There’s nothing quite like walking into a bar at the edge of nowhere: You just don’t know what to expect when the tumbleweeds start blowing—or when the folks at Citysearch and Zagat haven’t deemed your destination worthy of “discovery.” And with even the seediest of dives populated by slumming celebrities, you have to wonder why these relatively unknown outposts suffer such anonymity. But don’t you want to know? Leave the derivative dens to the followers and trek to what we at Liquid City like to call Badland Bars. You’ll swear you hear the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly whistling in the distance.
To their credit, the reviewers at Shecky’s actually visited the DISTINGUISHED WAKAMBA LOUNGE (543 Eighth Avenue, no phone number), but they were so disturbed by what they found, they called it “right above self-lobotomy and just below swimming in sewage.” What did this breezy little spot—located adjacent to a Gray’s Papaya and a DVD porn palace on an admittedly sullied midtown strip—do to deserve such notoriety? Well, for one thing, the Wakamba was the site of a drug sting resulting in the murder of an innocent man: Undercover cops fatally shot 26-year-old Patrick Dorismond after allegedly (and unsuccessfully) trying to buy crack from him here. But macabre past aside, a recent trip to the Wakamba found its only crime to be overpriced bottles of Budweiser ($5). The bar was surprisingly whimsical, with nautical nets strewn about and sea creatures dangling from the ceiling, not to mention faux palm trees and touches of tiki thatch. Attentive Latina bartenders in scintillating outfits served us glasses with our brews and plates of peanuts too, to the top of which they thoughtfully applied extra salt. And while DT undercovers still seem to populate the place (witness the late-night blue-collar clientele), so do the more adventurous fashion plates who work in the garment district.
The GOLD RUSH BAR AND GRILL (491 Tenth Avenue, 212-244-5165) looks like a giant shack that belongs in the Wild West, and with its desolate Lincoln Tunnel locale it might as well be the final frontier. It may also be the only bar in the city with a waterwheel (but, alas, no water). As is, it’s got a sweet view of the Empire State’s spire, and some scantily clad bartenders (check out in-nyc.com/barmaids) who like to shimmy on the bartop from time to time. The dance numbers aren’t exactly what you’d call polished—but at least the girls pretend to be having a good time, pouring free shots of tequila down the throats of firemen, Javits Center workers, and other guys plying themselves with alcohol before the commute home to Jersey. And if it weren’t such a sausage factory, the Gold Rush would be totally fun, with lots of games (including the longest shuffleboard we’ve ever seen) and relatively inexpensive beers ($2.50 Rheingolds; $4.50 Heinekens; comped shots of these weird purple vodka concoctions).
MOTO (394 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-599-6895, circa1938.com) used to be a check-cashing place but you wouldn’t know it now. While the flatiron-shaped café-bar is located on the outskirts of South Williamsburg under the elevated JMZ line—literally considered the wrong tracks by L-train-riding hipsters—it’s by far the classiest establishment reviewed in this column. A colleague calls its look “retro-futurism,” maybe because its ancient apothecary-like interior (smoky mirrors, marble-topped tables, caged light bulbs) is offset by gleaming metal—the beer taps are actually refitted bike parts. But most people venture to the hushed environs of Moto for the hot-and-crusty panini ($7) and $5-6 pints of imported beer, including rich, chocolaty Corsendonk. And judging by the arty crowd who packed the place on a recent Tuesday night, it’s not going to stay a Badland Bar for very long.