Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Beer at...169 Bar

Some readers at Eater objected to my featuring the Lower East Side's 169 Bar in my "A Beer At..." column, arguing that it was too well known and trafficked to rate as an "anonymous watering hole." True, it's had more write-ups than some of the taverns I've featured in this series. But if someone's recently elevated it to the pantheon of Gotham drinking halls, I missed it.

A Beer at...169 Bar

A friend of mine who should know said the 169 Bar, which sits on a foreboding corner of East Broadway where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown, has the personality of a New Orleans bar. I can see that. The place gives off that slightly off-kilter eccentricity and good-time atmosphere I've encountered at a number of Big Easy drinking holes. Chinese lanterns; $5 Tarot card readings; a pool table with leopard-skin felt; television sets that play "Dr. Strangelove" and some peculiar movie with talking badgers, rats and iguanas. It's kooky, but in a casual way.

An aquarium is occupied by a single, huge, pale orange fish. A sign taped to the outside reads: "Hello, my name is Jeff. I'm a fish. I know you think it's funny as shit, but I don't drink beer, cocktails or shots. If you see anyone pouring a drink in my tank, could you do me a favor and punch them in the face?"

Perhaps the confusion about the fish's dietary preferences is owing to the Patron bottle which functions as a sort of filter at the bottom of the tank. There are lots of empty old Patron bottles around the low-ceiling place. "It's what the owner drinks," explained the young bartender, who had a face so sweet and innocent she could have been a farmer's daughter. (The owner is a New Orleans native—wouldn't you know it.) The patrons at 169 are similarly youthful, though they look like they've seen a fair bit of life in their time. Few of them would look out of place at a roadhouse. This is a significant shift, no doubt, from the days when this former dive serviced what Bowery bums there were left in the city. (Some accounts place a bar here as far back as 80 years ago.)

Perhaps as a nod to 169's former clientele, the bar boasts an archetypal array of canned, blue-collar brews. Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schaefer's, Schmidt's, Piel's. Stroh's, Schlitz. Every old man beer you thought was long dead—it's here, with plenty of salted peanuts in the shell to make you thirsty for more. Old-style rotary fans, mounted upside-down behind the bar, keep everything cool. The only indication that the happy vibe here every gets interrupted are the signs pleading for help in fighting the local community board. 169 Bar wants to open its backyard garden, but it has been thwarted by people who "live in billion $ condos, two doors away. Apparently, the low murmur of the dirty renting masses, consorting in that dirty way we do, would be two [sic] much an effrontery."

I hear you, 169. Keep fighting that good, dirty fight. The bums of yesteryear would want you to.
—Robert Simonson

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