Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
When Jay-Z and Kanye West were ready to release "Otis," the soul-sampling, jet-setting lead single off their much-anticipated joint album Watch the Throne, there was only one DJ with whom they trusted this task. That DJ, of course, was Funkmaster Flex, the man who has been dropping bombs over New York's airwaves since Hot 97 began broadcasting his legendary sets at the long-defunct Tunnel nightclub in the early '90s. For his part, Flex returned the favor by stretching the song, just under three minutes on the record, to well over 30, interrupting the rappers to offer personal commentary ("Key line right there! New York City, that's a hard line right there!" he interjects after Jay threatens to call the paparazzi on himself.) and rewinding the track again and again. "You will never wear the crown!" he at one point shouts, but for his 2 million weekly listeners (not to mention the countless more who have been dancing to his DJ sets at least since the Tunnel), this was old news.
When it started seeming as if the dance club was as lost a New York tradition as the porn store—thanks to the economy, city crackdowns, and the increasing power of neighborhood boards who detest nightlife as if it were trouble in River City—along came District 36, which got the licenses, beat the odds, and opened last year in a perfectly sane, mid-level way that's right for this era. The 14,000-square-foot place on the site of an old clothing factory is, by its owners' admission, not overly done up. The space is not about excess or gratuitous expense, but it still looks sleek and appealing, thanks to slick lighting effects, slide projections, and a futuristic cage of a DJ booth that has housed names like Larry Tee, Victor Calderone, and Jonathan Peters. Newbies dance without even knowing what a rare and exalted commodity they're engaging in. Hopefully this club will have sex with another dance club and make babies. 29 West 36th Street, 212-244-3636, d36nyc.com (10018)
There's still no topping Marie's Crisis, "where showtunes come to die—but you have a helluva time while they're doing it." The long-running West Village dive, complete with an always-smudged mirror behind the bar, is a zingy neighborhood party full of every boozy theater hound in town, uniting in multiple harmony to songs from Gypsy and Les Mis. It's as if the ghost of Christmas future were showing the cast of Glee what they will someday become. House pianists including Jim Allen, Dexter Watson, and Franca Vercelloni tinkle the Gershwin, Sondheim, and Schwartz tunes of your dreams (put a dollar in their fishbowl, and they'll play just about anything); singing waitrons like Maggie Wirth entertain with novelty numbers from Chicago and Steel Pier; and the place reeks of insouciant fun, as if no one's really in charge or watching, so it's a great moment to let loose and let it shine. Be wicked—and by the way, anyone who can get down the narrow steps to the bathroom and back again deserves a curtain call. 59 Grove Street (10014)
Nowhere Bar could really be just about anywhere, with its unpretentiously comfortable Anytown, U.S.A., rec room feeling, straight out of the 19th century, decor-wise, but with a distinct hint of Twin Peaks-like eccentricity. The floors are wood, the walls are brick, and past the long bar and the single video screen (usually showing something wonderfully obscure and static), there's a pool table, a side alcove, and for even more privacy, a divey nook in the far back with a single strand of lights adorning the wall. The jukebox that's often off (in favor of DJ music) and the faux fireplace add to the down-home weirdness, which the neighborhood gays find heaven, from "Macho" Mondays to "Numbers" Saturdays and beyond. One of the best-known nights, "Buddies" Tuesdays, attracts "bears, cubs, admirers, and friends"—and sometimes those friends are even lesbians. Yes, this ultra-relaxed hangout usually gets an actual mix of LGBT people—so maybe it couldn't be just anywhere but the East Village. 322 East 14th Street, 212-477-4744 (10003)
With an even quicker tongue than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Bianca Del Rio has a quip for every occasion and a smear for every upstart. Like other up-to-the-minute comics, the New Orleans–born drag queen shatters stereotypes by embracing them—i.e., she doesn't really think Asians only do nails and laundry, but she'll invoke those clichés to get a laugh that raises eyebrows and deflates rigid thought. Like the best insult comics, Bianca won't skewer you unless she cares, so while some of her audience members cower (at clubs like Splash and Bowery Poets Club; and on Bianca's Logo-televised concert appearances), terrified of being picked on, anyone sensible will rise to the occasion and beg for it. Bianca's soundest advice to fellow drag queens? "Never wear an ill-fitting green dress that'll make you look like moldy sausage in its casing," and "always know when to wash your wigs. After all, you wouldn't want to walk around looking like Tyra Banks's broke-down uncle." facebook.com/people/Bianca-Del-Rio/1228423926
When owner Ali Farahnakian moved his Peoples Improv Theater from a tiny place on West 29th Street to its spacious new digs in Gramercy late last year, he made the seemingly impossible happen—he turned the PIT into a comfortable, hip space with a stellar nightly lineup and, miraculously, didn't have to raise ticket prices. Still as cheap as ever, the shows range from absolutely free to $10. (Hooray for no drink minimums!) The space, formerly the home of the Blue Heron Arts Center and Algonquin Theatre, features a 99-seat theater with excellent sight lines, a basement lounge for comics to test out new material, and a full bar and coffee shop that's open all day with free wifi for customers. Farahnakian certainly knows what he's doing: He's an alum of the Chicago–based comedy club Second City, a founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade, and a former writer for Saturday Night Live. (A wall of photos outside the main stage shows him hanging out with old SNL pals including Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, and Rachel Dratch.) A great night to go is Wednesday, when all the shows are free (and regularly sold out). Saturdays feature the outstanding PIT house team Big Black Car, which includes the lovable duo Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords) and Kurt Braunohler in its cast. And for those who get bit by the comedy bug, the PIT still offers its popular acting and writing classes with experienced teachers from The Daily Show, SNL, and elsewhere at its school on the West Side. 123 East 24th Street, 212-563-7488, thepit-nyc.com (10010)