Here’s what happens when a trendy new joint pops up in a traditionally non-trendy neighborhood: People gotta hate. But still, the opening of Greenpoint’s somewhat confusingly named Manhattan Inn late last year has caused a particularly histrionic level of pro/con noise. In the first few months of its existence, the spot had been described to me as both “the awesomest new bar in Brooklyn” and “a horrifying hipster clusterfuck.”
It was musicians doing the talking; one averred that the Manhattan Inn is known among Brooklyn rockers as a veritable “Pitchfork come to life.” Tightly connected to the local scene via owners Brooke Baxter and Rolyn Hu (the duo behind Williamsburg venue Glasslands Gallery), the place boasts a pantheon of recognizable regulars: Within a few weeks, I spot members of Au Revoir Simone, MGMT, Cobra Starship, Grizzly Bear, Neon Indian, School of Seven Bells, Suckers, Chairlift, Amazing Baby, and Das Racist, some of whom DJ late-night dance parties there. (Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber himself has also been known to stop by.)
Clientele aside, the Manhattan Inn is a simple piano bar and restaurant set in a Manhattan Avenue space just off the Nassau G train stop. Glasslands installation artist Evan Haslegrave designed the interior in that old-timey, salvage-heavy way that Brooklynites seem to love; elegant cocktails and farm-to-table food are served while you lounge in bucket-seat banquettes. The dining room is arranged around a gorgeous white grand piano, which ragtime players use to entertain guests in the early evenings, and groups of friends use to hold drinks while they dance later that night.
“We don’t want people to think they’re in some snooty environment,” explains Baxter. “We want people to be able to relax and not feel like it’s a scene or something.” But the demi-famous crowd does stress out some patrons: “I honestly felt like I was in the middle of a Hollywood movie about the Williamsburg music scene,” says one neighborhood dweller—a musician himself—of his first and only visit. “I felt this unbelievable sensation of not being cool.”
I’m too intrigued not to see for myself: Elizabeth Harper, Greenpoint resident and lead singer of the electro-pop band Class Actress, offers to serve as a tour guide. We convene at 11 p.m. on a Thursday, the night Will Roan and Simon O’Connor of space-rock band Amazing Baby DJ a party called Love Deluxe. Harper falls squarely in the “pro” camp: When I find her at the bar, she explains that this is easily her favorite neighborhood spot, a place where Brooklyn bands show up and connect with their friends. It is a scene, she insists—a fun one. “It’s like the ’80s,” she adds, perhaps hopefully: Tonight, she’s got sprayed-aside bangs dropping into pearlescent eye shadow in various blues and grays, angular swoops of mauve blush on her cheeks, fire-engine-red lips, huge gold earrings, an oversize man-tailored shirt sliding off one shoulder, and . . . she reaches over and claps my notebook shut: “Just take it in,” she says.
So that’s what I do. “Oh, good!” Harper shouts, hopping off her barstool after a glance at her iPhone. “The boys are on their way.” These include Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor (who helms Harper’s label, Terrible Records) and singer-songwriter Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. They arrive separately and greet each other like fraternity brothers might, jumping up and down while bro-hugging repeatedly, which might be off-putting to an outsider, though that’d be true of any group of anonymous friends in a neighborhood bar. Which these guys aren’t, exactly: They haven’t seen each other for a while because they’ve been on tour, in the studio, doing magazine photo shoots, or some other ostensibly glamorous thing. “Oh, yeah,” agrees Taylor, who is wearing a Patrik Ervell pullover. “It’s like Band Fest 2010 in here.”
Harper leads us all to the back room, where O’Connor is spinning ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” a song that Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, who is Harper’s best friend, has sung with MGMT. There’s dancing, drinking, chatting, flirting. I bump into Quinn Walker, singer for the band Suckers, which Baxter manages on the side. By now, the music has changed to something disco-y that we don’t recognize. Walker picks out the riff on the piano, and I join in. We kick the bench out of the way and get on our knees side by side, jamming percussively along with the music, laughing uncontrollably. Around 2:30 a.m., the guys from Das Racist roll in, with rapper El-P in tow: They announce they are high on liquid acid and mushrooms, and proceed to cause a stir. Suddenly, I realize I am having a really fun time.
Holding court in the DJ booth, O’Connor talks about his first concert—Nirvana, and he’s wearing the yellowed, holey T-shirt to prove it—before admitting that, like Harper, he’s convinced there’s something really special about this place in time. As he puts it, “I feel like our River Phoenix is going to die here.” The comment is overheard, twisted, and whispered repeatedly until, finally, a volunteer emerges: Robinson. “Hi, I’m the one who’s going to die,” he says, offering a friendly handshake. He’s wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt tonight, but I can’t stop thinking about a YouTube video I saw of him in a performance at South by Southwest, wearing the words “Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson Is Dead” on his chest. That’s when I realize it’s late. Very late. I can’t find Harper anywhere before I head down the block to a car service; I text her to say thanks, and she texts back: “Sorry, I was in Boyland!”
A couple mornings later, I return to the scene—this time, for brunch. I’m slumped into one of the tables in the back room, reading the paper over perfectly poached eggs while Michael Leviton, frontman for Williamsburg band the New Jerk Times, tinkles showtunes on the piano. The sun pours in from a large skylight; there’s little sign of the balling and partying that surely went on in this very room just a few hours earlier. When a server freshens my Bloody Mary without my asking, I come to yet another realization: I like it here.