The stretch of Brooklyn's 5th Avenue that runs between the Prospect Expressway and Green-Wood Cemetery is anything but glitzy. A low-rise jangle of mom-and-pop stores, bodegas, and linoleum-floor ethnic restaurants, it seems almost unaffected by the “Brooklynization“ of Brooklyn. Sure, there are a couple of new bars and little hipster restaurants and a new building or two, but on the whole, it looks pretty much like it did in 1990. One of those new bars is Quarter, on 5th between 20th and 21st. But here’s the thing: If you didn't know it was new, or at least newish (it opened in 2007), you would think it was the same vintage as the now-gone Park Slope drinking landmarks of O’Connor's and Jackie's 5th Amendment, venerable old dives dating back to Repeal. Quarter might serve cocktails, and excellent ones, but it's also a homey, personable joint, informal almost to the point of shabbiness, with a jukebox and a backyard and regulars galore. If more new bars were this gritty, I wouldn't be so upset when the old ones close.
It's on a busy street, and there's a small neon arrow pointing the way in, and yet Troost—not to be confused with the much more popular Torst, which is a few blocks south—remains somehow, somewhat, undercover. Inside there's espresso, and Fernet Branca and prosecco on tap, and you get the sense that you're supposed to partake of both here, perhaps one right after the other—but take your time, because there's no rush, and, thankfully, nobody breathing down your neck, waiting for your stool. The secret garden in the back more than doubles Troost's capacity, and it's nice during the day, but I almost always prefer the moody maroon interior. That is, until a musician sets up her amp in the front of the room and starts to play (this happens at least a few nights a week). I usually bounce at that point (it's a small room, nowhere to escape the musician's gaze, and that's...awkward). But tomorrow afternoon, I'll be back for coffee.
Bushwick has no shortage of craft beer bars these days, but true geeks will find their home at The Sampler. The beer store/bar hybrid isn’t terribly big, but the owners have done their best to pack a huge variety into the low-key, narrow space—the walls are lined with an international selection of bottled beers for sale, some refrigerated and others tucked onto shelves. You can pop your purchase in the shop, but I prefer to save the bottles for home and try one of their 20 tap brews—a collection of primarily local, limited releases that the bartender will gladly let you taste and talk your way through before you settle on your pint of choice. And, for that not-a-beer-fan friend of yours, their spirits offerings are similarly thoughtful, if not quite as expansive. Stop by on a Monday evening for a remarkably jovial, laid-back game of trivia and a custom flight, or check out their calendar for upcoming events, like stand-up comedy, brewery-sponsored suppers, and bottle shares. Just be sure to grab a bottle or growler of something new on your way out.
Nancy Whiskey Pub
There is absolutely nothing special about Nancy Whiskey Pub. On the corner of Lispenard Street and West Broadway, right next to a Canal Street Station subway entrance, it is distinguishable by two green awnings and the saddest patio (it seats maybe three people) I’ve ever seen. Inside, there’s a long, banged-up wooden bar. Most of the stools are torn, foam cushioning puffing out. Irish flags hang here and there, along with framed New York Post clippings, photos of local firemen, and random signage—up near the ceiling, opposite the bar, is my favorite: “Fuck Communism.” There are five TVs, usually playing a game I’m interested in watching; a decent jukebox (put on more Rolling Stones, people!); and a shuffleboard table that I’ve thought about taking advantage of but never have.
The food—burgers, chicken tenders, and a BLT served on white toast—is as good as it needs to be. The bartenders, mostly women, are as nice as they should be. Unless you're a jerk, or a bad drunk, or both, they’ll warm up to you after a few drinks. And by drinks, I mean nothing complicated—a whiskey and a beer, perhaps a Guinness if you've come in before 3 p.m. to read the newspaper. If you want a chilled shot of Jägermeister because you haven’t had one since your college days, they’ll happily oblige as well. Heck, they’ll even serve you a vodka and soda, with zero judgment. Talk to the person next to you, or ignore them. Drink alone on a Tuesday, or get rip-roarin’ wasted with all your colleagues on a Friday. Which is to say, Nancy Whiskey Pub is exactly what a bar should be—pretty much anything to anyone. And in a town where these kinds of places are disappearing faster than you can say “I’ll have a double shot of Wild Turkey 101,” Nancy Whiskey Pub is, as it turns out, something very special.
There’s nothing more obnoxious than some blowhard talking up The One Place that truly and utterly reminds them of Their One Amazing Time in Some Other Country, so I’m sorry, because it’s about to happen right now: Donostia in Alphabet City is New York’s only Spanish bar that is truly Spanish in spirit and deed, and it’s baffling to me that it’s not packed every night for sips of stellar sherry, porrons of peppery Basque cider, and some of the best potato chips and hot sauce in the city. It’s cozy and casual and beautifully designed, but most importantly, it’s staffed exclusively by bartenders who truly give a fuck about giving you the best Spanish food and drink experience possible.
I love going to bars where I can learn something without getting talked down to, and the staff here is so kind and excited to share their sherry expertise without any pretension. It’s also one of the few places, now that Spanish specialty shop Despaña has stopped carrying it, where you can get a plate of properly sliced Cinco Jotas jamón Ibérico without auctioning off your firstborn child. Actually, my tab at Donostia is always less than I expect. A huge part of what makes Donostia Donostia is the clientele, who know how to use inside voices and make friends with their neighbors without getting all up in your space. If you or anyone you plan to take to Donostia has ever used the phrase “work hard, play hard” in earnest, do me a favor and head catty-corner to Maiden Lane, which, like Donostia, has great low-proof European drinks and tinned seafood, and an atmosphere that may be more to your liking.
The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge
This bar, on a desolate strip of Eighth Avenue just above Penn Station, has undoubtedly the best name of any watering hole in New York. It used to have a great sign, too—weather-beaten and regally faded—announcing its quasi-tiki affiliation with curlicues of paint and flawlessly 1970s lettering. But a couple of years ago, the owners replaced it with a boring piece of printed, rectangular plastic. Still, the unapologetically seedy bar is as strange and wonderful as ever (minus, 15 years ago, an extremely distressing police-murdering-an-innocent-man incident)—it's a jarring, fantastic combination of new-and-shiny and old-and-worn. There are church-basement chairs, over-this-shit cocktail waitresses in microscopic shorts, and a tiny, mirrored dance floor with—inexplicably—a bunch of first names traced in neon lights on the ceiling above. It's the kind of place where you get a 7&7 and sit quietly and think about your life, or maybe stand loudly and complain about your job; it's not really the kind of place you take a date. Unless it's a really good date. Unless you think you might marry them.
The Salon at the Soho Grand Hotel
Earlier this century, this lounge’s primary appeal was as a place to be seen. I dig it now because it’s one hell of a hideout. The staff seems to have gotten the memo on that shift, which is why The Salon at the Soho Grand Hotel is an ideal place to sneak away for some sun-drenched daytime tippling. The cocktails aren't at all cheap, but think of it as market-rate rent on a plush, robin’s-egg couch in a tony zip code, where the willowy and wealthy are just as soundly ignored as you. It’s oddly calming.
I think Johnny’s Bar might secretly be a 24-hour bar. Like a place out of a fairy tale, you can always walk through the door, especially late, late at night, and find an excellent mix of people. (No small thing in the heart of the outrageously gentrified West Village.) My Johnny's drink has changed over the years: I tried to be a G&T drinker there, but always ended up with a Jack and ginger. Now I invariably order a shot and a beer. And $20 still allows me to hang out for a while. Long life, Johnny's.
People might not consider Fanelli Cafe, at the corner of Prince and Mercer, to be “under the radar,” but I’ve taken several people there in the last year who said, “Wait, Fanelli is still here? I haven’t been here in 20 years!” Not only is it still around, it hasn’t changed a bit since the late 1980s, when I first went. And it is as perfect and comforting as ever, the atmosphere and hospitality so natural and casual. Walking in the door is like putting on your favorite soft sweater. My wife, E.V., and I go there a few times a month, our order’s the same every time (a carafe of house red, Swiss burgers rare, fries, side of mayo), and we always leave the place walking on air, feeling lucky and alive in NYC. And that burger…!
Paddy Reilly's Music Bar
The first time I visited Paddy Reilly’s, on a dead stretch of Manhattan’s Second Avenue in what’s known as Kips Bay, I figured it would be another fake Irish pub in a city that’s already full of them. Still, it was late afternoon. The bar was near where I worked—and I needed a drink. Inside, I thought I would find a bunch of loud office workers, a smattering of tourists, countless televisions, and a sound system blaring some terrible ‘90s songs. But when I opened the bar’s thick wood door, it was dead silent. Just one other customer sat at the long worn bar (turns out the bar and most of the millwork were imported directly from Ireland). He was an older gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a crop of thick silver hair. He looked like someone my father might have drunk with back in the day. In other words, an adult. Following my instincts, I ordered a Guinness. The bartender took around five minutes to pour it, so I knew she was pouring it right. Noticing a newbie in her midst, she asked in a lovely Irish accent, by no means fake, if this was my first time here, how my day was going, which neighborhood I lived in (turns out she was just down the street from me in Brooklyn). About 20 minutes later, feeling more comfortable than I’d felt in some time, I ordered another Guinness. More people started to arrive, most of them with instruments—guitars and banjos and mandolins. It was Monday—bluegrass jam night. And, while I worried the music would ruin my peaceful, easy-feeling vibe, it only added to it. As the musicians, around 18 of them in all, started plucking and strumming to rehearse, I debated whether to order another beer. Slowly, the strumming took shape in the form of the song “Country Roads.” “Life is old there, older than the trees,” a man in a cowboy hat sang. “Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.” I placed my order and decided to stick around for a while.