Holiday Cocktail Lounge

My Brewed Awakening

Note: This story was supposed to run in Our Town Downtown's print edition. It was cut. Alas! Instead, it ran online.

In the beginning, I took a dive. Rather, I took to dives, spending my early twenties wrapped in the stiff embrace of cheap gin and tonics served by bartenders with one foot in the grave, the other itching to kick misbehaving boozers in the can.

Though I’d like to recall this era otherwise, the fact is that I was miserable. I worked a dead-end gig at a porn publisher, cranking out fantasies that’d make my mom blush—especially the mother-son scenarios. I earned just enough to buy the post-work drinks that numbed the pain of writing about the sex I wasn’t having. It was an ugly circle that ensured a steady diet of hangovers and self-loathing.

After summoning the guts to quit, I appraised my life: I liked drinking and I liked writing. Why not combine the two passions? I dragged myself out of bars long enough to pitch magazines, websites and newspapers. Most turned me down. One took a flyer on an unknown writer: the New York Press. Then-editor Jeff Koyen gave me a weekly column on a subject dear to my liver—bars.

From the start, my stories focused on downtown dives such as the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Welcome to the Johnsons, Blue & Gold Tavern and the dearly departed Village Idiot honky-tonk. They’re the brand of bars where $20 buys a blinding buzz with enough change left for a slice of pizza and a passed-out subway ride home.

But as the years disappeared and both my liver and skin hardened in response to New York, dives lost their filthy luster. I soon understood why $3 mixed drinks were so cheap and that a $6 pitcher of Bud was no bargain. This was quantity-over-quality consumption, a lingering habit from my days attending a public university in Ohio.

Over time, I gravitated less to bottom-shelf Georgi vodka and more to craft beer. I began savoring the flavorful intricacies of crisp Victory Prima Pils, Brooklyn Brewery’s stomach-warming Black Chocolate Stout and Dogfish Head’s nicely bittered 60 Minute IPA.

I sought out bars serving better beers, turning my back on the city’s down-on-their-luck Blarney Stone dives in lieu of new-wave alehouses such as the West Village’s encyclopedic Blind Tiger Ale House and the underground 124 Rabbit Club. In the East Village, I sipped coffee-tinged stouts and hopped-up ales at d.b.a., Standings, Jimmy’s No. 43 and Drop Off Service. On the Upper West Side, I bent elbows at Dive Bar—despite its name, it served dozens of carefully curated craft ales. Pint by pint, I entered a portal into an ever more delicious, carbonated world.

Quickly, craft beer became all-consuming. Work and pleasure became hopelessly, happily mixed. Was I visiting the Hudson River-hugging Chelsea Brewing Company for another assignment or because I craved a fresh pint of the pungently bittered Hop Angel IPA?

“It’s research,” I’d tell my wife, toting home six-packs sourced from the Lower East Side’s cavernous New Beer Distributors and, later, the East Village’s excellent bottle shop Good Beer NYC. “There’s no more space in the fridge,” she’d moan, forcing me to get my beer fix at spots such as the Upper East Side’s Earl’s Beer & Cheese or Rattle N Hum, a good beer refuge in Midtown.

Over time, these beers served as a drinkable lesson plan. I learned to differentiate earthy Fuggles hops from the piney Chinook. I understood how used bourbon barrels transformed humdrum stouts into a snifter-worthy indulgence and how wild yeasts and bacteria created sour beers that hit my sweet spot.

To share this knowledge with inquisitive beer drinkers across the globe, I stepped away from bars and into breweries, interviewing brewers and spelunking deep into the trends driving the craft beer revolution. And drinking. Oh, did I drink. The result of all that aspirin-popping work was my first book, Brewed Awakening, which was just released in November. To celebrate, I think it’s high time I had another beer. I doubt my craft beer curiosity will ever be quenched.

Gut Instinct: On Holiday

1229488642494882026a181 While these are tough times to earn a paycheck—soon, the Press will compensate me with ramen—there’s one upside to this rocky economic climate: drinking with canned comrades.

Recently, I’ve commiserated with a photo retoucher at Gowanus’ industrial-hip Bell House, where we sipped two-for-one Smuttynose IPAs. “No more full-price beers,” he lamented. Over at Crown Heights’ Franklin Park, which recently unveiled a gaming room, I shared Sixpoint microbrews with a fired condo broker. “Another round?” he asked.

“It’s not like I have to get up tomorrow.” Still, a laid-off editor friend’s invite was most enticing. “To celebrate my return to freelancing, I’ll be drinking at the Holiday,” he wrote. “It doesn’t get cheaper.”

“Yes, yes and yes,” I responded, later adding, “Sorry about your job.” Back in 2000, I lost my dive-bar virginity to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (75 St. Marks Pl. betw. First & Second Aves., 212- 777-9637). I know I sound like a knockedup teen, but I swear my cherry-popping was accidental. At the time (to conveniently extend my pregnancy metaphor), I toiled for American Baby magazine. By day, I’d sort mail and send toddler calendars to friends.

“Congratulations on your girlfriend’s pregnancy!” I’d write. “American Baby looks forward to joining your journey to fatherhood!” By night, I strolled darkened streets like Baudelaire’s flâneur.Then as now, I knew New York City’s secrets weren’t all Googleable.

Whither the street-corner magician? The Chinatown arcade offering Street Fighter II? My knowledge-seeking missions were fueled by a brown-bagged Bud, its boozy kiss making New York more lurid, more cinematic—and filling my corn-kernel bladder.

Wandering St. Marks one eve, direly needing a toilet, I spied the graffiti-splashed Holiday. A few chain-wearing punks poured out, puffing Marlboro Reds. Sketchily promising, I thought, yanking open the creaky door. Home, I sighed. That is, if home was filled with chain-smoking grandpas—as creased and worn as their stacks of dollar bills—watching Wheel of Fortune.

“Close the door!” shouted a dumpster of a dude. I obeyed. Who knew I liked being bossed around by old men? After relieving myself in a bathroom ripe with decades-old urine, I faced a bartender who recalled the Crypt Keeper.

“Whaddya want?” croaked the corpse-like octogenarian named Stefan Lutak. According to legend, Stefan was once an Olympic soccer star. Now, his only goal was getting drunk.

“Bud,” I ordered. Stefan cracked the beer and shuffled away to bus empty bottles, leaving me to scribble in my journal. Dear diary, I found a bar I loved! Like the best dives, the Holiday was a refuge, a port in the city storm where nobody asked questions or passed judgments, least of all Stefan. He’d inevitably drink himself into a surly stupor and sing warbling songs, like an aria dragged through the gutter. And when he’d finish crooning (or clearing his throat; I could never tell the difference), he’d often refuse to serve customers. One memorable Valentine’s Day, Stefan liquored himself into dreamland.

So us lonely-hearts bargoers went to a bodega and bought six-packs, partying at Holiday while Stefan cut Zs. Since falling for the Holiday, I’ve had countless dive-bar flings: Imperial Biker, Johnny’s, Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge.

Some would call it cheating. I prefer to think I’ve become a polyandrous lover of sleazy, whiskey-soaked saloons—rotgut whiskey is the route to my heart. But my editor friend’s firing brought me back to my first love.

Little had changed since my last years-ago visit. Then again, why should it? Dive bars exist in slowly degrading stasis. Swaths of duct tape held Holiday’s booths together, and Iggy Pop still sang about being a passenger.

Sure, drink prices ticked up a couple quarters but, defying medical science, they were served by the same gaunt figure.

“Stefan, can I have a beer?” I asked. He looked up, his eyes dripping with as much disdain as my mom’s after I wrote about her squirting me with her breast milk. “Whyyyyyyy?” he groaned, as if I’d killed his dog. “Because…you sell beer,” I said. Stefan wearily acquiesced. I brought my longneck to the I’m-fired gathering, where we discussed media’s collapse.

“The rate things are going, media will go down in flames. Anarchy will reign. But you know what will remain? Bloggers and Stefan.”

“To Stefan!” we said, drinking to survival against all odds.