Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Did the gays stop their northern migration once they hit Hell's Kitchen? Did they simply run out of cab fare once they reached the wonderland of bars like Vlada and Therapy? The Upper West Side seems sadly free of them, except for the ones who turn up at the long-running Candle Bar (309 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-874-9155), a lone rest stop in the wilderness and hardly dazzling enough to light up the whole neighborhood. It's one of the strange realities of Gotham living that there aren't more gay bars up there, due to a kind of reverse evolution that's hampered the UWS from redeveloping into complete greatness. And there's no good reason for it! Surely, the area that brings you Lincoln Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas should teem with opera/theater/film queens jonesing for get-together dives where they can loosen up over Jello shots. A haunting reminder of past glories and scandals: the Ansonia (2107 Broadway) once housed the Continental baths, where Bette Midler rose to fame as toweled gays cheered. Now it's a much blander building where any gays who happen to be there wear lots of layers. Come back, gays!
Coffee Shop is beloved for its somewhat lethargic, surly serviceand we truly mean beloved, because the clientele gladly takes every frown from the dispassionate waitresses and comes back crawling for more. The Union Square staple may not blare it on its neon marquee, but it's the worst-kept secret in town that the restaurant almost exclusively hires models for its waitstaff. The gorgeous men and women curtly slinging sweet-potato fries may be working for the weekend or their next go-see, but the celebrities and locals who perch with equal aloofness in their outdoor cafe seats are there for the view. Who knows? Order enough fajitas, and your icy Swedish hostess may even smile at you.
We'd been turned away at Death & Co. far too many times to ever consider showing our face there again (really, there's no room for us?) when we stumbled upon Elsa, a jewel box of a bar situated slightly farther south and east. Elsa is one of those bars we'd rather not tell you about, actually, because we don't want it to become packed with those who won't appreciate its many charms, but since this is a Best Of . . . well, it's the best. Gorgeous white-wood-paneled walls and low Edison-bulb lighting make you feel as if you've just walked into a mansion in Cuba in the '50s, or perhaps an undiscovered Savannah speakeasy. The music is always on-trend, but not too much so. And the hipster-retro barstaff take great pride in mixing and serving you amazing classic cocktails (a mint julep with a huge, verdant sprig of fresh mint served in a steel cup, or maybe a dark 'n' stormy?). Like any high-quality speakeasy, Elsa also functions as a women's clothing shop during the daylight hours. Another plus: Even the bathrooms smell good. 217 East 3rd Street, 917-882-7395, elsaroom.com
The Red Hook waterfront doesn't much resemble New Orleans, although Erie Basin can exude a rather Bayou-esque scent and Fairway will supply you with everything you need to create a splendid oyster po'boy. But since last year, one local bar, Fort Defiance, has been making the Big Apple feel that much Big Easier. After stints as a food writer, bartender, and Jedi-level backyard barbecuer, St. John Frizell opened the Southern-spiked watering hole. There's a food menu, and our critics assure us that the eats are more than palatable. But we've been racing up Columbia Street and bellying up to the bar for some of the most gorgeous, innovative, and potent cocktails at prices that would barely buy you a tonic water at most of New York's mixology palaces. A recent trip yielded a $9 Manhattan better than any Brooklyn bar has a right to concoct; the Cloister, an $8 assemblage of gin, grapefruit, lemon, and chartreuse; and the $11 Sumo Collins, 24 ounces of the best use for a cucumber that anyone has yet invented.
Yes, Smoke, a little south of Harlem at 106th Street and Broadway, can be kinda pricey ($30 per person for dinner and show). But the food, which has gotten rave reviews in some quarters, is a lot jazzier than cheeseburgers and pretty good. It's the music, though, that definitely merits the raves. Say you're looking to soak up some tunes for you and your honey on a mid-week evening. You're liable to find a tight trio at Smoke—and no cover charge. Same with Sunday's "jazz brunch," which on a recent weekend featured Natalie Joy Johnson (lately in Broadway's Legally Blonde) belting it out. The music is wide-ranging and delicious, and the setting is intimate but neither cramped nor dusty. There are also less expensive late-night jam sessions ($10) and cover-free jazz brunches on Saturday, if that's your day of rest. At Smoke, you can pretend you're a '50s movie star taking in the New York scene, and no one will sneer at you.
If you find Astoria's Bohemian Beer Garden insufficiently bohemian, consider a night at Williamsburg's Radegast not at all a gas, and can discern no siren call from the Lower East Side's Loreley, maybe it's time to venture farther out in your quest to leave no stein untipped. Plattduetsche Park Restaurant, located just over the Queens border, has slaked thirsts since 1939. And if that seems a rather inauspicious year to open a German beer garden, its survival testifies to its hoppy, yeasty excellence. (Think of these beverages as a far nicer way to get bombed.) Before it moves indoors in the winter months, Plattduetsche takes advantage of the summer, setting out long tables between chestnut trees and hiring Teutonic bands to accompany all the imbibing. Various seasonal brews include honey and berry weiss, just right for a balmy afternoon; specials include an aureate Spaten lager, a creamy Warsteiner, and a lemony Franziskaner hefe weisse. Half a liter will set you back only $7. At those prices, why not go Deutsche?