Posted on April 19th, 2012
People who move to New York claim a variety of reasons for relocation; among them are culture, diversity, career opportunities, culinary adventures, the art scene, fashion forwardness and anonymity. All of these are, for the most part, lies to mask the real reason people come to live here: the 4am closing time. In London, you can cultivate a beer gut until only about midnight; in Boston, you can curse the Yankees over a pint until a more reasonable 2am; but for the unadulterated joy of entering any of the one trillion bars, lounges, pubs and dives scattered across the five boroughs and proceeding to pound your mind and body into alcoholic stupor until 4am – perhaps later, if the bar is off the beaten path and you are lucky enough to get lost among the regulars after the shutters are officially drawn – New York can hardly be topped.
So imagine my surprise when, while drinking craft beer at the cavernous, echoey, moderately full Boreum Hill establishment Local 61, I heard the bartender sound last call at 12:30am on a Friday night. I looked at my watch, just to make sure. Then I asked my friend if it was daylight savings time. This didn’t add up: Why would a busy bar, trendy in all the right ways, situated in one of Brooklyn’s top neighborhoods for going out (right off the terminally hip Smith Street) shut off its taps a full three hours before the law postulates it so? Don’t they want to make money? (Surely, rent in this area cannot be cheap?) Why would they potentially turn off their customers? Talk about a black sheep among the Brooklyn booze-slinging herd.
“A little early to be closing, isn’t it?” we asked one of the bartenders, of whom there are typically around three on weekends.
“Yeah, you know how the quality of the crowd gets after about 1am…” she trailed off. “But we’re one of the few bars with food around here that are open for lunch, so we do our time and make our money, you could say.”
You could, but you probably wouldn’t. Smith Street does brisk business at night, but on weekday afternoons, diners are scarce. The Starbucks may be filled with stroller moms, high school kids and a few laptop-wielding freelancers, but even bars with low-priced food that would be mobbed in Union Square struggle to reel in the pre-duty bartenders and various independently wealthy types in Brooklyn. And even if Local 61 could get a chokehold on that market, there are very few businesses that would opt out of serving thirsty, paying customers into the night in exchange for a few spilled beers and perhaps an occasional call to the NYPD.
Local 61 almost looks like it doesn’t belong in New York; Portland is more like it, though Maine or Oregon is up for debate. The cavernous space is very stripped down, with large wooden communal tables arranged as if it were a picnic ground. The ceiling is high, and whatever art adorns the walls is sporadic and blends in rather than screams for attention. Browns and greys are the colors of choice; brick lines approximately half of the wall space. On one side, you can just make out the outline of what was once a chimney, starting mid-wall, just over the remnants of a platform pointing to the space’s more industrial past.
Heritage-clad locals wander in, sometimes with dogs, sometimes with strollers (this is Brooklyn 2012, after all) and sip on a stellar selection of East Coast microbrews; no large scale once-indies like Brooklyn Lager, no embarrassing grabs at local cred (ahem, Coney Island Lager). Instead, Portland ME’s excellent Allagash White and the always welcome Pleasantville, NY brew Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold hold up the lighter end of the beer spectrum while the rich burgundy of the surprisingly relatively light-bodied Bulkhead Red Amber Ale (Oceanside, NY) provides a darker alternative that is nevertheless appropriate for summer. That there is no Guinness on tap is no blasphemy either, not when Baltimore’s Existent Black Saison offers a sweeter, less creamy, more aromatic alternative. There are no spirits, but New York State wines – generally blends – nicely round out the drink menu.
Food at Local 61 echoes its drink selection: the ingredients are locally sourced, with delicious hard and soft cheese platters, two kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches (one vegetarian, one with ham), charcuterie, hummus, and sweet and spicy peanuts that will make you sweat like Rick Santorum at Rachel Maddow’s house party.
Along with the bar’s many charms, then, comes its one fault – its closing time, completely uncharacteristic of NYC. Sure, a barkeep in a pub on the outskirts of Staten Island may wish to shut down by 2am, when the customers have all gone home and the two old drunks left at the bar are nodding off, but there have been countless times when my friends and I wished for a craft beer spot late on a Saturday night, when the other bars in the neighborhood are still overcrowded and obnoxious. In that light, one can accuse Local 61 of being pretentious. But let’s look at it from a different angle.
The quality of the drinker after a certain late hour does, indeed, start to dwindle. There are always exceptions, of course, but almost anyone still chugging beer at 3am is not looking to go to bed sober. On weekends, Smith Street – like the rest of NYC – is overrun by the Bengal-stripe-shirted, greasy-haired set. One cannot sit at the bar and have a beer in peace without a guttural call for shots from right over your head thwarting any semblance of enjoyment. What ensues is a pickup scene, complete with occasional violence and frequent vomiting. Agitated bartenders clench their teeth and reconsider business school. In most cases, there is not much point in sticking around long enough to hit last call.
Local 61 clearly considers itself above the fray that most bars find themselves in at night, and sure, some will consider it a turnoff. But can you really blame a bar that wants to be known as a certain kind of establishment – one where relaxed locals can drink craft IPAs, the staff does not get agitated and there is never a need for a bouncer? Besides, as I am now firmly in my 30s and no longer have any days to waste on nursing hangovers, perhaps going home at a more civilized hour isn’t such a bad idea anyway.