Posted on February 13th, 2012
The year is 1996. The setting – an enormous industrial loft-style lounge with high ceilings, exposed pipes and sleek modern couches and coffee tables. Narcotic beats by Bristol trip hop groups waft over the space from the sound system designed to get the most bass out of every beat. On one of the couches, a man and a woman in clean black turtlenecks and Chelsea boots lounge with martinis.
Remember Pearl Jam? Says the man. What happened to them? I haven’t listened to them since their first album – Ten, was it?
Is it too early to feel nostalgic for them? Says the woman and giggles self-consciously. Speaking of grunge – wasn’t this place a dingy dive bar just a couple of years ago?
Every few years, trends come along and take over swiftly and efficiently. It happens in every arena of culture – fashion, music, cuisine, restaurant space – and often in clusters, as one trend links arms with another and comes hopping merrily into your bourgeoisie-bohemian neighborhood. At the height of each mini-era, it is almost impossible to believe that whatever seems fresh and vibrant today will become stale and cumbersome tomorrow, that in time you will move on to something new and wonder what the big deal was in the first place. (Remember your last relationship?) After all, the man and woman in the scenario above were sporting flannel shirts and beanies and lamenting the death of Kurt Cobain only two years ago. In another five years, they will be wearing tight jeans and ironic t-shirts at a Strokes concert. And where are they in early 2012? At a dark, retro oyster-and-cocktail bar, of course.
The cultural shift of the mid-‘aughts shook off its backward-gazing rock’n’roll trappings and began to move toward a more rustic sensibility, while simultaneously celebrating the style and attitude of Mad Men America. Short-lived as these things are on their own, the two tectonic plates converged, creating, among other shockwaves, the restaurant industry’s movement toward that Industrial Revolution-era saloon serving stiff liquor drinks and a perfect snack – the oyster.
This type of establishment is the perfect synthesis of Don Draper and Cullen Bohannon (the uber-masculine bearded hero of another AMC period piece, Hell On Wheels). These spaces are in every way the antithesis of the sleek, modernist lounge: instead of exposed metal and pipes, dark warm wooden interiors and occasional taxidermy; instead of emphasis on crisp vodka cocktails, a focus on smoky bourbon concoctions (or else encouragement to take it neat or on the rocks); instead of sleek cosmopolitan beats, the muddy lo-fi reverb of prohibition-era jazz, cornfield blues and beardo folk. An improvement in every way, many of us would say – except, of course, in 1997 we would have laughed.
The perfect cocktail to order in such an establishment is a Manhattan, the virtues of which I have sung previously in this very publication. You can’t go wrong with a classic, though many bars offer their own versions, often slightly tweaked for a sweeter, smoother flavor. Any whiskey or bourbon drink is a fit, of course, as are quality red wine and craft beer, particularly stouts.
Many bars try to entice customers with absinthe – a treat or a gimmick, depending on how you view the substance. The draw of absinthe is the “illegal” angle – until the year 2001, you could not serve it in bars in the United States due to its supposed (and obviously exaggerated) mildly hallucinogenic qualities. To this day, only a limited number of bars have the license to serve absinthe, and those that do will only put a tiny bit in your cocktail. (Thus the “absinthe drip cocktails” section on many menus.) Personally, I find the substance revolting: Its taste reminds me of nothing so much as foolish early college-era experiments with Jagermeister, and instead of visions of lovely maidens in long dresses with exposed shoulders floating through the air, chasing enormous oysters (okay, we all have fantasies, so stop judging), the inevitable outcome is an immediate splitting headache. (Outlawing the spirit was certainly not called upon by the makers of migraine medication.)
Oysters happen to be the perfect snack for such settings. Inexpensive when purchased directly and in bulk, the upsell is tremendous. Menu prices for different oyster varieties range from about $2 to $3 dollars apiece, and since the oysters are delicious at their worst and not filling at all, and the food menus tend to otherwise be limited, your liquor-fueled appetite will demand that you keep them coming by the dozen. A number of bars have instituted the tradition of oyster happy hour, when some (or all) oyster varieties can be had at $1 apiece; it is not uncustomary, on such outings, to find yourself down $20 (not counting the cocktails) and still starving. Oysters are always served with the usual condiments, but I prefer mine unadorned – when I slurp one down like a savage, saltwater and all, I want to taste the ocean. (So long as the ocean in question is not off the coast of Coney Island.)
Of all the places that have been popping up since the late ‘aughts, the one to get it 100% right is Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The bar has been open for a couple of years now, and many have discovered its charms, resulting in heavy crowding during the liberal oyster happy hour. A hostess resembling a waifish version of Mad Men’s Joan welcomes you to the dimly lit space. You can choose to go to the rustic back area with tables or stay at the semi-oval bar. Old blues and jazz – not hip hop or techno – play in the background, never too loud. The bartenders sport white shirtsleeves, ties and vests; the waitresses are attired in skirts and polka dot everything. Interesting detail is everywhere – from the beer taps resembling vintage spouts, to the beer gutters that look like something a prospector might have built, to the selection of liquor and oysters, everything is well-thought out.
Naturally, like any other trend, in a matter of a few short years this kind of establishment has multiplied like a rabbit on Viagra. Today, it seems like you cannot toss a half-eaten Crumbs cupcake without hitting a cocktail-and-oyster restaurant. This is now the standard in New York restaurant/bar design and concept; if you want your new eatery to succeed, this is how it should look and what it should serve. The formula can be tweaked: replace oysters with all things bacon, or take the place out of 1890 and dump it in 1935, or pipe in some Kings of Leon. So what’s wrong with that, you ask?
The year is 2012, month of November. The setting – a Prohibition-era speakeasy-style bar with dark wood paneling and fine bourbon on the shelf behind the shirtsleeve- and suspenders-clad barman. He is mixing a Long Island Iced Tea as deep Miami Bass thunders over the crammed space. A man with a half bottle’s worth of hair gel, sporting an A|X t-shirt, is talking to a woman whose features are caked in multiple layers of makeup.
This place is dope! Says the man. Worth leaving Staten Island for.
I know, right! Says the woman. I gotta tell the girls about this. They’re clubbing tonight though.
Okay! Says the man. I’m gonna text my boy, bro is gonna come out for sure.
It’s an all-too-familiar cycle. Something starts small, and is embraced by a few; quality is high. It gets a little bigger, and is embraced by enough people to warrant write-ups in edgy publications; quality is still high. Then it explodes, everyone is abuzz, edgy press grumbles about the coming end; quality starts to drop significantly. Finally, the world moves on, and the cycle restarts itself. And there are signs that we are reaching the end of the cocktail and oyster bar cycle.
As mentioned previously, the bars are everywhere. What started as a few charming throwbacks has turned into a mass-produced gimmick. In the East Village, an old grungy pizza shop on Avenue A and East 7th Street was converted into an oyster bar; another one opened up on First Avenue and 4th Street a short while afterward. Brooklyn’s Smith Street is home to Brooklyn Social, Clover Club and Char No. 4, with Henry Public just a few blocks away in Brooklyn Heights. These are not oyster bars per se, but they do all sport an old timey air while charging very modern prices that would have Don Draper himself taking stock of his weekly nightlife budget. It may not be long now before the quirk – already no longer just that – becomes the standard.
And what of quality? It’s already dropping. There is a bi-level bar/restaurant on the Lower East Side called The Essex. The Essex offers cocktails, food, and an oyster happy hour ($1.50 per critter). It is also the sort of soulless bi-level space that tries to cater to the Gossip Girl aesthetic but ends up resembling a Mob Wives reunion in Miami. The cocktails are still expertly mixed, though the menu allots plenty of space for Sex & the City-style sugary concoctions. The staff is all hollow-eyed models, towering over the Phil Collins lookalike who slings drinks and also manages (and perhaps owns) the bar. The oysters, it must be said, are extremely subpar to Maison Premiere’s offerings. Worse, this place obviously has an unjustifiably high opinion of itself. When my friends, a couple who are both attractive, highly paid professionals, came there for brunch, they were immediately given the worst seats in the restaurant even though other seats were available and promptly ignored. Perhaps they were not sufficiently tanned.
The current oyster craze reminds me of another food that started high and ended up generic. Sushi was once exclusive cuisine, expertly prepared, carefully stored and generally pricey. Once it caught on and the prices dropped, so did the quality and sushi became a lunch food. Mediocre sushi, its fish shipped and stored under questionable conditions, now litters deli and supermarket counters, prepared not by expert Japanese chefs but by the guy who makes Reuben sandwiches. You can still get top-notch sushi at beautiful restaurants, but the exotic factor is long gone. Which is not to say that I am against proletariatization (yes, I made up a word) of sushi; but how long before the oyster special becomes a regular occurrence at your nearest Financial District uber-deli?
Be not afraid – the oyster-and-cocktail bar will not disappear completely in the next couple of years. The best ones will persist. Some will hold fast to their mustache-and-suspenders theme, and when our culture gets enough of everything heritage, will once again become throwback curiosities rather than au currant hotspots. Others will take on a new look; we do not yet know which era the new wave of cultural nostalgia will ape, but rest assured, the next new-old thing is already about to graduate high school and move out of parents’ basement. And then you can sit down with your whiskey cocktail, order a dozen large beautiful oysters, watch the barman with the side part in his hair, and say to yourself, gosh, remember when these places were everywhere?