Without question, the Ear Inn on Spring Street pours the best pint of Guinness this side of the Atlantic. Thick, dark, creamy, absolutely perfect. And for almost two decades, the writers of this website have loved imbibing at this dark little tavern that the New York Times once christened, “a dump with dignity.” And whether you’re new in town or have been here since birth, pretty much everyone has a story or two to tell from an outing at this old pub in West Soho. But like many old places in our city, this Federal style building has its own story to tell.Built sometime before 1812, the house at 326 Spring Street was originally the home of James Brown, an African-American United States Revolutionary War veteran. Brown originally ran a tobacco store on the ground floor of the house, but in 1817 he opened a tavern in the space. Hard to imagine, but at that time in the city’s development the house was only five feet from the existing shoreline of the Hudson. Naturally, the proximity of booze made the establishment instantly popular with the legions of sailors, stevedores and longshoremen that worked along the river.In 1890, the house was sold to an Irish immigrant named Thomas Cloke, who ran the tavern and sold beer and spirits to ships passing through New York’s harbor. Cloke ran the business there for almost 30 years, but seeing the handwriting on the wall with the Eighteenth Amendment, sold it in 1919 and got the hell out. However, business remained brisk: during Prohibition the pub/restaurant became a speakeasy, while the upstairs floors were variously a boarding house, a headquarters for smugglers, and a brothel. The bar re-opened for business (legally) once Prohibition was repealed, but it now existed without a name. It was simply called “The Green Door,” and catered to a fragrant clientele of dock laborers and wharfies, almost all of whom were hard-drinking regulars. Women weren’t allowed (and probably didn’t want to go there anyway.) And so life continued in this swashbuckling fashion until the mid 20th century, when urban blight and decay turned the once-bustling area into a nearly abandoned district.In the mid 1970s, a group of struggling artists purchased the building, and they reopened the bar in 1977. Due to Landmarks restrictions on changing signage, the new proprietors simply painted out part of the letter B in the “Bar” sign, thus turning it into the word “Ear”, which was the name of a music magazine published upstairs. And thus it has been the Ear Inn ever since: a cozy home for the perfect pint and a real conversation.
Seems like every bar these days is decked out to appear as though you stepped into a 19th century saloon. With their moustaches, suspenders and bespoke tweeds, even the bartenders get into the act. Drinks seem to take 20 minutes to make, given that the juices are freshly pressed and mint muddled to order. All ice cubes possess precise 90 degree angles. And this is no doubt fun. But sometimes, you just want beer, a simple bourbon or a vodka-soda-lime. And you want it fast and without pretense in a place that is fully comfortable in its skin. For those times, pretty much the only place that will do is the Brooklyn Inn.The Brooklyn Inn doesn’t need to masquerade as a saloon from the turn of the century… because it actually is! The only thing imported in this place is the gargantuan carved wooden bar, but that was brought over from Germany in the 1870’s. With it’s super-high tin ceilings, stained glass windows, creaky floors and mahogany wood carvings, having a pint at the Inn feels like quasi-religious experience. But I’m fairly certain you won’t find the kick-ass juke box and pool table at church the way you will at the Inn. We also love that the bartenders aren’t afraid to offer up a buy-back if you’re a few rounds in, so be sure to tip well and remember it’s cash only. Cash only, but bullshit free.
More often than not, we find that change can be the most profound at the local level. Whether New York City or Laredo, it’s typically the actions of a concerned few who live in and love their towns that define the collective future for that place. This is why we were excited to sit down with St. John Frizell last week. St. John makes a seriously mean cocktail, but he’s also the owner of Red Hook mainstay, Fort Defiance. Aptly named, Fort Defiance began life as a widely enjoyed café/bar/restaurant on Van Brunt Street, but in the devastation following Hurricane Sandy, it became something even bigger…a leader and champion of the Restore Red Hook movement. A fantastic storyteller with a great life story, St. John gets real with us about the restaurant business, why the Third Place matters, and the bright future of Red Hook.
Thanks to portrait photographer Craig LaCourt for the iconic photo of St John!
Seems like the perfect day for some afternoon drinking and Phebe’s at the corner of 4th and Bowery is the downtown’s perfect choice. Tell bartender Gina that neighbor Greg sent you. Maybe she’ll make it a double!
If you have ever had the opportunity to take a stroll around Gramercy Park, you know that is hard to miss the fantastically amazing and ornate National Arts Clubat 15 Gramercy Park South. I walked past it this morning, and decided it was high time I get in there for a look.