Whether you’re a native New Yorker or a transplant, you’re expected to know about a few go-to bars where you could throw a birthday party, chill with friends, or just spend the night alone nursing a glass of fine scotch. Of these go-to spots, there will always be a need for the solid neighborhood bar—a divey little place where you can easily strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, right after catching up with the regulars. In Kensington, there’s an under-the-radar bar that meets the criteria while promising something a bit extra: a touch of nerdiness. One word, three syllables: Hinterlands.
My wife and I first came upon this spot by accident. We had just moved from our tiny apartment in Bushwick to a slightly less tiny apartment in Ditmas Park and didn’t know much of anything about the area, except that it was far away from everything else. Unlike Bushwick’s bar-heavy streets, side streets, alleyways, and warehouses, we found Ditmas Park to be a little light on the nightlife scene. It’s not a huge deal for a couple of homebodies, but a bit concerning for those cold winter nights when we’d need a hot toddy and good company.
One January evening, we took a stroll and decided to wander from our familiar streets toward another suspiciously cute area of Brooklyn, Kensington. As we turned onto Church Avenue, we saw a glass door open in the near distance, letting out a soft wave of jazzy music onto the street, luring us in with the promise of warmth.
We sat in the nearly empty bar, unsure what to expect but comforted by a knowledgeable yet unobtrusive bartender who ran through the draft list and nightly specials. We were enticed by the wide selection of local beers but had one drink and one drink alone stuck in our minds: a hot toddy.
Those who stay up long enough can smell the wafting scent of chocolate and pastries sneaking in from next door’s German bakery, Der Pioneer.
Hinterlands is what every neighborhood bar should aspire to be: calm, cozy, low-key, and free from stress. You might miss it if you didn’t know what you were looking for—a door leading inside to a dark room with red faded floral wallpaper, the kind of space you’d expect to find in an old-school Russian restaurant…or perhaps your grandma’s dining room. The mellow atmosphere and decor provide a sort of instant calming relief, while the expansive list of beers and an impressive cocktail menu keeps you from falling back on your go-to drink. You could order a shot of Fernet-Branca, a glass of fine scotch, a local beer from Brooklyn, or a Budweiser.
During the winter, this place is a solace from the cold, wet Brooklyn streets, which—when paired with its hot toddies—makes for an excellent way to spend the night. In summer, a big backyard provides ample space to mill around, chat with friends, hold a birthday party, or just relax. As an added bonus, those who stay up long enough can smell the wafting scent of chocolate and pastries sneaking in from next door’s German bakery, Der Pioneer.
Run by husband-and-wife team Stuart and Sharlene Wellington, along with another partner, this little bar has come a long way from what it was originally intended to be.
“Hinterlands started as an idea to open a game store,” Sharlene says, “but we quickly realized that we couldn’t make it in retail in this town.”
“Sharlene had a lot of experience both bartending and running a bar,” adds Stuart about his bar-transforming wife. “So we thought it might make sense to run a bar that was ‘game friendly.’” Nods to its gamer friendliness are apparent, beginning with the bathroom wallpaper selection (pages from old Dungeons & Dragons handbooks) and continuing with weekly game nights, viewing parties ranging from the debates to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and literary meet-ups.
Sharlene goes on to describes Hinterlands’s vibe as “1970s parents’ basement, except instead of kids, it’s people in their 40s who are allowed to drink.”
“It’s a neighborhood bar,” says Stuart. “It’s a little bit cute and a little bit nerdy.”
Call it intuition or a simple understanding of their surroundings, but the Wellingtons have brought something special to Kensington: a chill spot with good drinks that’s neither expensive nor pretentious. It’s the place everyone wants to be, yet somehow never so crowded you can’t get a seat.
As for the hot toddy my wife and I had that night, it was nothing short of perfect. Not too sweet, not too hot, and poured by a heavy-handed bartender who knew exactly what we wanted on such a blustery cold evening. When combined with the cozy atmosphere and twinkling lights above the bar, it was as if we had stepped out from the streets and into a friend’s living room. Except this friend could make one hell of a drink.
Jeremy Glass is a Brooklyn-based writer with a very funny Twitter handle (@CandyandPizza). He previously wrote about the best watering hole in Windsor Terrace and the East Village’s best Ukrainian restaurant (which, spoiler, is not Veselka).