Resurrecting a New York City Drinking Landmark
Every neighborhood in New York City is dying, they say. High-rise condo buildings and a homogenized landscape of national chains and personality-free restaurants have replaced mom-and-pop shops, neighborhood meeting places, and local dives. In the East Village, though, one such dive has gotten a new chance to be its old self.
Holiday Cocktail Lounge, located at 75 St. Marks Place, was once, the story goes, the go-to bar for people like Allen Ginsburg, Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones, and even the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Its almost 100-year history began in 1919 when it opened as a speakeasy, and ever since, its clientele was a creative mishmash, a reflection of the neighborhood where it’s located. The 1983 Madonna hit “Holiday” is said to have been inspired by the place.
“It has been part of the East Village’s social fabric for generations and a nexus for those who embrace iconoclastic creativity, artistic passion and boundless intellectualism and served as an antidote to everyday life,” says owner Robert Ehrlich, creator of the snack Pirate’s Booty, who spent three years renovating the bar.
Michael Neff, the bar manager formerly of Ward III and The Rum House, is especially keen on the historical relevance of Holiday. “With so much of authentic New York disappearing, it was truly a privilege to rescue a bar with almost a century of history,” he says, noting that during the renovation they found a Prohibition-era tunnel in the bar that takes you across the street.
In creating a cocktail program at a place with such a storied history as a dive, Neff decided to take his inspiration from what is available in the neighborhood. This leads to a bespoke style behind the bar; if there’s a big pile of turmeric being sold down the block, he will figure out a way to work with it. They’re making a Long Island Iced Tea, but it’s infused with tea purchased at Porto Rico Importing Co. in the neighborhood.
As a veteran of the craft cocktail scene who has seen its evolution, he believes there is a movement now toward simplicity. “We don’t want to be mixologists anymore. We just want to be bartenders,” he says. That’s why he’s focused on creating a menu that’s easily executable and “100 percent based in having a good time.” They’re working at a high level, but doing work that’s a bit cheeky from the standpoint of where cocktails are right now.
Revamping an iconic bar puts a premium on authenticity, and there is nothing authentic to the old East Village about paying $12 for a cocktail. Everything was super cheap at the old Holiday, and though now everything about running a bar is more expensive, the history has to be honored. “I want to be accessible,” Neff says, which is why you can get a $35 glass of top-shelf whiskey or a $4 beer and shot combo. “You don’t have to spend all your money when you come in,” Neff assures.
Holiday could have gone full-on kitsch in their reopening, but they’ve made the decision to look toward history and their neighbors for inspiration. It’s a bar working within a context, without hitting you over the head with it. Capturing the bar’s philosophy, Neff says of its storied history, “That New York is gone. How do we do things that can be infused with it?”