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America's Retro Revival

Julian Brizzi pouring a Good Word cocktail at Prime Meats, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo: Anna Bauer

I’ll wager you two bits your bartender’s wearing muttonchops and a waistcoat. If not you should ask for your money back, order your Sazerac elsewhere.

A decade into the 21st century, much of the populace seems to believe it’s the late 19th to mid-20th. Look around: at the schoolhouse lamps and Edison bulbs illuminating so many trendy haunts; at the grandmotherly comfort food we’re ordering for dinner; at our unquenchable thirst for arcane cocktails. Some nights it’s like the whole nation’s been doused in rye whiskey and sepia ink. Bamboo sprouts in Aalto vases give way to daisies in rusted tomato cans; aluminum Navy chairs to scuffed bentwoods. Rough is the new sleek, aged the new new.

Man. Remember the Future? Bright and shiny and prefixed with an i? How we embraced its clean lines, its space-age polymers, its lychee saketinis! The Future seems so last year. The Past is now. You could spend a weekend in any American city and never once enter the present tense, flitting from one time capsule to the next: fin de siècle–themed cocktail dens; rusticated taverns straight out of Melville; supper clubs serving “hamburger sandwiches.” The twenties are a favorite trope—witness the plethora of Joe-sent-me joints with giveaway names like Bugsy’s Speakeasy (Cleveland), Bathtub Gin & Co. (Seattle), and the umpteen bars nationwide called Prohibition.

That this is a particularly urban phenomenon is curious. Once we looked to our cities for a vision of what was next. (For what came before, we had small towns.) Today’s metropolis is beginning to look a lot like Mayberry. Or Deadwood.

From Buckhead to Belltown, Williamsburg to Wicker Park, restaurateurs, hoteliers, shopkeepers, and saloon owners are turning back their salvaged grandfather clocks and decking the walls with bison heads and owl lithographs. Meanwhile, every indie musician has stolen his look from the cover of the Band’s first album. The hills are alive with the corduroy tones of Beard Rock.

Fashion, too, has discovered its inner Grover Cleveland. The designs of Billy Reid—whose boutique empire stretches from Charleston to Dallas—would have looked just as dashing on your great-grandfather, although that plaid car coat would’ve set him back eight months’ wages. The New York restaurant Freemans has made a cultlike brand of natty nostalgia, spawning its own menswear line, an antiquated barbershop, and a “sutlery” (what Lewis & Clark called a clothing store). Even J.Crew, Levi’s, and Fossil have gotten in on the olde-tyme Americana game, with campaigns evoking some grainy bygone era.


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