New York has become a place where we drink $15 cocktails without blinking, and we expect our ice to be of a certain look and shape. And in that environment, I like dive bars for the same reason I like leaving voicemails: they’re personal, and they’re old school.
Much like your favorite pair of jeans or your apartment’s shower, the relationship between you and your regular dive bar is a highly personal one. It takes time, energy, trust, and finances to build that relationship, and with the best places, you pour your resources (and sometimes emotions) in, and the bar embraces you. It’s not just a place to hang your coat, it’s a second living room. This is why I imbibe most frequently in the East Village, despite the fact that I live in Brooklyn. And just like Seinfeld reruns or Revolver, my bar is always there for me when I need it. My bar is Big Bar (75 East 7th Street, 212 777-6969).
Big Bar is, actually, quite small, about the size of a small studio apartment. Ten people inside makes it feel crowded, though not overly so. It’s very comfortable, with no rickety chairs, though you will find a semi-circle bar on the left and a few well-worn booths on the right. That means its always cozy, whether you stop in at 5 p.m. on a weeknight or 4 a.m. on a weekend. And the bathroom might be the smallest in the city.
The joint’s personality is that of an early 1990s Los Angeles singer-songwriter (think Tom Waits); the red lights, black and white color scheme, and small, cheap circular mirrors make it feel a little like a discarded Swingers soundstage. And fittingly, the bar was opened in 1990 by brothers Walter and Raymond Lycholat. Born and raised just down the street in what was then defined as the Lower East Side, the brothers opened the bar “in order to make a living and have a place to go,” says Raymond. “It was a shady neighborhood back then. You would find crack vials outside the door every night until ’95 or ’96, when Giuliani came.”
But while the neighborhood has changed, the service here hasn’t — it’s still friendly and laid back and great. The first time I stopped by, a guy was smoking a cigarette just outside the door. “You guys coming in for a drink?” he asked as we approached.
“Yeah,” we said.
“Cool, I’ll be in in just a minute, make yourselves comfortable,” he said. Here, I’m happy to wait on the bartender finishing his smoke.
Once, after a long night of seeing Sigur Ros play for three hours, my friend Liam and I ventured into the singular window booth, and after repeatedly asking if we could smoke (inside the bar), I fell asleep at the table. Stefan Rak, longtime bartender and now an owner, politely asked us to leave, without a voice raised or finger thrown. Just a few days later, he was happy to see us again and ask, exactly, what we were doing that evening. Like I said, a living room.
Big Bar also gets its music right. The bartenders — there’s never more than one on duty — choose their own playlists, which contain a range from De La Soul to John Zorn. On a good night, you’ll find bartender Dax Carson, who’s a DJ on off nights, selecting the music on a whim throughout the evening.
Drinking at Big Bar is not complicated; bartenders make just about anything you want fairly decently, and the place has only one beer on tap (Blue Point Lager). I usually go for a Campari on the rocks or, if in an adventurous mood, a freshly made margarita.
But then, you shouldn’t come here for the drinks. You should come for conversation and to relax and to enjoy the best of the quickly diminishing East Village.