Birthdays are hard. Of course it’s about you. But really, it’s about everyone else, especially if you’re stepping up to plan the party yourself: whom to invite, whom not to invite, how to congratulate yourself for being born without feeling too self-important, whether to celebrate the day of or wait until the weekend, and most important of all, where to do the damn thing. This is usually where a good watering hole comes in. The right birthday bar perfects a rather unscientific formula (lighting [atmosphere] + alcohol [types x price] + location [proximity to subway/availability of cabs] + things to do other than drinking and talking = good times) that facilitates instant friendships between people meeting for the first time, i.e. all your guests, whose enjoyment you’ve been so worried about. And this, in turn, lets the birthday boy or girl and de facto host relax already, enjoy themselves, and focus on remaining upright after so many free rail whiskey shots.
With all this in mind, we’ve assembled a list of our favorite birthday bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Some of them have drink specials for your special day, one encourages bar dancing, another has disco bocce, and many are simply great bars for a lot of people to spend quality time in, regardless of what day it is. As Ben Franklin didn’t actually say, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” and you should be happy on your birthday.
200 N. 14th St.
After bar mitzvahs, bowling is up there with rollerskating as the birthday party you most wanted to score an invite to in middle school. Of the three, it’s the only one to transcend nostalgia value because it’s damn fun for adults, too; look at the success of the Brooklyn Bowl, for example. But the retro, glamorously shabby Gutter, though about the same price as the Bowl ($40 for an hour versus $20-25 per half hour), has pool tables and trivia on Monday nights (although one Yelp reviewer hopes the host learns to “annunciate” properly), and doesn’t come with a concert you’re not always in the mood for. Plus, the friendly bartenders don’t mind if you can bring your food, e.g. birthday cake.
Bushwick Country Club
618 Grand St.
The pickleback is a polarizing drink. People are either repulsed by the idea of whiskey and pickle juice shots taken back to back or, after trying it for the first time, can’t get enough. For those in either group–which is to say, everyone–the Bushwick Country Club is your spot. Not only did this actual country club (non-members are welcome) invent the pickleback, which they serve with McClure’s pickle juice, they also offer pretty much every fun thing ever invented: a photo booth, a jukebox, a mini golf course with a windmill made of PBR cans, Big Buck Hunter, and a slushie machine that serves Jim Beam-and-Coke Slurpees and frozen sweet tea vodkas. You can bring your own food, including burgers and hot dogs you’re welcome to grill out back in warm weather. And if you bring at least 15 people for some kind of celebration, like your birthday, you drink for free.
555 7th Ave.
Bocce ball, which Greenwood Park is perhaps best known for, is usually a summer activity, but this beer garden tempts in the winter with heat lamps and a fireplace to keep you warm while you play disco bocce. That’s in addition to the 13,000 square feet of room to spill your selection from their impressive numbers of beers on tap, or maybe a $12 pitcher of Narragansett. Greenwood Park is also a bit less scene-y than Williamsburg’s Radegast and technically a bit easier to get to than Bohemian Hall in Queens (accessible via five subway lines instead of two). It’s fun for the whole family!
546 Clinton Ave.
Not to be confused with, randomly, a group of French satellites of the same name–or the famed chicken joint that used to occupy the same space next to an auto body shop on Vanderbilt–Hot Bird sports a fire pit and ample room both indoors and out (smokers, beware of mixed signals: there’s an ashtray outside but multiple No Smoking signs). With delicious hot toddies and picnic tables outdoors, it’s perfect for lots of your friends and family to celebrate you in respectfully freezing and sweltering weather alike. The owners tastefully designed the inside, which features a glowing marquee behind the bar and repurposes old sewing tables as drink stands and garage doors as walls. There’s also a McDonald’s across the street for those late-night, it’s-my-birthday-and-I’ll-eat-junk-food-if-I-want-to munchies, provided Little Brother BBQ next door to Hot Bird is closed for the night.
61 Bergen St.
Like Hot Bird, this spacious former carriage house doesn’t have any birthday specials per se. It’s just a fantastic bar. In fact, you could host your entire birthday there, starting with a dinner of beer pretzels, beer cheese, and bangers and mash, moving on to dessert (if you’re discreet about it, on weekends the bar is usually crowded enough to serve cake you brought), and finishing with the good-humored debauchery brought on by 61 Local’s diverse selection of local microbrews, curated by bar founder and former Sixpoint Craft Ales engineer Dave Liatti. The devil is in the details at 61 Local, from the carboy lamps above the bar to the embroidered sconces and intricate woodwork. Check their Tumblr for events like ice cream tastings or readings from local writers, departures from the usual birthday party boozing and schmoozing.
674 Manhattan Ave.
First things first: Beloved is only accessible via the G (it’s between the Nassau and Manhattan stops), so we won’t blame you if this one is automatically crossed off the list. That said, give it a chance before the MTA’s idiosyncrasies get in the way. At Beloved, tables line the entryway, a dance floor fills the back, and beyond that there’s a great, big, flagstone-lined and ivy-strewn backyard. There’s room for everyone, and even better, the space is practically built so you can excuse yourself from a flagging conversation, whether it be to smoke or dance or talk to the people you really want to talk to. With a rotating cast of resident DJs and dance nights like Ignition, featuring hits from the ’90s, it’s likely you might forgo talking altogether and actually just dance.
Two Bit’s Retro Arcade
153 Essex St.
At Two Bit’s Retro Arcade, you don’t have to worry about all the random, important to semi-important people in your life–college friends, colleagues, second cousins who happen to live in the city, that guy you once dated and for some reason invited to your birthday party–getting along, because the bar’s sheer number and variety of arcade games is bound to keep them occupied. Steer clear of the bar’s heat lamp pizzas in favor of nearby after-hours eateries like Pommes Frites or Empire Biscuit, but do bring lots of quarters for Ms. Pacman, Galaga, Paperboy, and the pinball machines. Should you need even more stimulation for your inner 12-year-old, the Arcade also projects movies onto the back wall.
104 Bayard St.
Fortified by Winnie’s version of the cookie monster shot or the bar’s signature Hawaiian punch, anyone feels like they get away with singing “Birthday Sex,” “It’s My Party,” “The Birthday Song,” or even, maybe, “Happy Birthday,” on the actual day of. Chances are some of the other patrons will join you or ask you to join them at this friendly dive with red leather booths, formica tabletops, and stained glass lamps. Despite its cozy vibe, Winnie’s is also big enough that the tone-deaf birthday party poopers in the back don’t have to sing if they don’t want to.
East End Bar & Grill
1664 1st Ave.
Hopefully your friends wouldn’t dream of letting you buy your own drinks on your birthday, but just in case, trek up the East Side to the East End Bar and Grill. The birthday boy or girl gets unlimited well drinks, and parties of 15 or more can purchase open bar packages ($25 for Bud Light and well drinks, $30 for all call drinks, and $35 for everything but shots and top-shelf Red Bull cocktails) if you call beforehand. East End also offers beer pong, 14 different types of wings, and potent non-birthday specials–look forward to a hungover Thirsty Thursday if your special day happens to fall on Wings, Wine, and Well Wednesday–and an Irish breakfast brunch on the weekend should you somehow find yourself at the same bar 12 hours later.
174 Orchard St.
Bad news first: at the time of publication the Skinny was closed, its website promising only that it would be back “bigger and better in approximately four months” from when doors closed in September of 2013. Fingers crossed it will re-open by the time your birthday rolls around in 2014, because this Lower East Side establishment has one of the best, simplest birthday drink specials in the city: bring at least 15 friends and you drink for free as long as you call the Skinny beforehand. The bar’s long, narrow space–hence the name–and couch area (there’s also a mezzanine) is kind of reminiscent of a party bus setup, except here there’s a bar to dance on.