America's Retro Revival
As bars, shops, and restaurants across the country draw inspiration from olde-tyme Americana, T+L ponders the next Gilded Age.
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.
Why this obsession with the aesthetics of the past? Has a whole generation of men simply realized they look strapping in arm garters? The movement is driven largely by urban males, seeking a non-mockable model of masculinity and finding it in the mustaches and bitter liquors of their forebears. But the retro revival transcends gender, intersecting conveniently with the get-back rootsiness of the green movement: it is, after all, a natural extension of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle, fetishizing a lifestyle that’s literally hand-sewn and homegrown. The music, the clothing, the furnishings, the food and drink all celebrate the organic over the synthetic, the artisanal over the prefab. No doubt the trend also reflects a collective desire to unearth something we lost, forgot, or never had in the first place: our noble ideals of craftsmanship and honest work and, especially potent among city dwellers, the memory—real or imagined—of small-town America. There are reasons why Norman Rockwell is enjoying a revival.
The anachronistas are historically promiscuous, seldom faithful to one era alone. Like an iPod set on shuffle-by-decade, they can’t decide if they’re channeling Walt Whitman, Scott Joplin, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or just mashing up all three. At most of these taverns and taprooms and haberdashers and sutleries, the only requirement is that everything be convincingly, indeterminately old.
Or at least appear so. The funny thing—given how much disused historic architecture languishes in American cities, begging for reinvention—is how many of these sepia-toned establishments are in fact brand-new, carved out of, say, a former Blockbuster Video. Their tin ceilings are no more genuine than those distressed-leather wing chairs from Restoration Hardware, and that warbly Sidney Bechet recording is no dusty 78 but an MP3 enhanced with the “vinyl crackle” effect. Walk into New York’s Bowery Hotel, all musty taxidermy and worn plank floors, and you’d swear it was a landmarked building. It was constructed five years ago. We may not know much about history, but we’ve become uncannily adept at faking it. Ah, well: authenticity, schmauthenticity. Another round, bartender—give us something nice and aged.
The top dogs of the new (old) breed.
Prohibition 56 E. Andrews Dr.; no phone; prohibitionatl.com
Brewer’s Art 1106 N. Charles St.; 410/547-6925
The Beehive 541 Tremont St.; 617/423-0069
In God We Trust 135 Wythe Ave.; 718/388-2012
Prime Meats 465 Court St.; 718/254-0327
Billy Reid 150 King St.; 843/577-3004
Violet Hour 1520 N. Damen Ave.; 773/252-1500
Bugsy’s Speakeasy 1948 W. 25th St., basement; 216/661-7070
The Edison 108 W. Second St.; 213/613-0000
Seven Grand 515 W. Seventh St., second floor; 213/614-0737
The Varnish 118 E. Sixth St.; 213/622-9999
Patterson House 1711 Division St.; 615/636-7724
New York City
The Breslin 1186 Broadway; 646/214-5788
Bowery Hotel 335 Bowery; 212/505-9100
East Side Social Club 230 E. 51st St.; 212/355-9442
Freemans Sporting Club 8 Rivington St.; 212/673-3209
Village Whiskey 118 S. 20th St.; 215/665-1088
Bourbon & Branch 501 Jones St., no phone; register at bourbonandbranch.com for password
Rickhouse Bar 246 Kearny St.; 415/398-2827
Bathtub Gin & Co. 2205 Second Ave.; 206/728-6069
Tavern Law 1406 12th Ave.; 206/322-9734
With its jukebox, vintage pool table, plaid carpeting, and mounted game trophies, Seven Grand has a distinct, old lodge vibe. Serious imbibers are attracted to the impressive selection of nearly 300 premium whiskeys, rare ryes, and small-batch bourbons. Although crowds are common (especially when there’s live music), the atmosphere is relaxed and civilized. Chat up the knowledgeable bartenders about whiskey origins and cocktail recipes.
Once home to downtown L.A.’s first power plant, this cavernous two-story speakeasy still has plenty of buzz (and not just because of the electrical relics and vintage lightbulb chandeliers hanging around the bar). Here, guests lounge on overstuffed leather chaises, sipping single-malt Lowland scotch and waiting for the cutesy aerial acrobat performances that take place every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after 9 p.m.
Below the Boston Center for the Arts' historic Cyclorama sits The Beehive, an underground eatery, bar, and music venue. Local artwork lines the exposed brick walls of the space, where chef Rebecca Newell serves rustic comfort food with a touch of European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern influences. Menu items include seared duck breast with plum sauce; short rib, Farmhouse cheddar and fontina grilled cheese; and Moroccan couscous with chicken and lamb. The bartenders stir up unique cocktails like the Valentino martini (vodka, blood orange, and passion fruit), and live entertainment keeps the place bustling every night until 2 a.m.
Freemans Sporting Club
Although it opened in 2004, walking into this custom tailor/barber/apothecary is like stepping into a 19th-century gentlemen's stockist. Started by a group of outdoorsmen with admittedly sophisticated urban sensibilities who hang out at the hip neo-tavern Freemans next door, the Club offers men the opportunity to be fussed over and fitted for a bespoke suit or belt, and to pick up wool work shirts with a tailored edge. And if he's a man who has everything, he can step into the back room for a classic indulgence: the barbershop shave.
Tip: Pick up Freemans' most iconic piece of clothing, the Shacket—an unlined jacket finished with French seams and available off the rack.
Downtown's hoteliers Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson took the raw spirit of the Bowery and transformed it into this luxe boutique hotel, which houses the chic watering hole The Lobby Bar as well as the restaurant Gemma. It's a great venue for events and weddings, too.
Bourbon & Branch
You’ll have to jump through plenty of hoops to drink at this nouveau speakeasy. After reserving a table online, you’re emailed a secret password to give at the door—and even once you’re inside, there are persnickety house rules to follow (no name-dropping, no cameras, no Cosmos). It would all seem utterly ridiculous if it weren’t for the payoff: spectacular artisanal cocktails that are actually worth the trouble. Along with “classic and forgotten” drinks, there’s a menu of house specials including the Pomegranate Ginger (a concoction of gin, fresh-squeezed pomegranate and lime juices, and fresh-grated ginger); and the Marmalade Whiskey Sour (bourbon, lemon, homemade orange marmalade and orange bitters, shaken together with a smidge of egg white). An unexpected plus is the atmosphere, which is low-key and friendly. Maybe rules aren’t such a bad thing after all.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room
Hidden inside Cole's French dip restaurant, this cocktail den has a Prohibition-era feel, with dimly glowing wall sconces, flocked wallpaper, and an upright piano for live jazz sessions. The handcrafted vintage drinks, like the Monte Carlo, harken back to the early 20th century and set the standard for mixology in L.A.
Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo—known collectively by the Brooklyn culinary cognoscenti as “The Franks”—hold court at this hipster-Germanic bistro in the borough’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. Big plates of choucroute and sausages, a charming room of dark wood and soft lighting, and creative cocktails (try a minty-medicinally sweet Waterfront) explain the long waits and devoted followers.
The new cocktail lounge, from Toby Maloney and Jason Cott of New York City’s Rusty Knot, pays tribute to the pre-Prohibition era by serving turn-of-the-century-inspired drinks such as the gin-and-rosewater-spiked Juliet + Romeo.
This Buckhead cigar bar has the allure of a 1920’s speakeasy, complete with a “hidden” location and exclusive access. Outside the entrance sits an antique red London phone booth, where patrons must enter the secret code before they are allowed through the door. Claim a swanky leather sofa beneath the warm lighting after ordering cocktails. Prohibition's mixologists skillfully prepare “prescriptions” such as Gin Gin Mules and Ramos Fizzes, but they can also whip up something personalized to pair with mussels or calamari from co-owned neighbor, Cellar 56.
In God We Trust
Opened in July 2011 on Bedford Avenue right between the L train stop and McCarren Park, the newest location of this Brooklyn based company features their full collection of retro-inspired women’s and men’s clothing, jewelry, and other accessories, most of which is hand-made up the block in owner-designer Shana Tabor’s Greenpoint studio. Many items are unconventional, like the silver flask etched with a skull, crossbones, and the word poison. Or jewelry necklaces stamped with off-color phrases. Engraving, hand-stamping, and other customization of jewelry and gifts is available.
The designs of Billy Reid—whose boutique empire stretches from Charleston to Dallas—would have looked just as dashing on your great-grandfather.
East Side Social Club
Arrive early or late to this dimly lit spot to avoid waiting hours for a barstool. With shelf after shelf of whiskey and handcrafted cocktails, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.
Although it’s located in the financial district, the woodsy, vaguely Wild West Rickhouse attracts a relaxed crowd of both hipsters and business suits. Bartenders wear caps, thick neckties and suspenders in a riff on speakeasies. Charming or gimmicky? You decide. But the craft cocktails they serve meet their goal to provide a "superior beverage experience." Take the time to survey the entire, exhaustive drink menu, which is organized by types of drink instead of alcohol, or go for an easy choice: The Diplomatico, made from Ron Diplomatico, mezcal, lime, Navy-strength Jamaica rum, and turbinado sugar. Enjoy live American roots music on Monday and Saturday nights.