John Tebeau lives the kind of life you thought was extinct in New York City. He spends three days a week behind the bar at Red Hook’s Fort Defiance, tending to a cast of regulars and visitors, many of whom have wandered in after a trip to IKEA, in dire need of booze. When he’s not at Fort Defiance, Tebeau’s in his Brooklyn Heights studio working as a freelance illustrator. He combines his two areas of expertise in his new book, Bars, Taverns, and Dives New Yorkers Love: Where to Go, What to Drink, which features his hand-drawn renderings of fifty bars from around the five boroughs, along with recipes and short essays on all things hospitality: whether to sit at the bar or a table, advice on engaging with your fellow drinkers, and quotes overheard at his regular Atlantic Avenue tavern, ChipShop.
The importance of a good bar was established in his life early on, as a kid in North Muskegon, Michigan. “It was normal for my parents to go out to taverns and stuff, to see their friends and have a few beers, so it was always normal for them to bring the kids, because it was the Seventies and Eighties,” he tells me over drinks at Brooklyn Inn, one of the bars featured in the book. “Kids would play pool and Pac-Man and shuffleboard, and the parents would hang out and bullshit, and everyone would eat together.”
When asked about the distinctions between the categories he names in his book’s title — bars, taverns, dives — he explains that bars are drinks-forward, a tavern serves food, and a dive is, well, a dive. You know one when you see one, yet Tebeau believes they can be further sorted into two categories: “There’s one type that’s a disreputable bar that has unsavory clientele, something like that,” he says, “but the other kind of dive is an unassuming local bar that serves reasonably priced drinks to locals.” The best in Brooklyn, according to him, is Red Hook’s Brooklyn Ice House. “It’s got a surprisingly good kitchen,” he notes, while declining to out any of the “bad dives” by name.
Tebeau, who moved to Brooklyn after spending time in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, and Manhattan, had gotten some attention for his drawings of Brooklyn bars after showing them at Fort Defiance and Long Island Bar. The publisher, though, wanted to cover the entire city, which led him to spots in Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx that he chose through a method of polling friends and scouring the internet. But Brooklyn is the most broadly and deeply represented, with twenty-one bars. The Bronx and Queens each get four, Staten Island six, and Manhattan fifteen.
“Population-wise, it’s huge,” he says. “Queens and Brooklyn are the most populous, so there’s just going to be more people and more bars because of it. There’s definitely a good locals bar feel here. And also because I live here. What gives me the right to decide that most of the favorite bars are in Brooklyn? Nothing. It’s kind of a personal book that way.”
Each bar gets a section dedicated to Tebeau’s notes concerning what to drink and eat, how to get there, and even where to sit. One essay offers helpful tips for maintaining “ballast,” noting that “alcohol is a toxin, my friends, and can extract a steep price: the wrath of the booze gods, brought down upon you brutally, like Thor’s mighty hammer itself. This book is about the joy of social tippling, not getting spring-break wasted, so be smart and keep it fun.” Starch, fat, and salt are highly recommended, as is a post-drinking slice.
Tebeau is careful, in the book and in person, not to use the word “best” about his selection; these are simply his favorites, and the method was unscientific. And because of the nature of New York real estate, there were apparently fifty-three chosen spots: While working on the book, Tebeau had three bars in his back pocket to replace those that made the initial cut but might close while it was still in production.
“The whole time I was writing the book, I was expecting some place to close before I finished it. That didn’t happen — out of fifty bars, in five boroughs, none closed while I was working on the book,” he says. “Then it went to the printers, and one closed [Red Lantern Bicycles]. In ten years, some people will look at the book and more places will probably be closed. It’s a moment in time.” McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened in 1854, has been around the longest.
This is a common refrain in the world of watering holes: When Amanda Schuster, editor-in-chief of the website The Alcohol Professor, was writing last year’s New York Cocktails, the potential for closures was constantly on her mind, and three have shut down since her book hit the market last September. “Mayahuel was the first to close, announced just before the book was released,” she says. “Then we lost my beloved August Laura in Carroll Gardens around Thanksgiving. Though not officially a cocktail bar, Sunken Hundred is closing in a couple of weeks.”
Many factors are at fault, according to Schuster. While no one expected Mayahuel, an iconic agave spirits bar, to shutter, the others were a bit too offbeat to survive the current New York City economy.
“August Laura and Sunken Hundred are both tragic circumstances of trying to keep a business afloat in an economy that doesn’t favor creativity in less-traveled sections of a mostly residential neighborhood with tons of competing businesses,” she says. “The people who truly appreciate those kinds of venues — a quirky neighborhood bar focused on esoteric Italian ingredients and an upscale, authentic coastal Welsh restaurant with a seaweed martini — aren’t the same people who can afford to visit them regularly. People with deeper pockets favor their more famous neighbors. Even if you fill every seat a night in a great cocktail bar in south Brooklyn, it’s tough to get ahead unless the seats constantly turn over. Not filling them is death.”
And so we can expect that Tebeau’s book might soon be more time capsule than guidebook. It could be saved, though, by its catholic approach to the city’s bars, giving equal space to brewery tasting rooms and neighborhood places in New Brighton rather than focusing on the hyped cocktail go-tos. His approachable writing can remind even the most hardened regulars why they find themselves darkening the same door night after night, and the bright, bold illustration style brings a soft, awestruck eye to common sights. It gives you access to a friendly bartender without leaving the house — but might also get you to hop the ferry to Staten Island and talk to whoever’s on the next stool. You’ll want this book, like your chosen local pub, to stick around.