Even über-cool Williamsburgers need a respite from the crowded fashionista runway of Bedford Avenue. Just a short walk from hipster heaven rests the quiet neighborhood of South Williamsburg—an area mostly unscathed by the scalpel of gentrification. Within two blocks of Broadway you’ll find some of the best watering holes in Brooklyn. Bars made all the more notable by Southside’s desolate, industrial ghost town atmosphere and picturesque backdrop of the Williamsburg Bridge-lit East River.
Right down the street from the popular beautiful-people eatery Diner lies a drinkers’ oasis, BEMBE (Berry and South 6th streets, Brooklyn, 718-387-5389). It’s clear from the moment you set foot inside that creating Bembe’s decor was a labor of love: exquisite wooden bar, bamboo tables, rustic wall of fake doors and windows. There’s a very organic, almost spiritual quality to the space, enhanced by candlelight emanating from niches in the brick walls and the Tiki/Polynesian multiethnic flair. The exotic, juice-heavy drinks seem nearly healthy, considering all the sugar and alcohol. Two yummy house specials include the Rum Punch made with mango, guava, OJ, pineapple juice, dark and light rum, and secret spices ($5) and the popular Hot Hungarian Mulled Wine flavored with honey, clove, cinnamon, and brown sugar ($5). My favorite was the Dulce Morena ($3), a tequila shot like no other: First you slam the top-shelf tequila, then you suck on a lime wedge covered half in sugar and half in finely ground choice coffee—the aftertaste is 100 percent chocolate!
What you see is what you get at the no-bullshit, bare-bones ROCKSTAR BAR (351 Kent Avenue, 718-599-1936), a dive that looks like a small VFW hall that was seized by some first-year art students. You’ve probably been here before but were either too drunk to remember—it’s that kind of place—or didn’t realize it since it seems to change its name every few months. It’s been called “the Ship’s Mast” (taken from the life-size mermaids at the hub of the circular bar) and the “Local” (it frequently hosts local and touring bands). If it’s a rock show night, the kids are almost always jacked and juiced—literally and metaphorically. What the place lacks in drink specials and ambience it more than makes up for with an interesting clientele of Northside hipsters, Puerto Ricans, Hasidic Jews, and plenty of crazy times. Yet most nights are mellow with everyone gathered around the TV or pool table.
Hands down my favorite drinking spot is the SOUTHSIDE LOUNGE (41 Broadway, 718-387-3182), an old man’s bar for young people. This extremely comfortable and unpretentious rectangular brick room is quickly becoming known as the neighborhood “conversation” lounge. Whether it’s the cozy, dimly lit, chillin’-in-front-of-the-fireplace feel, the mix of friendly patrons, or the well-informed and hospitable bartenders, the fact is, people are actually communicating—intelligently even. With a great late-night scene that’s rarely too crowded, the tone is set with DJs four nights of the week spinning everything from dub and Britpop, to metal and hard rock. Even sans DJs, the bartenders aurally create a mood that keeps the painted tin roof shimmering, without getting too loud. There’s a happy hour from four to eight with a dollar off all drinks, a superb tequila selection, and frequent warm-weather drink specials like the sweet and tart Maker’s Mark Lemonade ($6).
Finally, a farewell to the ol’ Southside institution Right Bank Café, which sadly closed its door April 1. Those mourning its demise can check out hopping newcomer IVY SOUTH (270 South 5th Street, 718-599-5623), another South Willie-B joint where the cool ain’t quite so chilly.