There's a certain bar and restaurant aesthetic that has emerged in New York in the last half decade. Its epicenter is Brooklyn, but it drifts north to lower Manhattan, too. I've even spotted it as far west as San Francisco, but it was foreign, like a lost expat.
It's a pre-20th century look, urban America circa 1860 to 1890. The same era when Jerry Thomas published the Bar-tenders Guide, the volume most consider the world's first book devoted to cocktails. If you've seen Gangs of New York or Lincoln you wouldn't be far off on how things look. It’s candles and dim lights. If electricity is absolutely necessary, it’s bare Edison bulbs or milk glass fixtures. Zinc counters and mirrors with faded silver. Wallpaper and taxidermy. Bartenders with waxed mustaches. I am not making this up; there are guys here waxing their mustaches.
Sometimes it's shtick. But sometimes, like at the latest bar to open in my neighborhood, Henry Public, it feels contemporary, normal, of the moment.
At Henry Public, they stir drinks. Besides creating silkier drinks and being a nice way to see the drink change color — they use glass pitchers — it has another benefit. You can talk to your bartender while they stir. Shaking a drink is loud, it interrupts everything.
They taste drinks before serving. This is common practice at most serious bars these days, or at least the ones who take themselves seriously (maybe too seriously). The bartender dips a straw in, tops it with their finger to reserve some, pulls it out and slips it in their mouth, sips, throws the straw away. They nod and give you your drink, or furrow their brow and remake it.
On the bar: shot glasses filled with fruit peels and matches to light them and tooth picks,
On the bar: covered glass jars with sugar, olives, etc and whole fresh fruit in enameled tin bowls. You can see the ingredients.
Like at many bars, the beer taps are black enamel, unnamed, on top of a gorgeous mottled brass.
Besides a couple small recessed lights, the bottles behind the bar are lit with candles. They're tucked in among the bottles. In front of a bottle, behind a bottle, two at a time at the edge of a shelf. Their light makes the glass look shapely and beautiful. But as much as anything else, they make you feel lost in time, forgetful, ready to order another.
I wrote this originally three years ago, in 2010, and since then the Civil War look and feel, honed in Brooklyn, has become very national and, to some extent, a cliche. Some of the practices have passed (mercifully, waxed mustaches). Some, like tasting drinks before serving and putting ingredients on display, have thankfully become more common.
329 Henry St