In New York City, you need a hook, especially if you’re a bar. Most times, a catchy name, or even some wacky theme, isn’t enough to differentiate yourself from the pack. You have to do something outrageous, ground-breaking, original, baffling, stupid-even, something to transcend all others.
For some, it’s free shit. Crocodile Lounge champions this principal, a Manhattan beer house that gives patrons a ticket for every beer ordered. These tickets, in turn, can be redeemed in the back for a free, personal pizza, served by two old Italian men who I assume live in the bar. This ingenious allure works wonders, because no self-respecting person could eat more than one of these cheese pies in a sitting, although they will most likely stay for a second or third beer (unless you’re me, and you end up eating five pizzas for every pint).
But it’s not alone on the freebie giveaway train. Perhaps the most outrageous example is at Pony Bar, an Upper East Side watering hole that specializes in Maine-brewed beer. Partnered with Shipyard, the owner held a promotional event where, for every two beers you ordered, you get a free lobster. No, that was not a typo. Two beers equals imported Maine lobster, complete with butter shots and a bib. One can speak no words on such a night, only give the occasional ambrosial groan as they suck the marrow from the boiled claws.
Freebies aren’t the only trick in town; other drinkeries go for a sinisterly cheap special. Williamsburg’s The Levee subscribes to this school of thought, offering three separate “shot-beer” combo platters for five dollars or less, including the gut-wrenching Texas Two-Step, a Lone Star can and a shooter of bottom barrel tequila. Even if you are capable of keeping it down, your night is doomed to degrade into debauchery and regret. On the plus, they have free cheese balls and Big Buck Hunter HD.
Then there are those establishments who usher in a service, something to compliment their superfluous supply of alcohol. Beauty Bar is iconic for this, the hair-nail salon that transfigures into a funk-disco at night. While I’m personally not a big pedicure guy (they always make my big toe look fat) many women I know swear by this destination to knock down cosmos while they’re getting a perm. Of course, part of me believes they’re just looking for an excuse to drink.
My go-to in recent days has been Belfry, a chilled-out joint near Union Square with cathedral lighting and live jazz. It would be enough that their wall features Lloyd Christmas’ legendary Aspen quote from Dumb and Dumber (“Where the beer flows like wine…”) but they go above and beyond, bringing innovation to the world of picklebacks. For the lay person, a pickleback is a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle juice, a combination that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Belfry features a range of picklebacks on the menu, everything from the “Classic” to “Bentley” to their infamous “Tickleback” shot, where the bartenders hold you down and tickle you until you pee yourself (I think). Recently, one of the bartenders created an off-menu addition, known as the “bacon cheeseburger,” which involves spicy pickle juice and liquid smoke, leaving a lingering and sickening warmth in the back of your throat, not unlike the aftertaste of a bacon cheeseburger.
But as of late, perhaps the most fascinating hook that has been thrust upon me was found at Mehanata, a.k.a. the Bulgarian Bar. In this three story-venue, bar-goers are packed in like sweaty sardines for a good old fashion Bulgarian time. The main floor is reserved for dancing, often to a chaotic live gypsy rock band that inspires the body to groove in ways it has never grooved before. The top floor is a hub of hookah, for the strong-willed onlookers who can suppress the need to vibe to the righteous tunes. The basement, however, is the real intrigue, a psychedelic DJ area featuring a “vodka room.” For the price of twenty dollars a head, patrons can don a heavy shupa and ushanka (think Russian coats and hats) and enter into a subzero, closet-sized room lined with vodka bottles. At that time, a one minute window is provided, where one is allowed to drink as much as their stomach will endure, before the bouncers drag them out of the frozen paradise and back to the chaotic, Bulgarian fray.
These destinations may sound trivial, comical even, but each of these locations is wildly successful in their own right. Getting noticed and achieving acclaim in New York City borders on impossibility, but these houses of intoxicants have managed to discriminate themselves from the pack, fulfilling some drunken need none of us knew we had. That is, in essence, what every hungry New Yorker is looking for: a way that they can be special (and ultimately, successful) in a city where dressing in drag and belting out Streisand lyrics barely earns you a passing glance. Nothing but respect, love, and far too much of my pay check goes out to these houses of intoxicants, these dens of brews. They’re killing it, and anyone who says otherwise, is a jealous (and most likely sober) fool.
Week 13: Cheeky Sandwiches
Now, to wholly and completely contradict the point I spent the entire blog post making, I present you Cheeky Sandwiches. A tiny venue, located on the outskirts of Chinatown, with no sign, and seating for a liberal estimate of ten, Cheeky Sandwiches isn’t what you would call a groin-grabbingly aggressive in the “look-at-me-I’m-special” marketing strategy.
With their entire reputation based around word-of-mouth, you would hope that they have the goods to reinforce such bold humility. I ventured to this obscure destination last Saturday and passed it twice before I found it, the entrance looking like a doorway to some quaint British cottage on the outskirts of London. The interior revealed a far different story. Flowers kept in empty root beer bottles, ancient board games stacked haphazardly, and truly inspired wall art crafted by a professional.
The quote, seen above, is perhaps my favorite of the lot. For those illiterate to my shoddy photography, it reads: “A toast to the ducks/That live in the swamp/Never lose a feather & that’s the/Weather.” The owner, a massive, six-foot five-inch model from New Orleans, was rumored to have been told this by his father as a young boy, a reminder to “not sweat the small stuff.”
Normally, I’m focused on stuffing my face, rendering me impervious to things like décor and presentation, but Cheeky Sandwiches managed to catch my attention with their perfectly executed atmosphere. Even their bathroom is rendered after an old wooden outhouse, something nostalgic and slightly unnerving, but all in line with the good vibrations pumped out by this house of sandwiches.
But of course you’re wondering: what’s the deal with the sandwiches, Foley? Don’t worry, they’re solid. The winner and first entry on the menu is their chicken sandwich: a deep fried hunk of poultry, stacked with purple slaw and doused in gravy, stuck in between the milkiest, home-made biscuit you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. It’s six-fifty for one, but it’s unlikely you’ll stop there.
You’ll probably go for the beef, a braised short rib offering, contained in challa bread, brushed with horseradish and topped with cherry tomatoes and arugula. Or the pork, featuring pork chops doused with caramelized onions and apples and topped with a sweet and spicy mustard. It’s basically your favorite homemade Southern-style meal growing up, only stuffed in between two pieces of bread. Even their breakfast sandwich is madness, a combination of egg, Muenster cheese, and smoked salmon, a combination that should be offered everywhere.
The sandwiches are worthy of the trek to this remote Chinatown locale, but even more so is another of their entries. I am not a man of hyperbole, however, Cheeky Sandwiches makes, without question, the best bread pudding I have ever tasted on this spinning blue orb. I write these words without hesitation or regret, only confidence.
And yes, they have beer, good beer, in both cans and draught. Combined with a slew of Big Shot Soda offerings, a genuine and friendly staff, gnarly drawings saturating the walls, and bomb fare, Cheeky Sandwiches provides perhaps the best atmosphere the Sandwich Project has seen as of yet.