Gentrification has bumrushed Lower Manhattan and is steamrolling its way through Brooklyn and Queens. In New York, authenticity equals street credibility (call it Jenny From the Block Syndrome), and bars and clubs have taken notice: Several venues that nod to their previous incarnations have sprung up recently—but are they keeping it real?
Naming your bistro TENEMENT (157 Ludlow Street, 212-766-1270) when you serve items like a champagne-soaked pear salad ($7) is just a bad idea. Even if said salad is tantalizing—its greens mingling with fragrant nuts, its fruit spooning honeyed goat cheese. Then again, if you think good dinner music involves a dance remix of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”—her unsettling song about lynching—you’re probably too Euro to get it, anyway. Speaking of which: How many flaky employees does it take to get four people shoved into a tiny table in a back balcony atop an antique wrought-iron staircase? The answer is an unbelievable three, and by this point we could care less that it featured scarlet brocade walls and butter leather banquettes. But we will be fair: The waiter hustled; the house champagne ($9) was brimming in its wine glass; and the downstairs slate fireplace would have been totally romantic if it hadn’t been juxtaposed with black-and-white shots of hovels probably bursting with child prostitutes.
Thank goodness PIANOS (158 Ludlow Street, 212-505-3733) doesn’t stretch its concept so thin. It was a piano store, and now it’s a multi-level bar with music and performance as its focal point. Unlike Tenement and HAPPY ENDING (302 Broome Street, 212-334-9676)—a high-end lounge in a former Chinese massage parlor—Pianos uses a formula that’s straightforward enough. Everyone knows hipsters excel at irony, but the reason this place works better than its peers is that, except for the odd haircut or two, it isn’t ironic in the least: just packed with a fun, multiculti mix of rock star types on a recent Friday, when a $5 cover was being charged at the door. The front bar was predictably overpopulated, so we hightailed our cheap cranberry vodkas ($5) to the relatively chill upstairs lounge, where a local DJ dropped down-and-dirty house and electro (big names like Felix Da Housecat are known to stop by). And if you prefer your punk sans disco beat, there’s always the garage-rock bands that play the back room.
THE PENCIL FACTORY (142 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, 718-609-5858) isn’t housed in an old pencil factory, but it does sit across the street from one, and that’s where the industrial similarities end: With wide-plank floors, exposed-brick walls, a stamped-tin ceiling, and beautiful apothecary-like cabinetry behind the bar, it’s more pub than grub. And one suspects the food co-op members that congregate here for their nightly microbrew fix (there are 10 good beers on tap) prefer it that way. “In hindsight, the name’s a little pretentious,” explained one of the owners, after perfectly pouring our pints of Guinness ($4). Her affectionate habit of asking “your pleasure” underscored her easygoing nature. So we inquired about the “Miltonian Social Club” sign in back, and got an interesting lesson in local Greenpoint history: Before going into decline in the 1960s, the neighborhood had several bars on every block serving the large longshoreman population. Apparently the Pencil Factory used to be known as the Miltonian Social Club. She paused. “Maybe we should have called it that.”