What is a Dive Bar?
"I spend a lot of time thinking about the definition of a dive bar," says Micheal Neff, the beverage director of the Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York's East Village. Neff has worked in and resurrected a number of dive bars (Clifton's Brookdale in Downtown LA, Three Clubs in Hollywood, Rum House in Times Square, and now the Holiday Cocktail Lounge), so you'd think this would a no-brainer for him when asked. Surprisingly he struggles with the answer. "I ask a lot people and everyone’s definition is different. A dive bar reflects the people that run it. The one theme that seems to be consistent is a 'come as you are attitude' as well as the idea that you can earn membership to it." For Neff, the currency for that membership is not a monetary dollar amount, it's a connection via music, a deck of cards, or back and forth dialogue with the people who work there.
"You take this big responsibility when everyone is looking at you saying, 'Don’t screw up my favorite place'. But what does that mean? I love old bars. I hate dirty bars and bars that are not maintained. If you came into the Holiday Cocktail Lounge about three and a half years ago, right before it closed, it was literally held together by the dust on all the garbage that was everywhere."
Resurrecting the Holiday
Getting into the business of gussying up a dive bar can be risky, but even harder with one as storied as the Holiday Cocktail Lounge where the barflies ranged from Allen Ginsberg to Frank Sinatra to Keith Richards. "Old dives bars are touchy to deal with because everybody feels an ownership of the place, it is also the biggest impediment to evolution and change."
Neff and his team restored the lounge to keep the original feel, but have raised the level of cocktails. "Elevated in the sense that it is cleaner, yes. Elevated in the sense that we have great bartenders and great products behind the bar. We took the idea of the past and said this is our version of it."
The bar originally opened the year that the Volstead Act was past in 1919. It was a beauty shop that had tunnels to the bar next door and a the theater across the street. When Prohibition ended, they were issued the 50th liquor license in the state of New York. In the 1940s, during the Burlesque era, it was the Ali Baba. When they were renovating they came across an original mural from Ali Baba, which nows hangs in the front of the bar.
Drinking at the Holiday Then and now
Michael Neff has his own memories of drinking at the Holiday. "I used to come here about 15 or 16 years ago, because I used to work across the street on First Avenue and St. Mark’s Place at a place called Tribe. I didn’t come here a lot, because if you came in and asked for a gin and tonic, the bartender would look at you and be like, 'Scotch and soda.' But I don’t want a scotch and soda, I want a gin and tonic." That attitude was done away with in the renovation, but Michael and team did keep a little nod to the past. "You can drink for cheap, but you are going to drink what I want you to drink. If you want to drink what you want to drink, then it costs what it costs. We have a Long Island Iced Tea on the gun which is $6. If you want the $6 cocktail, then this is what it is. You can’t swap them out. Our cocktail menu is super cheeky and fun, but to me this is an Old Fashioned kind of place."
The man Neff credits with saving the Holiday from becoming a Duane Reade is owner Robert Ehrlich, of the snack food empire, Pirate's Booty. "Robert could have done anything with this place. He could have made it a bank. He could have sold it to NYU. Even as a bar, he could have literally put anything in here because we are right on St. Mark’s Place. Everyone is competing for those same college kids. He was very much willing to take a risk and say 'I want the best bar in New York.' So do I. That is all I ever do and all I will ever do with the rest of my career just try to have this impossible thing of the best bar in the world. Because that has no definition either."
Michael Neff Stories + Guides