Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Manning the door at Beige—the long-running Tuesday-night gay lounge at B Bar—Canadian-born Derek Neen emits charm and humor, never caving in to the pressures of the gig, yet knowing just when to put his designer-clad foot down. A club presence since the '80s, Neen is quick with his mouth, which he uses as a sort of aural red velvet rope (though there's a real one there, too). One night, he was seen telling a smashed patron trying to re-enter: "I speak seven languages. Which one are you speaking?" Other times, he has been spotted explaining to groups of stray straight people, "You understand that this is a gay bar, right? Just making sure." And best of all was his monologue to a complete looney toon, sternly informing the freak, "Even the bathroom attendant and kitchen help say you're a mess—and they never complain about anybody. You need to take a break from this place!" But you don't—just be nice to Derek. He views what he does as a craft, and so should you if you crave admission with a benediction and a smile.
This is very simple. First, somehow acquire a $10 bill. (Maybe sell some furniture? Some plasma? Some dignity?) Then go to Barcade. Buy a pint of one of their 20-plus fine beers on tap. (Scout their constantly rotating selection at barcadebrooklyn.com.) Tip generously. And then slip whatever bills you've got left into a change machine, extract as many quarters as that gets you, and dump them all into the Arkanoid machine. It's near the back, on your left. Arkanoid is driven by the oldest video-game conceit around: You have a little bar. You hit a ball. It busts up a few blocks. It comes back to you, and you hit it again. Repeat. Except now there's lasers and shit. You can split the ball into three balls. Some of the blocks are indestructible. There are enemies. And the blocks bloom into increasingly elegant geometric designs to entice and frustrate you. Shit is mad addictive. Stick with it. Sip your beer. Everything is gonna be all right. Things are gonna get better. They already have.
The Lower East Side, generally, and Ludlow Street, specifically, is larded with tiny, nonchalant, painstakingly rough-hewn clubs usually so jam-packed that the mere act of turning 360 degrees is a 10-minute operation. Such is the price of culture. This is occasionally true at the folkie-centric Living Room as well, of course, but it's just slightly more comfortable and inviting—you're able to sit down, which helps make it probably the best-named club in the city. Often mashing in 10 erstwhile singer-songwriters between the main stage and the even-homier upstairs space (a/k/a Googie's Lounge) per night, it's a fine place to indulge in a little artistic sensitivity and sentimentality that is nonetheless still graced with a fine coating of the neighborhood's studied grit. Go see X frontman John Doe whenever he wanders by. And keep your feet off the couch.
Welcome to Vandam, the Sunday-night party at Greenhouse, where old-school meets new-school meets still-going-to-school—a perfect reflection of the current melting-pot mélange that is making up nightlife in transition. All sexualities, genders, and professions mix in this two-floor, ecologically friendly (except for the hairspray) club, where the mood reflects back on hosts Susanne Bartsch and Kenny Kenny's past successes while clearing the plate for the next tantalizing course. While Bartsch and Kenny have a high taste for history, they're also anxious to serve their three-ring-circus standard to new clubbies who think Lady Gaga is a grande dame and Ecstasy is just an emotion.
The event itself is already a venerable institution by New York standards—it's a holdover from all the way back in '08—but it's staying fresh, probably because if you care enough to go all the way to Vandam and Varick streets for a good time, you must really care about nightlife.
Co-host Kenny Kenny is a wildly witty Irish guy who just happens to be wearing a three-foot acrylic flower on his head. Bartsch is the legend who has pepped up nightlife since the '80s, a Swiss Josephine Baker who veers between effusiveness and endearing neurosis. (She always claims, "No one's coming tonight" because there's bad weather or traffic, or because it's a holiday. And, as she says this, 500 people file past door goddess Cynthia onto the two floors, and, suddenly, it's a glittery sardine can.)
On the main floor, your yet-to-be-impaired peripheral vision catches the banquettes on the side, but you keep going to the dancing area, where you crowd in with "evergreen" hosts Dirty Martini, Ajoshua, and Chuck Attix, and dance to DJ Johnny Dynell's bracing mix of newish-old and oldish-new. The twinkly lights above create a strobe-y effect that's intriguingly seizure-friendly, and though you stop dancing for the shows (vaudeville-style performances by provocateurs like Rose Wood and Julie Atlas Muz), you move in place throughout so you can gracefully resume your punk ballet the second it's over.
Downstairs, the fake foliage on the walls gives an enchanted-cottage feeling, as you join hosts Desi Monster and Ladyfag in getting the most out of the hour-long open bar, then do more of that spasmic dancing thing with your date or (by now) with a whole other former stranger. Take a photo, and you'll capture Gotham's most condensed nightlife action in one frame: real-life cartoon figures making out, fighting, primping, and posing—all seemingly unaware of everyone else's agendas. You see people you haven't seen in aeons, and they pick up the conversation as if the past decade hasn't happened. You spot sailors who are either very cool or who didn't read the guidebook carefully enough. You run into a trannie who looks like a fish that has been squeezed through a keyhole, and a gaggle of bankers in Armani suits eyeing her like an incomplete mortgage application. All the guys seem to look like Christian Siriano, and all the girls look like Katy Perry. Everyone in between probably goes to FIT.
One week, a club kid looked a little humbled because Page Six had revealed that the boyfriend he always brags about is a nobody who just happens to have the same last name as someone famous. That's OK—Vandam is a place for forgetting and celebrating and distracting till the lights come on. It's a place for being wildly, internationally famous no matter what your name is.
And where do I fit into this very graphic novel? Somewhere outside the downstairs bathroom, where I can actually hear people talk, if not necessarily think. And the next day, I belong on the phone, hammering questions at Kenny Kenny in hopes of learning how to keep partying like it's 2008.
Me: Hi, Kenny. Why does your partnership with Ms. Bartsch seem to click so well?
Kenny Kenny: We both understand—she's going to hate me for this—that we're very dysfunctional, and we accept each other for that. We're both creative, and we like new ideas. Everything became so bland. We're not from a bland world. I've worked with other people—I'm not gonna mention their names—and they wanted things more bland. But I'm in nightlife because of the freedom of being eccentric and pushing the limits. Susanne really understands that. We are both a little odd, and we accept each other for that.
Me: But what's with her constant worrying?
Kenny: We all have this little worry box in our heads. I understand that. That means she cares. It's just neurosis. She acts it out kind of more.
Me: How does this event rate compared to your other joint ventures (Happy Valley, Room Service, and Kino), all of which I lived for?
Kenny: I think this one is the most workable. Both of us are kind of relaxed in that we're not trying to top ourselves—we're just trying to have a space where we can see what happens. "Let's just do what we do." You don't have to have a Broadway show. When I saw the space, I knew it would work. It was just the right size, and it's so campy—those fucking crystals hanging! I know [owner Jon Bakhshi] opened it for bottle service, but it looks like anything but bottle service. Did he know what he was doing? It looks so gay! [Laughs.] He's really good at paying the bills. He doesn't bounce checks.
Me: That's important. It's also good that the place is not just a downtown Jurassic Park, much as I love my '80s-survivor friends.
Kenny: I like seeing young kids because they bring a fresh take on the world. We've seen it and done it all, but when a young kid twists a T-shirt that certain way, you're like, "How the fuck?"
Me: Well, how the fuck do you get such a mix of newborn and near-dead?
Kenny: We turn off the bland gays. The gays that like us mentally get us. And Susanne makes it comfortable for straights, I think. We're very open to that. Other promoters snub people. We welcome people. It could be the hippest-looking crowd, but if the person who's ruling it is not that welcoming, you don't go back. We're always really glad to see people are showing up!
Me: And you give drink tickets, which are extra-appreciated in this economy. But does the recession help nightlife in any way? I keep hearing it's supposed to.
Kenny: I used to think that, but this is the worst one yet. I hope it knocks people out of this bland mentality where everyone's fitting in and the gays are looking like straights and the straights are looking like gays. Maybe if you don't have money to buy that thing to look like everybody else, you'll start looking like your real self. But I don't see it yet. I don't see that rebellion or anger that would come with it. I miss that. I still love New York, but I wish we had that surge of "Fuck the system"—to want to go out and fuck the world, and, in a way, it's embracing the world! It's embracing your energy!
If you walk by Farrell's pregnant, all the firemen and policemen drinking inside will whistle. Loudly. If you are a yuppie or a hipster, work from home, are on your way to see MGMT at Prospect Park, or don't have a badge, hose, or paper bag at your disposal, you might not like Farrell's (est. 1933). If you don't appreciate winos (the same winos, everyday) pissing on the stoop of your drinking establishment, you probably won't like Farrell's. If you call it "Farrell's Bar & Grill" (its full name), you definitely don't understand Farrell's. But if the prospect of drinking with cops who can't wait to teach you how to sneak alcohol onto the subway sounds like your idea of a good time, you are: 1) correct, and 2) an ideal Farrell's customer. And that, my friend, is a compliment.
Now that Americans have rediscovered what beer is supposed to taste like, is it any wonder that the traditional setting is coming back, too? Beer gardens are popping up across the land, but owners know there's something they have to avoid when they open a new facility: the feeling of newness itself. The more your beer garden feels like it's a place where people have been hoisting giant mugs of ale for centuries on end, the better. And that's why we adore Brooklyn's Radegast Hall and Biergarten. Sure, the great list of German, Belgian, and Czech brews is on the money, but we especially love how the place was carved out of an old factory, creating a space that's half patio, half assembly line. You can't shake the feeling that pints have been drained here since the Great Depression. If, after polishing off the weisswurst and sauerkraut smothered with horseradish and mustard, you still aren't convinced that this place is authentic, keep your eyes peeled for the occasional mustache-growing or glass-carrying competition, which can win you round-trip tickets to the Eden of beer: Saxon lands.