After what could only be considered a smooth move of apartments from the West Village to Park Slope, I’m back with a new article on some of my favorite bars from over the years.
All seemed right last week on a beautiful Tuesday evening. The sun was going down, the temperature cooled, and we had a great table near the window at Wilfie and Nell on West 4th Street. Then it hit me: this would be my last beer at my regular bar as a resident of the West Village, and I immediately became bittersweet.
By “we” I mean my mom and I. Mom was in town to help me make the move from the West Village — where I had been for two energetic years — to Park Slope. She suggested that I blog on Wilfie and Nell, which gave me the idea to write on all my regular bars over the years.
I love having a regular bar. I’ve had one in every city and every neighborhood I’ve lived in since my 21st birthday on that glorious first day of fall back in 2003. But my desire for getting to know bar tenders and other regular patrons (which mom says I inherit from dad), began back when I was 18 living in Paris. So, allow me to take you on a journalistic pub crawl to some very cool places, in some very cool cities.
My older brother Sean was with me for my first year in Paris, and was and is a great drinking buddy. And though we set out to be as Parisian as possible, it was a Canadian pub called The Moose that became our club house, which we were introduced to by my then French girlfriend no less! Being from Michigan, a place to watch hockey with pitchers of beer — complemented by free wings — and a cocktail named “The Great One” was too good to pass up for us then. The Moose is still at it’s original location, 16 Rue des Quatre Vents, and to my knowledge still serves free wings with any pitcher of beer during happy hour — not a bad place to kick back after a long day of sight seeing. And while in France a Canadian beer could be a welcome change for your red wine stained teeth.
After a long year of dorm drinking (and at least one false identification arrest) during college in Chicago, I settled in at Lincoln Station: a DePaul University area pub with solid bar food, pool tables, a decent rock jukebox, and weeknight drink specials. But the biggest advantage was the location, right around the corner from DePaul’s music school where we spent most of our time. Practice room sessions then could last six hours or more, and all I was thinking about at the end of that academic music day was my first beer. “The Station” (as it was known) was a great spot to find other music school students hanging out. There would usually be at least one in there from about the lunch hour until, well, closing. This place is definitely a college bar with the occasional interesting seasonal brew, Guinness on draft, though nothing else too wild as far as drinks. But you can almost always find a table and the service is solid if all you’re looking for is to catch a game, a burger, or talk some music with juiced up orchestra students.
After graduation we moved up town to the area known as exactly that, Uptown. Uptown is home to the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera Theater, and The Green Mill jazz club, suiting many of our live concert needs. But for beer, we would venture over a couple neighborhoods to Lincoln Square, where about a half dozen German pubs pour liters of Bavarian style lagers like it’s Octobrefest every day. A friend of ours was a server at Glunz Bavarian Haus. Liters of Steigl from Salzburg, Spaten from Munich, Reissdorf Kolsch from Koln and soft pretzels with German mustard kept me sane after long days of teaching beginning guitar students. The Glunz family has long been a part of the Chicago booze industry, and it was at the Bavarian Haus where owner Jim Glunz was always quick to remind me, “Remember, I taught you beer.”
About 300 miles east on I-94 from Chicago will get you to Cliff Bell’s, a downtown Detroit jazz club, cocktail bar and restaurant. During the interim year I spent in Detroit before moving to New York, I lived a few blocks from Cliff Bell’s which was perfect because I not only hung out there, I also regularly played gigs there and still do. Paul Howard, co-owner, is passionate about the place. He renovated the beautiful 1930s Art Deco interior of the building, located in the Detroit theater district, into a jazz palace, and has presented a food menu of delicious bistro fare. (Get the gourmet mac and cheese and thank me later.)
“I love that I can come here and order a classic cocktail without the bar tender giving me a look,” said my sommelier friend Anthony Minne. Cliff Bell’s features several Michigan beers on draft, and the finest Detroit jazz musicians. Even nationally known out of town musicians like Dr. Lonnie Smith, Eric Alexander, Mulgrew Miller, John Clayton, have enjoyed the prohibition era party-like atmosphere at Cliff Bells.
But it is another bar that I truthfully have to call my regular Detroit spot because of years of patronage, not just from me, but also my family. What was most well known for decades on the Detroit/Grosse Pointe east side border as Tom’s Oyster Bar is now called Dylan’s Raw Bar and Grill (named after Bob Dylan), and is co-owned and run by John Montgomery, a long time bar tender of the former Tom’s. The focus is still on seafood but what keeps bringing myself and my family back is the house pianist, Marty Ballog. Marty has been playing solo piano for five nights a week at the now Dylan’s bar for over 20 years (and on Marty’s off nights pianist Brian Cleary entertains the room with his groups). Marty is one of a dying breed. A true solo pianist with an enormous memorized jazz and pop repertoire. And if you’re lucky, he may even play some of the traditional Hungarian Gypsy songs he grew up with.
I can think of no other bar in all the cities that I’ve lived in that has as perfect a setup for solo piano enjoyment than Dylan’s. Marty’s look is classic: tux, slick black hair. He makes walking into Dylan’s like walking into a Humphry Bogart film. But unlike Sam at Rick’s in Casablanca, Marty at Dylan’s plays “As Time Goes By” every night.
Finally, for the last two years while living in Manhattan’s West Village, I naturally frequented the bar of which I lived above, Wilfie and Nell. I have a pipe dream of opening up a bar of my own one day, and if I ever do, my first consults would be Simon Gibson, bar tender and co-owner, and Gavin Laidlaw, bar tender. These two, Irishman and Scotsman respectively, and their staff are experts on pub culture whether they know it or not. They pour perfect pints of Guinness, make great conversation, and excel without even trying at keeping patrons in there happy and drinking. They’re not bar tenders making ends meet while trying to pursue another career. They’re serious about what they do, which is how — in my opinion — they’ve taken pub culture to another level. A small and unpretentious food menu (kitchen’s open until 2:00 a.m.) helps to keep patrons thirsty, and they now serve weekend brunch too. Try the IPA brunch cocktail on a warm afternoon for an incredibly refreshing a mix of hoppy Lagunitas IPA and grapefruit juice.
I believe that finding one’s regular bar can not be forced. In my case, like any relationship, the joining of bar and patron has always been a gradual process. A regular bar should be a place to unwind, vent your frustrations, or chat about life’s delights. The atmosphere should provide a delicate balance of genuine comfort, but also tolerate a slightly loud, risque demeanor, should you want to cut loose for an evening. I’ll miss the guys at Wilfie and Nell and will make it a point to stay in touch and visit when I’m in the West Village. But I also look forward to finding my new spot in Brooklyn. Any suggestions?