Put a Cork in It

Bottle service corrupts the soul of New York City nightlife.

On a recent Tuesday night, the downtown nightspot formerly known as 6's and 8's looked like a casting director's dream. Now called the 205 Club after its Chrystie Street address, the venue's red-and-black interior has been painted entirely silver, in a redesign overseen by nightlife impresario Serge Becker. Everything gleams, from the tin ceiling to the aluminum- coated walls to the silver file cabinets holding up the bar, casting everyone in a faint star-like glow. A Warholian montage of Paris Hilton photos fittingly covers one wall. "It's meant to look like an old loft," Becker says. "Like what the Factory was."

Down the street, a different but equally hip crowd gathers every night at Home Sweet Home. Located just south of Delancey near the Bowery Ballroom and the 205 Club, it has the cozy feel you'd expect from a venue owned by three women. Dark and moody—with antique oddball items and taxidermy victims decorating the cabinets underneath the bar, and strange cowboy-statue lamps lighting the corners—the three-month-old venue, which has no sign and is located underground, has a secretive air.

This time last year, so did Chrystie Street. It was as close to a quiet, residential enclave as you can get in New York, not much of a destination unless you wanted to buy glass or kitchen supplies. But on recent weekends, the streets have overflowed with revelers checking out these new spots. With this winter's imminent grand opening of the Box—a dinner theater run by Becker, Richard Kimmel, Simon Hammerstein, Michael Bennett, and Randy Weiner—Chrystie Street is poised to overtake Ludlow Street as downtown's premier strip.

Over in Brooklyn, Greenpoint, already home to established live venue Warsaw, is steadily stealing thunder from the East Village music scene. Studio B arrived in September, booked by Motherfucker's Justine D. and featuring blockbuster nights with acts like Soulwax, DFA, and Justice. Another Polish disco, Europa, has similar- minded new promoters in Scenic Presents, a/k/a Robert Johnson and Scott Long, both Knitting Factory vets who are also formerly of Manhattan's Avenue B club Scenic. And this summer, McCarren

Park Pool emerged as the most buzzed-about new venue during the hottest months. A few minutes away in Williamsburg, the brand-new, built-from-scratch venue Brooklyn Sugar gingerly opened its doors in October; deeper in Brooklyn, 3rd Ward is an all-encompassing work studio and art space hosting events with top-notch DJs like Matthew Dear and Wolf + Lamb, as well as numerous shows thrown by DIY fixture Todd P.

There are rumors of still more to come: Brooklyn mainstay Northsix is being taken over by big-shot owners Bowery Presents to yield a bigger musical behemoth for the borough, with a name change—the Music Hall of Williamsburg—and a mid-spring reopening. Back in Manhattan, the Beatrice Inn, Paul Sevigny's small restaurant-lounge on West 12th Street, is already becoming a favorite of New York's art and music elite. Jolie, a dance-music-centric club run by Timmy Regisford and designed by nightlife veteran Steven Lewis, is also slated for spring. And then there's the long-awaited late-spring opening of a dual-level music venue at Lafayette Street, run by Spencer Sweeney, Andrew W.K., Larry Golden, and Ron Castellano.

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Studio B party scene
photo: Cary Conover

Nightclubs are always opening (and closing) in New York, but this mini-surge of fresh venues is built on music and art, not the bling of bottle service, signaling the beginning of a hopeful new era in New York nightlife, one where the artists, musicians, and DJs—tired of the bottle service boom bullying clubs into a world of materialism and monotony—take back the night.

Perhaps we are just experiencing a time-honored cycle in New York nightlife. In 1990, venerable downtown club matron Chi Chi Valenti wrote a poem called, appropriately enough, "Take Back the Night," mourning the end of the seedy, exciting underbelly of clubland that gave the world cultural icons like Madonna, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nightlife, then as now, was losing out to bankers and millionaires and bottles:

Take it back from mere attitude and return it to grand gesture. Take it back from every futures trader yearning for a new life. Take it back from sweater consultants and out of town investors. Return it to ruined men with no feeling for the masses, and no stomach for the shameless sell.

Aaron Bondaroff (a/k/a A-Ron the Downtown Don), who serves as creative director of the 205 Club, agrees that it's time the tables were turned. "Bottle service has been running nightlife in New York for a long time," he says. "It's ruined the community."

Could it be that we are all asking, as Chi Chi Valenti did, "Where is the magic city I have dreamed of?"


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Bottle Service at Guesthouse
hoto: Nikola Tamindzic/ ambrel.net

The scene on Chrystie couldn't be more dif- ferent than the one that happens every weekend on the stretch of West 27th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. Club Row, as it's called, resembles a better-dressed version of Mardi Gras. Girls with flat-ironed flaxen hair, wearing glittery tops and tight jeans, totter on their high heels from one velvet rope to another. The clubs all have exotic, glamorous names—Cain, Marquee, Bungalow 8, Pink Elephant—and offer the promise of opulence and intrigue once inside. The reality is far less interesting. Inside, the clone-like crowds come to party the only way they know how—the way they learned from watching hip-hop videos. They stand on the little booths and shake and shimmy, hoisting bottles of vodka—priced 1,000 percent over what you'd pay in a store—over their heads. As some Jay-Z song plays over the speakers, for a minute, they are Bling. They feel fabulous. And then they order another $300 round.

Bottle service gained popularity in the early '90s as a complimentary service offered to VIPs and moneyed clientele. Sevigny remembers when the O Bar, a long-closed club, started offering the service in a way that seemed more quaint than snobbish: A patron could buy a bottle, and if he or she didn't finish it, they'd hold it behind the bar. Bottle service today, though, entails a customer buying a normal bottle of liquor—vodka or champagne, usually—for $150 to $500 (if not more), served with a mélange of mixers and a booth to sit in for the duration of the night. Once this was a rare luxury, even somewhat practical. When a club was too crowded, or a patron too famous, it was a way to keep the star relatively secluded and sated. In the '90s, at the Tunnel's Green Room, "once in a while a European would come in and buy a bottle," says longtime nightlife veteran Steven Lewis. "It was done, but very rarely. There wasn't really a program of bottle service." But as the '90s wore on, the quirky club-kid world faded and the real estate market exploded, making bottle service not just trendy, but almost necessary to stay in business. Lewis, with his partners Mark Baker and Jeffrey Jah, brought bottle service over to the now defunct Life, on Sullivan Street. "Rents are 300 percent more expensive" Jah, a co-owner of Lotus, says. "Insurance can be up to half a million a year." Meanwhile, drink prices and cover charges stayed mostly the same. Something had to give.

As club owners quickly figured out, everyone wanted to be a VIP, or at least feel like one. Bottle service was an easy and very financially sound means of achieving mutual happiness for both the club and the clientele. A 38-table club like Marquee, selling bottles at $350 a pop, can rake in $20,000 a night minimum, and that's not counting bar sales or cover charges.

But while clubs were flush and clients were drunk, the results of the bottle service boom were showing on nightlife, which now had all the excitement and pizzazz of a corporate party thrown in a hotel conference room. "Bottle service only makes sense for six to eight people in a crowded room and you don't want to wait," says Jah, who estimates that 30 percent of his profits are due to the trend. Nonetheless, he says the current all-bottle model has "gone too far."

It's a phenomenon great for business but terrible for art. If you go from one bottle service club to another, you will notice how hard it is to distinguish one from another just based on the music. While a few—like Pink Elephant and Marquee—vary their format from time to time, bottle service music, with few exceptions, is universally interchangeable, geared toward those too drunk (or too high) to pay attention to an entire song. It's ADD for the ears, snippets of Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" and Kanye West's "Gold Digger" merging endlessly with any number of Michael Jackson songs. There is almost no new music introduced at these clubs that you couldn't already hear on the radio. Crowds just want the hits. "The music is a direct reflection of the fan base, and the fan base is a direct reflection of what they listen to," says Studio B's Justine D. "Top 40, Britney, current hits. I am not a fan of these things, but the mainstream is."

"My friend took me to Cain the other night, and I wanted to barf all over myself," says Kristin Vincent, one of the co-owners of Home Sweet Home (under the name Siren, she also DJs as part of the Syrup Girls). "They didn't know anything about music, because of the DJ. There's so much better music out there."


Some clubs, like Home, don't even have real dancefloors anymore. Others, like Cain, feel like they're designed to make anyone without a booth feel like a social outcast. There is almost nowhere to stand and rest your drink. A few spots even make buying a bottle mandatory. "Cover charges have disappeared at places that are completely bottle service–driven like Home or Cain or Guest House," says Noah Tepperberg, co-owner of Marquee, one of the few bottle service clubs with a large dancefloor. "Everybody there has a table. The whole club is tables. There is no dancefloor."

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Justine D.
photo: Nikola Tamindzic/ ambrel.net

"I felt like a complete outsider," says Vincent of her visit to Cain. "I don't have a table, I don't have a seat, nor do I want one given who's around there. I was literally there for maybe 10 minutes. When I left Cain, I tried to catch up with friends who'd already gone home. I felt totally depressed. It was so weird. It was the worst feeling. Bottle service clubs are like the Wal-Marts of the music world."

While many might say that the pendulum swing from music-driven clubs to bottle service is merely the market responding to consumer demand, others point out that the city's legislative tactics, such as utilizing the cabaret law (which prohibits dancing without a license) against smaller venues, has played a part, too. "It's not that there's been a shift," says Jason Goodman, 3rd Ward's executive co-director. "It's that they've outlawed this kind of thing. There was nowhere to go anymore. They shut everyone down. But there's a huge demand with our kind of cultural events, and the city does everything they can do to stop it. The kind of New York they are creating is a completely whitewashed, upper-class-only, super-safe shopping mall."

And not even so safe. Following the case of 18-year-old Jennifer Moore this summer—after drinking at Guest House, she eventually staggered down the West Side Highway, and was found brutally murdered the next morning—a backlash has begun that stretches beyond the downtown artists' community. Club Row is now infested with invasive police patrols and giant billboards warning against underage drinking. This summer, City Councilwoman Melinda Katz proposed legislation banning bottle service because it encourages binge drinking. And recent news reports suggest club owners on West 27th Street are looking to get off the block, indicating that there might be too much of an increasingly lousy thing.

Even bottle service club owners are bored of it. "We got so disgusted with the way nightlife was going, we opened Double Seven to bring back cocktails," says Jah, who also co-owns Lotus on West 14th Street. "Smaller alternative bars and clubs are gonna be popping up," he predicted in an interview this summer. "A lot of people are fed up with paying outrageous prices for bottles."

Justine D. recalls the first time she was spooked by bottle service: It was 1999, while she was DJ'ing at the long-since-closed Centro-Fly. "I couldn't put my finger on it: 'Why do I feel so isolated here?' " she says. "I realized everyone has a bottle at their table. They obviously don't like my music. I don't like this crowd. That was in the beginning of my career, in '99. It's nearly 2007. It's about time for a good, healthy backlash."


Simon Hammerstein comes from a rich arts legacy. "The grandson of Oscar (half of the Broadway duo Rodgers and Hammerstein), he has dark, wavy hair and a fashionable beard, and speaks with a slight British accent left over from his days in boarding school overseas. But despite his tony upbringing, Simon is more downtown and down-to-earth.

"I got frustrated with nightlife," says the 28-year-old in the balcony of his club the Box, which in November was still in various states of construction. "You go, you get a table, you get a bottle, and that's it? People-watch? And for $500 a bottle? It's not worth it. There's no place for people who've been in the scene since they were 13." (He should know—he was throwing raves as a teenager.) "There are a lot of other people who want to go out who don't go out anymore—27th Street? Forget about it. It's a nightmare."

The Box aims to change all that. Over two years in the making, it looks like a fusion of an opera house, a Western saloon, and a Parisian theater. Most of its co-owners have roots in the performing arts: Hammerstein ran the Flea Theatre, and Kimmel, in addition to directing, writing, and producing many plays, is an associate with the experimental theater company Wooster Group. They wanted to build a place nice enough to relax in for several hours, but loose enough to allow for some rowdiness during a performance. The ornate venue is decorated with details from multiple time periods—sconces from the circa-1920 subway system hang over booths, a Victorian crib is situated upstairs on the mezzanine, and an assortment of Prohibition-era bottles line the walls. The wallpaper is a hodgepodge of quirky turn-of-the-century designs and oddball drawings.


The Box is also designed to have clear sight lines at all points, so that anywhere you are, you can see the show, which is the ultimate point of going there. The opera boxes overlooking the stage seem positively quaint in this see-and-be-seen era; while you can buy a bottle of wine, the Box will not offer bottle service.

Paul Sevigny, a co-owner of the Beatrice Inn, won't be serving bottles either—unless you ask. "I think people still love it, but I'm not interested in it," he says. The nightlife fixture can afford to buck the trend—his club, decorated with paintings taken straight from his apartment, isn't weighed down with the burden of paying back millions and millions of dollars to multiple investors.

His venue has a storied past, and looks the part. A speakeasy in the 1920s (with an unmarked door for stealth exits), the Beatrice Inn was a well-regarded Italian restaurant until last year, when Sevigny bought it. Now, the two front rooms have low ceilings and low light—one is painted a dusky pink, with a fireplace and a reading chair, while the other has black leather couches, eccentric paintings, and wood floors. In the back, there's a small lounge with a DJ booth lined in red vinyl, black-and-white-tiled floor, and a disco ball demurely resting amid the wood planks of the ceiling.

Sevigny wants the Beatrice Inn to be a place to relax, where you can have conversations without screaming and hear interesting music played by people who aren't necessarily professional DJs. While he's hosted one all-star evening featuring DJs Beverly Bond, Sky Nellor, and Cassidy, he says he won't have weekly parties, and plans on playing around with the format. His Academy Award–nominated sister, Chlo had her birthday bash at the spot, and Steve Garbarino of BlackBookmagazine wants to host dinner parties there once a month. Sevigny relishes the chance to build up a venue slowly—the Beatrice Inn is his first after many years working for other people—and was reluctant to speak to the press. "Most people in the business these days don't give something enough time to let it happen," he says. "You can do something cool. I don't know if most people have the fore sight. They are just interested in bottles and models," he adds, taking a drag off his cigarette. "If you want to blow it out, go to 27th Street and stand under the police lights."

Unlike many of the posh places on Club Row, these venues are run or owned by people who have roots in the local music and arts scenes, not Johnny-come-latelies out to make a quick buck. They are DJs or promoters or artists in their own right, putting the emphasis on art over commerce, but not at the total expense of the latter. "We're all doing it because we love it. Not because there's some big payoff at the end," says 3rd Ward's Goodman.

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Aaron Bondoroff at 205 Club
photo: Nikola Tamindzic/ ambrel.net

These places even have—gasp—dancefloors, a nightclub feature seemingly facing extinction in the age of the bottle service booth. At Home or Guest House, there are depressing lines of booths, one after the other, like little ducks in a row. Conversely, at the 205 Club, the view is wide open, and there is ample room to dance. "These venues are for the community," says Bondaroff, a co-owner. And he doesn't just mean his own spot. He has high praise for Kristin Vincent, Nadia Koch, and Sandy Cisco—the team running Home Sweet Home—as well: "Those girls have been running 'round the street for a while."

Home Sweet Home has a top-notch DJ booth and sound system—the by-product, no doubt, of having Vincent, a DJ, running the place—which helps attract some of the city's best DJs and live talent. There's a DFA night every other Thursday, skaters hang their hats on Tuesdays, and the venue's location near the Bowery Ballroom adds to the allure: "There's no place to go before and after shows and sit and have a beer and be sort of mellow," Vincent says. "We do a lot of after-parties for bands that play there. They come here and DJ for us, and bring a crowd. It ends up being a really good combination." The tactic's worked well already: Grizzly Bear and the Silversun Pickups brought their entourages to the bar after Bowery shows, and during CMJ week Hot Chip played a spur-of-the-moment set.


A similar tactic is utilized by her neighbors at the 205 Club. The space's light, airy facelift by Serge Becker is simple but effective. But more impressive is the club's cabaret license, a rare breed downtown. Open since October, the club has already pulled in key DJs drawn to a venue with a good sound system and a cabaret license like drawing bees to honey. 2 Many DJs played an impromptu set in the basement now decorated with geometric shapes and words culled from Craigslist's "Casual Encounters" ads. Upstairs, trendsetting types like MisShapes and Kid America spin to a more laid-back crowd disinclined to buy bottles. "If you want to buy a bottle, I'll hook you up," Bondaroff says. "I don't promote it. If the bar's really crowded, it's a nice thing to have a bottle if you are with your friends. But you can't make a reservation."

Like many other bar operators, creative director Bondaroff doesn't use the word "promoter" to describe what he does, and marvels at his good fortune. "That I get a venue to dictate, it's pretty crazy," the longtime downtown fixture says. His store on Hester Street—aNYthing, a/k/a A New York Thing—has been a hangout for artists and skateboarders since 2005. That vibe is now reflected in the 205 Club, which he describes as "pretty much my clubhouse for me and the community. I don't have too much experience booking events. But I do have a lot of creative friends." He wants 205 to be a freewheeling place open for anything, from the talk show they're filming on-site to surprise DJ sets. "A DJ or group can call me on Thursday night and want to DJ, and I can put them on right away," he says. "I don't have to follow rules. I want it to be where every night you have to be there, because you never know what's going to happen."

Over at Brooklyn's Studio B, Justine D. (a/k/a Delaney) shares similar sentiments. Along with Joady Thornton-Richholt, she's been booking everything from the Warriors Halloween party with Afrika Bambaataa and Rub 'n' Tug to a Todd P event with Oneida. "I don't see it as booking. I see it as curating," Delaney says. "It's like an art project for me. It's cool. I don't know if too many club owners care so much about New York nightlife in the sense of focusing on creative, artistic people. The smart thing that club owners have been doing is choosing to work with people like myself who are tapped into the artistic community. For us, it's such an exciting thing." Studio B used to be a Polish nightspot called Club Ice; taken over by Robert Nowack, who owns the Delancey here and Studio A in Miami, the venue re-emerged as a premier nightclub after three months of renovations, including a redesigned DJ booth, an amped-up sound system, and a second stage for live acts. The final product, which has one main dancefloor and two side areas, can hold up to 1,200 people. Delaney's not kidding when she says, "This type of space doesn't exist in Manhattan." It probably couldn't, either.

With the rash of clubs under attack in recent months, you might wonder if the people sticking out their necks with new places during the most vicious time in New York nightlife history might have a death wish. "I think I'm crazy!" Vincent says. But the savvy locals behind these spaces know more than the average hedge-fund businessman who blithely opens a bar without care or caution for his surroundings. Sevigny, who operates in the basement of a residential building, is already in close contact with his new neighbors, and 3rd Ward's Goodman regularly reaches out to his community, including the police.

"We purposely picked this area," says Vincent of Chrystie Street, pointing out the park across the street and the parking garage and warehouse that flank Home Sweet Home. So far, the gamble has paid off, despite a bad experience with their first contractor. "We've been turning people away on the weekend—it really shocked me," Vincent says, adding that "all three bars were over capacity," meaning 205, Home Sweet Home, and Fontana's around the corner. "I didn't know how big this was going to hit."


While many big-name club owners give lip service to the idea of supporting the arts when they're pleading their cases with cops and community boards to get their liquor or cabaret licenses, these newer club entrepreneurs are actually for real. Vincent turned the first floor of Home Sweet Home into an art gallery; Bondaroff encourages graffiti artists to work on the spare walls of 205, and has already hosted numerous after-parties for gallery openings, including one for Deitch Projects. His friends in the art world—including Ryan McGinley, Dan Cohen, and Dash Snow—have plans to throw their own parties once a month. Brooklyn Sugar, the 14,000-square-foot Williamsburg space designed and booked by Colin Faber, is set up to be much more than a typical nightlife venue: The raw upstairs space, which recalls the now defunct Volume, can be easily changed around to host art shows, commercial events, or acrobatic performances, as well as live bands. The venue has already hosted Cut and Paste, which Faber calls the "Iron Chef of graphic design"; the Institute for Audio Research has conducted live sound-recording classes there.

3rd Ward in Brooklyn, though, is perhaps most impressive in its role as an all-purpose arts center. The 20,000-square-foot venue offers monthly workspace rentals to artists for just $300 a month, along with classes that range from modern dance to yoga to photography, and a quarterly arts and literary journal published in-house. Somehow, they also manage to host parties like the Burning Man Decompression event in their 10,000-square-foot main event space. Jason Goodman, 3rd Ward's 27-year-old co-director, says that for his partners, the art space came first, and the event space second. "It wasn't even part of our original plan," he says of the latter. "We're not a music club. We do cultural fundraising events. It's a super-important distinction. We're not a dance club and we're not a rock venue. And we're definitely not a bottle club." Clearly there's an audience for 3rd Ward: "The support for it is overwhelming," he says. "The proof is in the pudding—1,000 people want to come out to these events."

Gooman's not alone. "I feel like there's a movement toward intelligentsia," says Simon Hammerstein. "People who know what a good night out is, who aren't going to be hoodwinked by, like, 'Oh, I got into Cain, I must be cool!' he muses as he looks over the balcony at the Box's stage, hopefully the site of many legendary performances to come. "That's over."

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