Art Scene

The Art of the Pour: An Opinionated Guide to the Lower East Side's Art Bar Scene

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The Art of the Pour: An Opinionated Guide to the Lower East Side's Art Bar Scene
Max Fish in the throes of its final night at its old location (Photo by Jonathan Mehring)

The art world is a convivial place, and often an evening of shuttling from one gallery opening to another is followed by a mass sojourn to the neighborhood watering hole to compare notes, gossip, and flirt. While any bar will do in a pinch, one type of venue rises above the rest: the art bar. Scattered through art scenes around the world, and often invisible to the uninitiated, these bars—epitomized by dealer/artist Gavin Brown's late and lamented Passerby in West Chelsea—exist as clubby insider hangouts that generally were conceived to cater to specific art cliques.

These bars flourish in ecosystems like New York's Lower East Side, an area rich in both artists and art scenes, but they tend to be transient ventures: with a few notable exceptions, they exist only until the artists/owners in question become too successful, win residencies elsewhere, or get bored (or broke). Artspace's Dylan Kerr bravely donned his David Attenborough hat to seek out the specimens that are thriving right now.

GHOST

GHOST

Location: 132A Eldridge Street
Associated Artists: The graffiti writer-turned-street-artist Moody (aka Mutz) has a few pieces inside, including his well-known Coca-Cola ad riff, along with a dolphin-themed mural by BK FOXX outside. The mural changes on a bimonthly basis and has featured works by Sweet Toof, Lady Pink, and several more.
Concept: Located directly across the street from Woodward Gallery, it serves as both a bar and a project space focusing on street art.
Clientele: Hard to say, since when we went in at 8 p.m. on a Thursday it was just us and the bartender (who was easily the nicest and most personable individual we encountered all night).
Signature Drink: Lots of good cocktails; we were intrigued by the “Seasonal Shrub,” which uses fruits preserved in vinegar and sugar—a colonial American tradition, apparently—as the basis for a rotating cast of drinks.
Decor: Interesting juxtaposition of street-art cheekiness with red velvet curtains, roses, and candles.
Playlist: Nondescript lite rock.
Anonymous Quote: “She literally willed herself to live... that's so dope.”

FIG. 19

Fig. 19

Location: 87 Rivington
Concept: Speakeasy located in the back of the Lodge Gallery; a bouncer sits at the door of the otherwise standard white-cube space, which you have to walk through to a semi-hidden door revealing the dimly lit and far more ornate bar in the back.
Associated Artists: We walked through a group show featuring George Boorujy, Lori Nix, Kate Clark, Doung Young, and more on our way to the bar. There were a few prints on the walls in the bar, including an interesting de Kooning, but for the most part the art seemed confined to the gallery space.
Clientele: Well-dressed couples (think polos and loafers), fitting the overall vibe of the space.
Signature Drink: Their most notable offering might be the prosecco they have on tap.
Decor: Speakeasy chic, with brick walls offset by crystal chandeliers, taxidermied critters, marble tabletops, and glass display cases filled with candles and ephemera.
Playlist: Dad rock.
Anonymous Quote: “It’s 9:40 p.m. and I already have too many boyfriends.”

MAX FISH

Max Fish

Location: 120 Orchard
Concept: Started in 1989 by the artist Ulli Rimkus as a retreat for the rough-and-ready residents of the still-sketchy Lower East Side, Max Fish’s original location on Ludlow was a fixture of the Manhattan art scene until it closed in July 2013. While the new location on Orchard can't completely fill that void, it nonetheless preserves much of the original’s charm.
Associated Artists: Many over the years, including Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, and Shepard Fairey.
Clientele: By far the most mixed crowd of the night, with plenty of ear gauges and Hawaiian shirts to go around.
Signature Drink: Cheap beer, baby.
Decor: Eclectic to say the least; unclear where the art ends and the kitsch begins, but we like it that way. The pool table and pinball machines seemed popular.
Playlist: Punk and reggae.
Anonymous Quote: “Did you just compare your love life to Vietnam?”

CAFE DANCER

Cafe Dancer

Location: 96 Orchard
Concept: Owned and operated by dancers (think Performa, not Rockette), they specialize in late-night DJ sets on the weekends and decent food and drink the rest of the time.
Associated Artists: Owners Jessie Gold and Elizabeth Hart are artists in their own right, and they’ve done installations for some of the nearby galleries with fellow artists like Lucky DeBellevue and Daphne Fitzpatrick.
Clientele: Fairly standard LES bar crowd: quietly drunk, with skinny jeans and baggy vintage sweaters.
Signature Drink: Known for their cocktails; I liked the “Ginger Rogers,” made with tequila, fresh lime juice, and house-made ginger syrup.
Decor: The bricks, lighting, and brightly patterned bar top do a lot of the aesthetic work, along with the Naomi Fisher mural on the back wall. Other touches include a victrola, a disco ball, and cut flowers.
Playlist: Good disco.
Anonymous Quote: “Oh my god, I’m sending this to all four of my friends.”

BEVERLY'S

Beverly's

Location: 21 Essex
Concept: A slightly younger, more contemporary update of the Max Fish “for-artists-by-artists” bar model, Beverly’s is especially cool because it actually curates exhibitions in the space—and elsewhere, since it's become a favorite bar for art fairs like Mexico City's Material to import.
Associated Artists: Owned and operated by the artist Dan Sutti, the bar has had shows with Artie Vierkant, Em Rooney, Christina Tufiño, and a bunch more cool young artists. The exhibitions change fairly regularly.
Clientele: Often described along the lines of “soul-crushingly hip,” the place is usually packed and super fun despite totally living up to this reputation. I have dim memories of actually dancing here, which is maybe the most effusive praise I can give a bar.
Signature Drink: Beverly’s is made for the beer & shot combo. 
Decor: Besides the (mostly video) art, pink neon and pineapples. One fond recollection is of their fog machine blasting vapor, which made the smoke detector go off, which made the bartender poke it with a stick until it stopped. This happened several times.
Playlist: Loud dance hits from the ‘80s and contemporary hip-hop.
Anonymous Quote: “I’ve been praying that someone would put on ‘Rhythm of the Night’ for like 45 minutes.”

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