The Tipsy

The Tiny Bar With the Heart of a Giant

For our new column on bar culture, The Tipsy, we’ll take you inside some of the city’s best places to drink. First up: Big Bar.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

If you’ve spent any time in the East Village over the past 28 years, you’ve almost certainly walked past Big Bar. It’s on one of those Village blocks bursting with boutiques and salons and organic juice stands. That’s not a gentrification joke—there’s an organic juice stand directly across the street from Big Bar.

So you’ve walked past Big Bar, but you may not have noticed it. Because Big Bar is small. Really small. If it were a studio apartment, the rent would be below $3,000. Yes, that small. But like a lion cub or Danny DeVito or Napoleon, while the bar’s body is slight, it’s heart is huge. Let’s take a peek inside so you can see what I mean.

Big Bar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Here is a watering hole where it actually makes sense to refer to it as a watering hole. It’s old school but not affected. The black vinyl booths are barely held together with duct tape. A series of circular mirrors along one wall gives off a vibe that says: Studio 54 meets a sailboat. Lift some seats and you’ll find a surprise: Beer and vodka handles stored inside the well of the benches. On a recent early evening, strong summer light filtered through 7th Street–facing windows, oozing into the shine from a red bulb to invoke just the right amount of seediness. A sign hanging from the ceiling advised: “One person per bathroom, please, or you will be asked to leave.” The message suggests a nod to pragmatics (see: small!) as much as guarding against narcotics. The stereo throbbed gently with ’90s hip hop—Brand Nubian, Das EFX—while a skinny, totally tatted bartender pushed cold beers to five or so patrons ringing the curved bar on jet-black stools.

“Well, he expertly poured that can of Guinness into my glass,” observed my wife, Catherine.

Big Bar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Right—the drinks! There is nary a signature cocktail to be spotted, and there’s just a single draft beer on tap (Bluepoint Toasted Lager). Bottles of frosty Bud cost a mere $4. If you’re feeling spend-y, cans of Founders IPA go for 5 bucks. A scotch and soda is just that and has nothing to do with the twee retail chain.

Big Bar stands out by being defiantly itself. Unchanged. Unconcerned. In that way, it is like so many New Yorkers wanting to be left alone, to be themselves.

All of which conspires to make Big Bar a respite. An urban oasis. It’s strangely quiet—especially midweek in August—and calm. There is no TV blaring. There is no TV at all. It’s odd to realize, but in a city with so much of everything, there are shockingly few neighborhood bars left where one can sip a simple drink, chat uncreepily with a stranger or—crazy!—read a book in the corner. Other dives live on nearby—Blue & Gold Tavern and Holiday Cocktail Lounge are a coaster toss away—but they are doing more to attract new and younger customers, offering games and re-engineered food menus. Big Bar stands out by being defiantly itself. Unchanged. Unconcerned. In that way, it is like so many New Yorkers wanting to be left alone, to be themselves. In that way, Big Bar is the city’s bar.

Big Bar
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

This has been true since 1990, when the establishment first opened, but has only become truer since Stefan Rak, who holds a master’s degree from New York University’s film studies program, bought the place in 2013. Rak, a former Big Bar ’tender himself, hires drink slingers who have an interest—and often a side hustle—in the arts.

“Most of the bartenders who work here,” he once told The New York Times, “they’re all very intelligent people who are passionate about music or the arts or film.”

Rak wants them to play the music they like in Big Bar, to help create the place in their image. And he leads by example: He hung his own poster for Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris on a wall.

That movie is about a French playwright working for a crass American movie producer and adapting a script based on The Odyssey. Art and commerce struggle to exist in the same frame—just like in New York City. Inside Big Bar’s intimate space, meanwhile, that struggle is shut out. Here, at least, your day dissolves happily in a fuzzy fade-out.

For more Dining and Drinking in slightly larger venues, see here.