The bars I’ve loved for the past 20 years—from the Metro-North Bar Car I fell for as a teenager riding the commuter train to New York City to the little neighborhood bar in Brooklyn where I work one day shift every week—have given me many valuable things: a strong sense of community, places where I don’t have to dress up or make small talk or be anything but myself, and lessons in art, literature, sports—and listening—from my fellow bar patrons.
There’s a certain look that I tend to respond to in bars. I like a timeless bar, one that looks like something out of an Edward Hopper painting, with tiled floors and dark wood and big windows for watching the people out in the street. (A corner bar is especially good for people watching.) I don’t like anything too done-up, overthought, overdesigned. I appreciate a patiently poured pint of Guinness, and cocktails made with a little love and attention. I’m eternally grateful for clean restrooms. And for bartenders who keep an eye on all their patrons, and who make sure that no one is letting their own good time get in the way of anyone else’s.
But two things are most important. The first is hardest to capture in words, almost ineffable. It is, essentially, the genius loci of a bar—the spirit of a place. You either feel it right away, or it’s just not there. It’s the singular energy that animates a bar, that distinguishes it from all others, that marks it as a place entirely its own. (If you ever have the good fortune to visit The Man of Kent, in the tiny town of Hoosick Falls in upstate New York, you’ll know just what I mean: You walk in, and straightaway you know that this bar is unlike any other.)
The other most important factor is the people. Above all else, people make or break a bar. A great bar always has a mix of patrons, young and old, male and female, rich and not rich, working all sorts of jobs, coming from different worlds, different professions, and different sensibilities.
The Liquor Store, in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood was one place that passed these two tests. It’s long gone, and its former home has, to the heartbreak of many of us former regulars, become a J. Crew store, with the bar intact, just to torture us a little. It sat on the sunny southeast corner of West Broadway and White Street, in a whitewashed federal-era building with a gambrel roof. I drank there in the late 1990s in the company of artists, students, burlesque revivalists, businessmen, editors, a tugboat captain, a cab driver, electricians, cooks, and craftsmen.
Sometimes it felt like a bar equivalent of Noah’s Ark, with two of everyone. And that’s exactly what bars are for: Bringing together people who might never otherwise meet, uniting us only because we all value whatever it is that makes that particular bar special. No other social space gives us that gift.