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Entries in Know Your Bartender (29)

Wednesday
Feb162011

Know Your Bartender: Betty Collins, Timboo's


When it comes to South Slope bars, there are two categories: those that draw a younger crowd and those that cater to a slightly older demographic. For the former category, Ellis Bar and Black Horse Tavern come to mind. Bars in the latter category also share the trait of having been in the neighborhood the longest, though, and they include Smith's, Jackie's Fifth Amendment, and Timboo's. These old-school bars open earlier, stay open later, draw a fiercely loyal clientele, and are throwbacks to an earlier Brooklyn.


The Timboo's space, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 11th Street, had been home to Loftus's Bar for over forty years by the time Timmy Hodgens and Bobby Booras decided to quit their day job at the telephone company and buy the bar in 1969. They changed the name to a combination of both of their first names (get it?), added wood paneling to the walls along with some posters and photos of then-current sports stars, and called it a day. It hasn't changed since (aside from the installation of some flatscreen TVs), and Timmy and Bobby are still the owners. They own the building, too, so this classic dive won't be going anywhere for a while.

Make sure you spend some time checking out the wall decorations. In the front room there's a framed Frontier Carbine rifle ("The Gun That Won The West," a plaque under it reads) right above the poster of Joe Namath, and in the back room (home to a pool table and a massive Beatles collage), the walls are clad in Empire Diner wallpaper. Name one other place in the world that's clad in Empire Diner wallpaper. 

Amazing.
South Slope native Betty Collins can be found behind the bar chatting with the regulars Tuesdays through Saturdays from about 9 AM to 6 PM.

HPS: How long have you been a bartender here?

Betty: About nine years.

HPS: What's your favorite thing about this bar?

Betty: It's a real neighborhood place. The characters that come in are anywhere from twenty-one years old to ninety-nine. Families have grown up here. Men that grew up in this bar, now their children are drinking in this bar, so it's kind of passed on. A lot of the local eccentrics come in. It's just a nice local bar.

HPS: Can you talk a little about the Happy Hour?

Betty: The Happy Hour is from nine in the morning, or when I open up, until six at night. Well drinks are two-for-one, all the pints are a dollar off, and then at night they have their own specials. If there's a game on or something the bartenders will come up with specials of their own. There's no set schedule at night. 
 
HPS: What's the strangest drink order you've ever gotten?

Betty: I've had a few beer mixture orders that were pretty strange. One guy asked for a pint of Sam Adams with grapefruit juice. Which is kind of odd. I've been doing this for a long time, and that was a new one for me! In here it's usually shots and beer. It's not too difficult. I don't get any tiki drinks, and we don't own a blender so you ain't getting a frozen margarita.

HPS: If you could serve a drink to one person from history, who would it be?

Betty: Oh wow. I don't know! I'd have to think about that one. Billy the Kid, maybe. 

HPS: Are there any cocktails you make that you pride yourself on?

Betty: My Bloody Marys are good, I have to admit that. I don't blow my own horn, but I can make a good Bloody Mary. I learned from a guy thirty years ago, and everybody likes it. The secret is making a batch of it the night before so all the flavors have time to mix together. 

HPS: Which bottles are poured from the most frequently?

Betty: Jameson, Jack Daniels, and Jagermeister are very big here.

HPS: Which bottles are poured from the least frequently?

Betty: Ones like the creme de coco, the sloe gin. We don't get too many calls for those anymore. But again, I do have an older clientele, so once in a while I do get the sloe gin fizz, but not too often. 

HPS: If you weren't tending bar, are there any other professions that you'd give thought to?

Betty: I've been doing this for so long, I don't know. Maybe not working with people [laughs]. Maybe working with animals. People can be a little, you know. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love my job, and I love people, but some days are harder than others. Give me a job with a bunch of cats and dogs and I'll be very happy.


Timboo's, 477 5th Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-788-9782.

Wednesday
Feb092011

Know Your Bartender: Donald O'Finn, Freddy's


As Freddy's Bar slogged through the wretched, seven-year battle against the city that culminated last year in its seizure by eminent domain--and subsequent demolition--in order to construct developer Bruce Ratner's Barclays Center, longtime bar manager and artist Donald O'Finn rose to the top of the fray, taking the fight to the streets, television, and anyone who would listen. The fight brought Freddy's into the national conversation about abuse of power and the forcible seizure of land, and by installing chains to the bar and organizing protests, he brought a human element to the legal wrangling. By the time of the bar's demolition (along with the surrounding buildings), it seemed that the only two people that weren't on O'Finn's team were the only ones who really mattered, sadly: Mike Bloomberg and Bruce Ratner. 

The re-opening last Friday night of the new Freddy's, about a mile and a half away on Fifth Avenue between 17th and 18th, was a big deal, for obvious reasons. Just about all of the things that made Freddy's unique made the journey, including the bar, the tables, the chains, the art, and O'Finn, who is now co-owner along with former bartenders Matt Kuhn and Matt Kimmett. It's a larger space, with a vaguely nautical/steampunk theme, and it's warm and welcoming.


Freddy's Bar began its life during Prohibition on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Dean Street, as a secret watering hole for employees at the Spalding factory, which was located right next door. After prohibition ended it became a local hangout for off-duty cops from the precinct across the street, and one of them, Freddy Chadderton, bought the bar in the early 1970s after retiring. The bar languished during this time as a fading, run-down cop bar, and struggled to stay alive.

The first Freddy's (Photo by Norman Oder, Atlantic Yards Report)
In 1994 the failing bar was purchased by Frank Yost, who turned to another nearby bar, O'Connor's, for new clientele; the owner of O'Connor's was having a falling out with his patrons due to false accusations of drug use, and many defected to Freddy's. O'Finn, a San Francisco native, left his gig bartending at O'Connor's and brought some fresh ideas to Freddy's, including converting the back dining room into a space for artists and musicians, decorating the walls, and installing screens to display his psychedelic video art, mashups of old B-movies, commercials, and found footage.

The revamping of Freddy's couldn't have come at a better time, and a young crowd began pouring into what some had begun referring to as "the CBGB of Brooklyn." "Brooklyn was hungry for a real scene," says O'Finn. Everybody thinks they can do a bar, but I don't think many people can, because I go to everybody's bars and I'm usually a little bit disappointed." 

Freddy's had firmly cemented its reputation as one of Brooklyn's top bars (and a great place to see live music), but Bruce Ratner wasn't far behind with his scheme for an arena for the "blighted" neighborhood. After seven years of hassling and haggling, Yost finally accepted a lucrative deal last spring, fired his employees, closed up shop, and after promising to help find a new location, left everyone in the lurch. That's when O'Finn, Kuhn, and Kimmett stepped in, found the new space, and now, as they put it, "the inmates are running the asylum."

New owners Matt Kuhn, Donald O'Finn, and Matt Kimmett, via Daily News.
HPS: What do you miss most about the old Freddy's?

Donald: It's hard to say; this is all so new. We really haven't established patterns, I don't really even know what we have on tap yet. All the best stuff made the move. The only thing I can say that I miss is Lee Houston, who was a regular who passed away. We have his picture here on the wall, but he'll never walk in the door again, I don't think.

HPS: Is there anything you don't particularly miss about the old Freddy's?

Donald: Yeah, there's a lot of things that I don't miss. The smell. There was something really wonderful about a building that hadn't been cleaned in a hundred years, but there were a lot of bad things about a building that hadn't been cleaned in a hundred years. I don't miss the previous owner of Freddy's at all. I feel like we all got a little shafted there. 

It came out great in the end. Everyone, including Bruce Ratner, got what they wanted in this deal. It's a really rare thing; I was just thinking about this the other night. The owner of Freddy's got a bunch of cash and got to walk away after never really doing anything, Ratner got his stupid goddamn arena and address, and we got a fresh start. 

HPS: What are you most proud of about the new bar?

Donald: There's so much. I'm very proud of the look of it. I mean, I really designed this whole frickin' place. I'm proud of the sculptures, the paintings, the videos. This place was built on the backs of ten or eleven people, that small community of regulars. I saw in that bad movie Reds, there's a line, "A small group of people can do anything." And I thought, "Well put!" I'm really, really proud of the people that stepped up.

HPS: If you had thirty seconds to talk to Mayor Bloomberg or Bruce Ratner, what would you say to them?

Donald: I would say, "As a businessman, I know how important financing is, but as an artist and as a community person, you've got to step back and realize that the best neighborhoods are the ones that generate income and generate business. And those neighborhoods are not made by corporations, they're made by small-time entrepreneurs. Ma and pa shops. Those are the people that need funding. Not these goddamn corporations, they don't need more money. Who needs the money is the guy trying to put together a little shoe store around the corner, and he'll work every day of his life for the rest of his goddamn life to do that. They're the ones that need help."

It makes me so mad. And it's us who give the place character, who make us want to live there. That's why Park Slope is so great. It's not full of the corporations. It's the little stores, the little places. That's what makes it great.

HPS: If you could have a drink with one person from history, who would it be?

Donald: There was this Celtic queen, Boudica, she almost defeated Rome with a small band of warriors. The Roman battle strategies beat her, but everything else, she would have sacked Rome! That's a broad that I'd love to sit down and have a drink with. 

HPS: How did you get involved in the artistic community?

Donald: I grew up in the cultural vacuum of the artists in the 70s. Nobody ever said,"Hey, you draw really well, you could be an artist." So I never knew that was even a choice until I was about 22, after I'd exhausted about all the drugs on the planet. That's when I bumped into it as a concept, and began to follow it, and got a scholarship to the Art Institute of San Francisco for my painting.

I don't really like "art." I don't like the idea of it, the way it exists in this culture. Arthur Danto said that we're at this strange point in time where we're stuck in this transitional period, and if we were less intelligent, we wouldn't be able to make art, and if we were more intelligent we wouldn't need to make art. Eventually, it's not that we won't need art, but that art will be everything. Which is what I think it should be. To me, this bar is the way every building should be that you walk into. It should be hand-crafted, everything should be aesthetically considered. Art should be a part of life. Like with my videos, that's what TV should be.

HPS: What first brought you to New York City?

Donald: I had finished grad school on the West Coast, and I had galleries lined up there, I thought I was a real big shot. I was in the Bay Area School of Figurative Painters. I came here almost as a postgraduate school, to continue my education. I got some solo shows and stuff, but it didn't go anywhere. 

I'd go to my own opening and I'd hate it so much that I'd leave after 15 or 20 minutes. My friends would come and couldn't find me. I'd tell them to just walk out the door and take a left, and I'd be in the first bar they came to. Half the time they wouldn't even see the show; they'd just go to the first bar on the left!

I wanted to talk to artists, but to artists who could hang at the bar; those are the people that I liked. Not the stuffed shirts who want to talk about money and pricing and comparative Middle Eastern philosophy.

HPS: What got you into your specific style of video art?

Donald: I bought probably the first VCR that was available for home use, in about 1980. Cost two thousand dollars, weighed two thousand pounds, two feet tall, top loader, Sony Betamax. I couldn't help but sort of mess with it. That was right around when MTV was starting, so these videos were happening, and I started cutting up stuff as fast as I could. I'd just get these wacky bits of things. Eventually I hit the digital stuff, and I made the decision to stop painting, and that's when I took the same intensity I was bringing into painting and turned it to the video. I think I was an excellent painter but I never made myself laugh with my paintings. I crack myself up when I'm making the videos, though. It's just something goofy. I don't care anymore if anybody likes it. Usually if it makes me laugh it'll make other people laugh. I don't laugh too easily. 


Freddy's, 627 Fifth Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-768-0131. Open from noon daily.

Wednesday
Feb022011

Know Your Bartender: Joshua Hoisington, Bar Reis


Walking down Fifth Avenue today, it's surprising to think that ten years ago there were very few options around for those looking for a bar that catered to a younger set. Bar Reis (on Fifth between 5th and 6th), which began life in 1999 as a wine bar, evolved into exactly that, and its warm, inviting atmosphere and friendly bartenders have been drawing crowds ever since. 

Walking into the bar, owned by Reis Goldberg, the first thing that strikes you is how small the space is. The front room, with its second-level loft accessible by spiral staircase, is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Walk out the back door and you're surrounded by a lush garden with umbrella-shaded picnic tables, and it's one of the nicest places in Brooklyn to spend a warm afternoon. (Missing summer yet?) There's a lounge downstairs with a pool table, too, and they host private parties there as well as overflow crowds on the weekends and most nights, when the upstairs can get pretty crowded. 

Goldberg owned the space next door until recently, and its rotating variety of themes (first 100 sandwiches, then small plates, then a taqueria) kept bar patrons happy with some top notch snacks, but sadly Reis has decided to get out of the restaurant business and put the space up for lease. 

Josh Hoisington came to Brooklyn several years ago from Lansing, Michigan with a girl, a band, and a dream. He spent some time working for a record label and an artist management company, but bartending turned out to be the most band-friendly job for him. The band evolved into The Stationary Set, and the indie rockers play all over the city and are currently in the studio working on their first full-length album. He used to bartend at Reis more frequently, but kept his Monday shift after moving out of the neighborhood just because he loves the bar.

HPS: How long have you been bartending here?

Joshua: I've been bartending here for almost two years.

HPS: What's your favorite thing about this bar? 

Joshua: I have to think back to why I came here so often before I got a job here. Bars are a dime a dozen, especially in this part of Brooklyn, so it's all about the feeling that you get from the bar. The vibe. And I feel like this place has a really great energy to it. I love the staff, everyone who works here is really great. Interesting people. 

HPS: Can you talk a little about the Happy Hour?

Joshua: Happy Hour is during the week from 5 until 8, it's a dollar off everything. We also have a six dollar beer and a shot special, always and forever, and we also serve specialty warm drinks in the wintertime. 

HPS: What's the strangest drink order you've ever received?

Joshua: We get a younger crowd here sometimes, and they tend to order some shot that they saw on The Real World or Jersey Shore or something, and you have to convince them that that's not actually a drink. 

We've come up with a few interesting drinks here, actually. I actually had a signature drink this last summer. Reis pickles his own beets, and he brought some upstairs and I was like, "I'm going to figure out a drink for this." So I made a beet martini. It was good!

HPS: Are there any other cocktails that you make that you pride yourself on?

Joshua: I think I make a pretty mean Manhattan. It's simple, but it has to be done right. We do a good variation on a Manhattan called a Rob Roy, where we use scotch instead of whiskey. It's good, if that's your thing. 

HPS: If you could have a drink with one person from history, who would it be?

Joshua: The President of Egypt, and I'd tell him to quit it! I'd get him drunk, and tell him to quit it. 

HPS: What mixed drink is made the most frequently here?

Joshua: 'Tis the season for hot toddies, and grogs. 

HPS: What bottle is poured from the most frequently?

Joshua: Jameson! Amen. 

HPS: What beer on tap is poured the most frequently?

Joshua: That'd absolutely be Palm. Great beer. 

HPS: Are there any bottles back there that you've never touched?

Joshua: Ha! We actually sell a surprising amount of nice scotches, which I always applaud people for. We don't sell a lot of Cognac, and I've never once poured anyone here a glass of port.

HPS: If you weren't tending bar, what other profession would you like to have?

Joshua: I mean, listen. If you're a bartender in Brooklyn, the chances of you just being a bartender are null. You're an artist, you're an actor, you're a writer, you're a musician. For me, I'm a musician. I went to college for it, at Colorado, and I'm active in it as we speak. I play in a touring band, I produce beats for hip hop artists and electronic music, I'm doing it!

Bar Reis, 375 5th Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215.

Thursday
Jan202011

Know Your Bartender: Maria Bova, Old Carriage Inn


Seventh Avenue used to be loaded with bars. Most were of the divey variety, similar to what you might find at O'Connor's. A place to drop in, get a cheap Bud or a shot, and maybe chitchat with the older local regulars or the bartender and eat some pretzels. One of the last bars like this on Seventh, Snooky's, closed in 2007 and was replaced with the ill-fated Elementi and then the ill-fated Mack's 140 (now it's Da Nonna Rosa). 


The lone survivor of the Golden Age of Seventh Avenue Dive Bars? The Old Carriage Inn, holding down the Eighth Street corner since 1982, when the Waggleman family bought the space and opened up a chophouse, serving steaks, seafood, and the like. They took out the kitchen in 1990 and replaced it with a small back room with some couches and a pool table. Some bar snacks are still on offer, but are best enjoyed after several drinks, if you know what I mean. Dorothy Waggleman, the owners' daughter, took over a few years ago after the death of her mother. 


The bar today retains a lot of that old school (read: stroller-free) Brooklyn charm, and doesn't look like it's changed at all in years. There's a bunch of (decidedly non-flatscreen) TVs for sports (one for every table in the main bar area), and Saturday night karaoke gets pretty rowdy, if you're into that sort of thing. Loyal regulars file in daily and are greeted like old friends by the other patrons, and the super-friendly bartenders never need to be reminded of their drink of choice. First-timers are treated with the same level of respect. Classic Rock on the radio and a couple pool tables round out the experience, and a glass-enclosed side seating area (above) is a nice touch. Snarky Gravesend native Maria Bova can be found behind the bar Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, from 12-7.

HPS: How long have you been bartending here for?

Maria: Five and a half years.

HPS: What's your favorite thing about this bar?

Maria: My favorite thing about this bar, I'd say, has to be the customers. They're old-school people, they were born here, they live here. My favorite customer, his name is Bill Harris. He was once a fighter pilot in World War II, and he comes in and talks to me for hours and hours and hours. He drinks Budweiser, he's badass. The people here have been through it all. They lived here when the neighborhood wasn't what it is now. They're the last of the Mohicans.

HPS: Can you talk a little about the Happy Hour?

Maria: Happy Hour is from 4-7. You get $3.50 bottles and $4 drafts. 

HPS: What's the strangest drink order that you've ever received here?

Maria: This is really a "Gimme a Bud and a shot of Jameson" type of place, so maybe an apple martini. And that's when I ask people for their ID. Any time anyone orders anything with the word "apple" or "sour" in it, that's when I ask for ID.

HPS: Are there any cocktails that you make that you pride yourself on?

Maria: Well I usually do a Mystery Shot, which is when I basically take anything I can find in the well that's not moving and put it all together and sell it for $4.50. Sometimes if I'm working on a football Sunday, if the Jets are playing I'll make a green shot.

HPS: What drink is ordered the most frequently?

Maria: Budweiser. And Jameson. 

HPS: Are there any bottles that you've never poured from?

Maria: Yes! It is called Dry Sack. It's sherry. I think when the bar opened in 1983 it was still down here. It's probably 400 proof by now!

HPS: If you weren't tending bar, what other professions would you be interested in?

Maria: Teaching. I don't know, I love people. Anything to help people. I'm like a social worker, only I make more money. I love it here, though. It's my second dysfunctional family. I'm lucky.


Old Carriage Inn, 312 7th Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-788-7747.

Thursday
Jan132011

Know Your Bartender: Ray Gish, Commonwealth


If you happen to find yourself wandering around the South Slope looking for an un-intimidating, straight ahead bar to have a few drinks with friends in, walking into Commonwealth will be a welcome relief. Located on Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th, it's roomy, comfortable, and no-frills, yet still exudes just the right amount of dive-bar warmth to inspire you to order a second (or sixth) round. The knowledgeable and friendly bartenders know their way around a cocktail (try the Dark and Stormy), and during the winter months a hot mulled cider with bourbon really hits the spot. It's easy to get lost in the jukebox's expansive track list, and the backyard is a great spot to hold court on a summer evening. 

Kentucky native Ray Gish, who opened the bar with friend Rory Dwyer in July 2004, ran the New York City campus office of Greenpeace for seven years before becoming a bartender about 15 years ago. He spent time at Ginger's when it was still called Carrie Nation, at Bar 4 when it was called Sanctuary, spent five years at Great Lakes and a year at Excelsior before deciding to open up Commonwealth. His designated bartending night is Tuesday, but he can be found hanging around most of the time, and fills in a lot. 

HPS: What's your favorite thing about this bar? 

Ray: I mean, it's going to sound silly but I really really really like the people that hang out here. It's a great neighborhood and we have really great neighbors. I've made some very close friends here. My boyfriend and I just had a ceremony, took kind of a wedding trip down to Savannah, and it turned out to be basically a Commonwealth field trip!

HPS: Can you talk a little bit about the Happy Hour?

Ray: Happy Hour here is much better in the summer, we wish that it were better in the winter, but we're trying to change it up a little bit to get more people in the seats. We've got seven draft beers that are a dollar off, and two dollars off everything else. 

HPS: What's the strangest drink order that you've received here? 

Ray: We had a woman for a while that would drink Shiraz and Coke. That's pretty weird. Also, somebody was doing Jagermeister and Apple Pucker and dropping it in beer, like a car bomb. That was a bad idea. I think it was more of a dare than an actual order, though.

HPS: How would you describe the general clientele here?

Ray: It's really mixed. The staff is about half gay, half straight, and we get a pretty diverse bunch of people. The clientele really reflects the neighborhood. We have a lot of straight people, a lot of gay people. I think a lot of people come for the jukebox, which tends to lean toward indie rock. 

HPS: Although I've never heard the term "gay bar" associated with this place, like with Excelsior or Ginger's.

Ray: Yeah, I wouldn't want to actually run a gay bar [laughs]. I mean I like gay bars and everything, I actually live right above Excelsior. But at one point when I was working there, one of the guys was like, "Why do you even work here? You're not gay," and I looked at him and said, "Well, actually, I am." And his answer was, "Well, you're not gay enough." I mean, what the fuck does that mean?

HPS: If you could have a drink with one person from history, who would it be?

Ray: Mark Twain. I've been reading the autobiography so it's kind of on my mind, but, you know, funny guy, lots of good stories to tell. Southerner. 

HPS: Are there any cocktails that you make that you pride yourself on?

Ray: I drink Jagermeister and Rolling Rock. If someone asks me to recommend something, that's generally what I recommend. I try to keep the drinks here as simple as possible. We invented one this summer that we call the Germain Threat, which is St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, gin, ginger ale, and soda. We worked pretty hard to figure that one out.

HPS: What drink is poured the most frequently here? 

Ray: I think most bars go through more vodka than anything else, but here, in terms of booze, probably all together it's more bourbons than anything else. But we go through a lot of Jameson. And a ton of Jagermeister. Don't know if you noticed, but there's a sign that we got from the Jagermeister people saying, "Our House Wine is Jagermeister." Some people think it's a joke, it does have a frat boy element, but I think Jagermeister's good stuff. I didn't start drinking it until I was in my 30s. 

HPS: I don't see one of those chilled Jager dispensers though!

Ray: We're buddies with the manager around the corner at Lucky 13, and they have one. A, you have to pay for it, B, I don't think it keeps the stuff that cold, and C, they leak. We had two regulars who would go through 5 or 6 shots of it a night, each, so we would be going through over a bottle a day. So the Jagermeister people come in, because they look at sales figures, and they couldn't believe that I didn't want a machine! There's no place to put it anyway.

HPS: If you weren't tending bar, what other professions would you like to pursue?

Ray: I think I would go back into activism. Lefty politics. Not sure if you've heard about the Ruckus Society. It's kind of hard to explain, but it's sort of a training ground for liberal activists, and it was founded by a bunch of friends of mine. They train people in direct action techniques, like how to climb down a building without killing yourself. I'm involved peripherally, but I would like to do more work with them if I had the time. I still give Greenpeace money but I think there are other groups that are doing better work now. I'm more interested in doing anti-poverty work now. The disparity of wealth in this country is really staggering. 


Commonwealth, 497 5th Ave Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-768-2040.