenge, and worked in music and dance production, making friends among local artists and performers. She wanted her new place to be in Williamsburg or Bushwick, among the people she knew, particularly as the rents were still affordable enough to pull off opening on a shoestring. After settling on a ground-floor storefront one block from the East River, she and her mother became the co-owners, partners.

The previous tenant had an illegal three-bedroom apartment in back of a tiny furniture store, a "live-work space, which everyone did back then." When I asked her if she had an architect for the build-out, Sam laughed softly. "[My friend] Aki was drawing stuff out for me. It was like: What's the least amount of work we can do to get this place open and have it function properly? That's what dictated the design. I was driving up to Build It Green in Queens, where you can get used building materials. The contractor was like, We need molding for the bathrooms, what do you want? I was like, I'll be back in an hour. I would drive up there and try to find pieces that matched enough that you wouldn't notice."

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When she finally opened, in February 2006, the city had approved redevelopment of the Williamsburg waterfront, from industrial space to what would become luxury residential buildings and public parkland. Construction was just beginning, though, and there still wasn't much foot traffic down by the river. "My friends held every birthday party, every celebration that needed to be had, at Nita. Of course, they did it to support me and bring people in, but it also turned into their hangout. Nita became the place we went for everything."

A handsome, ever-bearded, and bespectacled guy named Jeffrey became the manager and bartender in early 2009. One of his first shifts was the bar's second anniversary, which created some awkwardness among the regulars to whom the space already belonged. But he soon fell in with the friends that kept the bar afloat in the early years—a gang of architects and artists, creatives and intellectuals, who came back again and again for Sam. The early crew was marked by attitude: There was Chris, who had followed Sam from Jersey. A vegan baker who vacillated from chef to waitress to bartender, she always had the best gossip regardless of what hat she wore. There was Andy, the towering, skeletal, over-the-top Polish guy, who managed to be promoted to and demoted from every position in the house. His catchphrase, "I'm so over this," sounded on the hour on slow nights. This was early in Williamsburg's sea change from Bohemian to boho-chic, and the occasional dismissive remark from a 6'4" Pole wearing a tank top seemed part of the experience.

As more businesses sprang up along Wythe Avenue, the crowd grew and shifted. "A lot of [the early regulars] kind of grew up and moved away, or started having kids," Jeffrey explained, when I called him at his new place in upstate New York. This is a familiar story for any bar. But in this place and time, the neighbors turned over at an unbelievable rate. Painters and metalworkers who worked at local studios were replaced by graphic designers who worked out of their lofts. Jeffrey was a Williamsburg resident, too, and was dismayed by the direction the 'hood was taking, but still, he committed to welcoming the newbies. "Old friends would disappear, and new faces would start popping up and coming back. That's kind of how it always goes, like: Oh, you were here last week, I remember you, how's it going?" Each new wave of pretty young folks and European expats brought more potential regulars.

I realized much later that this was special. There was no service module, no training manual, only a culture of wanting to do right by the customer and therefore the boss, because we loved her. At its best, Nita exuded a playful, earnest hospitality that kept the bar alive through the slow season, when the backyard was buried under snow. Halloween and New Year's Eve were epic. At the center was Sam's hand-picked team, and what they taught me about being a good host.

By the time I graduated from server to bartender, I'd learned to remember what a person drank, if not always their name, by their second visit. I'd learned how to joke my way out of forgetting these things, too. The fare was simple, the food good. We were allowed to shrug in the face of criticism. The kitchen could accommodate a maximum of two bodies at once, including a dishwasher, and even our most talented chefs found it trying. So we poured them beers at the end of the night and tried to make them our friends, too.

***

Five hours into the closing-night party, an OG Williamsburg character accosts me as I pass.

"I can't believe you flew 3,000 miles to work a bar shift."

For a few seconds, I don't know what she means. Then I realize that my hands are full of dirty glasses, and I'm already scanning to see how Pat is doing by himself behind the bar.

"I guess I did," I smile. I'm jittery, overwhelmed by the crowd, which is so thick it's nearly impossible to reach the bar. I want to talk to everyone and no one. I don't want to drink myself calm tonight—I want to retain this memory. So, hours before my prearranged "guest bartending" shift rolls around, I've started busing tables and filling drink orders. Another nugget I learned from this place is that motion—work—is the cure for nerves. I will keep moving until well into the next day, unable to deal with the realization that this place won't be here the next time I come east.

A slideshow of photos from nine years of parties plays on the projector, and a roster of friends and former staff take turns DJing. Every time I pass the group in the center, we dance a few minutes.

***

Nita's relaxed atmosphere made it the go-to for many in the Williamsburg entertainment workforce. There were nightly dinner visits from the sound techs from nearby music venues, raucous drinking nights with a group of union stagehands who worked on Broadway. We were frequently the first and last stops on our neighbors' nights out.

Soumiya, an artist, and her husband, Robert, were not around in the early, shoestring days, but fast became family when they moved in down the block. By then, there were plenty of bars around to frequent. "Nita was our jam, unknown to not-locals, and [had] the feeling of an old school place, warm and intimate and woody and weird. We first met Pat and were instantly his regulars. By the end of the month, we knew everybody," Soumiya wrote to me not long ago. She and Robert were already fixtures at the bar when I arrived.

Winters remained painfully slow at times, and regulars would rave about how they loved how uncrowded the bar was, how "nice and quiet," according to Jeffrey. "Not exactly conducive to running a successful business," he added, laughing.

Sam noted over the phone: "Everything that grew up around Nita was different, new-school stuff. So, from a marketing perspective, this [was] my niche, this sort of homey little bar. Back when I opened, that's how everyone opened. You didn't need to have a theme and a million dollars for decor. I think at some point, I held out long enough, and it flipped, and I was like, Oh, now I'm cool, 'cause I'm not cool."

Mike had arrived from Portland in search of a bigger-city experience. He quickly became a favorite at the bar, so much so that he was invited to the staff-only holiday party, where he wound up pouring the drinks. I asked him why he dropped in almost nightly. "I really loved everyone there and looked forward to everyone's shift. Plus, the bar had a leave-your-ego-at-the-door kind of vibe to it. It was low-key, honest, and minimal but still warm with personality."

But, to the dismay of many regulars, business grew. New music venues opened nearby; the waterfront development saw an influx of visitors from other boroughs and beyond. Williamsburg became a tourist destination, and one heard French, German, English, Australian voices at the bar throughout the week. The foot traffic had finally arrived, at the cost of some of the peace and familiarity. Staff turned over, priced out of the city or moving on to other careers. Sam remained, holding on to a future in which she would be "an old lady at the end of the bar, doing inventory with a hearing aid." For a time, this seemed possible. The rental market, however, had other plans.

Though business was lively enough to keep going, even with some increase in the rent, Nita Nita sat on a valuable patch of land. The landlord was determined to keep with the times. In late 2015, a lease-renewal option was finally presented—at triple the rent. Sam tried to negotiate, but the market had spoken.

Just as she'd put it together, Sam would go on to demolish Nita Nita on a shoestring, with the help of her friends. The bar would be taken out, the kitchen walls knocked down, the fixtures put into storage or—like Fara'h's decorative mirror—sold. It was this heartbreaking prospect that none of us were willing to talk about that weekend, when we held a wake for the bar while she was still in one piece.

***

Around seven in the morning the day after the party, I'm curled up in booth L1, across from Pat. The chef is passed out in L2, a waitress napping on the floor.

"Sam is punk as f#&k," Pat says, rolling up a cigarette that no one can stop him from smoking inside, now that the bar is officially closed to the public. "She knew this was not going to last, but she stuck it out anyway." I'm not sure if the last part is true. I think Sam was a believer throughout. But the first part is spot on. In this industry, in the country's most competitive place, candor, kindness, optimism, and bald enthusiasm feel punk, indeed. We are being sentimental, and we do not care. It is appropriate.

At 8 a.m., the music is still playing. The police have long since come and gone, assured that this would be the last noise complaint ever lodged against this establishment. I am sober, brimming with emotions, and when "Dance Yrself Clean" comes on, I start to dance. One by one, the others stand up and join me. Staffers from nine years of business come together on the worn floor in the front, sleep-deprived and pre-hungover. We've flown in from San Francisco, from Los Angeles, from Chicago. Nita alumni have Skyped in from Poland, Colombia, and Paris. There are artists, musicians, designers, filmmakers, activists, chefs, and industry lifers. Here, artistic collaborations and marriages have been forged. This place, as Pat says, "made New York possible" for many of us, securing some sense of financial stability with the backing of a boss who thought our dreams were valid. I look around at my sleepy, swaying friends and want to create a space like this myself someday.

Sam watches, as she has for a decade, already planning the next move.