“Basically, ever since I started bartending, I’ve been trying to open this perfect idea for a cocktail bar,” says Matthew Piacentini, the former owner of the Beagle and current owner of Portland’s lauded Clyde Common. “Each place gets a little closer, but not quite there.” Until now, that is. In February, he’ll unveil the Up & Up (116 MacDougal Street, 212-260-3000) in Greenwich Village, taking over a subterranean address that was once the Gaslight Cafe, a storied Beat haunt. “Bob Dylan wrote ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ about this space,” says the owner.
Piacentini got his start in the hospitality business working on Clyde Common, the restaurant for the first Ace Hotel in Portland; he became a partner — “a shoulder to cry on,” he says — to Nate Tilden, who was tasked with building the place. He didn’t tend bar at the time, but he put together the bones of the beverage program and the wine list. “My expertise was sitting on the other side of the bar and knowing if it was good,” he says.
In 2008, he moved back to New York and decided to learn how to bartend. He took a job as barback at Bar Milano (or ‘inoteca e Liquori bar), and worked his way up to manager. When he left, he opened the Beagle, his first attempt at a cocktail bar, which happened to have a very large kitchen, and so became a bit more of a restaurant. He sold that place in November 2013, and he’s been working on the Up & Up ever since.
Now that he finally has his real bar space, he says he can really focus on opening a bar. “We can finally put all our energies into the bar and not have to worry about everything else,” he says. “It’s like a director finally getting to do that script he’s been working on for all these years.”
But given the transition that’s happening in the industry, Piacentini also says he’s glad it’s taken this long. “There was this specific subset of super-serious cocktail bar, and that’s gone through a lot of growing pains,” he says. “It’s now at this turning point — there are enough people who know how to make really good drinks, enough people who want really good drinks, and enough places to get really good drinks. You can get a great old-fashioned, with hand-cut ice, at many bars and restaurants. So skill is not the only thing that sets new bars apart. There are a lot of places now saying, ‘We’re not so serious.’ The actual skill of hospitality has become important. Being a good bartender is more than just making really good drinks.”
Hospitality is what he hopes will set the Up & Up apart. He envisions it as a space for everyone, where drinkers will feel comfortable whether they’re bellied up to the bar and geeking out about spirits, or sitting in a corner sipping a beer. “It’s high end but low key,” he says. “We take what we do very seriously, but we’re not taking ourselves very seriously. We’re trying to get the feel of that old bar. People go to dive bars because they’re comfortable and no one’s going to judge them. The bartender is going to help them out if they’re feeling low. We want to offer that feeling, but with a product that is superlative, on par with what you’d expect to find in places that might intimidate you.”
The Up & Up will not look like a dive bar, however. Piacentini is installing vintage floral wallpaper as a feminine counterpoint to brown leather banquettes, marble tabletops, and brass light fixtures. Many of the elements, he says, were inspired by an old watch. But he hopes that despite the aesthetic (or perhaps because of it), the place will have a self-possession that says it’s cool with whatever.
Piacentini has enlisted Chaim Dauermann as head bartender here; the pair have worked together since Piacentini was heading Bar Milano. “Chaim and I first bartended together at the Liquori bar, and he took over after I left to do the Beagle,” says Piacentini. “We bonded very quickly over our love of gin and scotch and our general adoration of spirits. While I was at the Beagle, Chaim was working in and running some great and varied programs, where he had a lot of experience with different kinds of guests and different styles of service, without ever compromising his exacting standards. So when it came time for the Up & Up, he was the obvious choice for head bartender for a place that wanted to maintain a very high bar but feel welcome to everyone.”
As for the drinks list, look for four categories. Originals will be Up & Up creations. Favorites will be old and new classics. “We’ve worked at a lot of places with a lot of people, and we’d like to put some of those drinks back on this menu,” says Piacentini. Halfies will be half-sized cocktails, or “craft shots,” says the bartender. And then there will be a cocktail version of bottle service, a handful of stirred, foundational classics made according to the specific preference of an industry personality, chilled and ready behind the bar for groups that decide they want to share a large-format drink.
There will be some food, but the menu will be small — just meat, cheese, tinned seafood, preserves, and pâtés.
Look for the place to come online in mid February.