Monday, July 7, 2008

When everyone has an opinion on a secret

A little while back I came across a post on Gawker about another secret bar location in the city. This one with some kind of creepy two-way mirror screening built into the entrance process. The info came via Jossip, which in turn was via Urban Daddy, but I stuck with the third-hand Gawker post to see what commentary the denizens of Gawker had to serve up.

I wasn't disappointed at all and dissolved into discreet office giggles when several comments ended up referencing the Konami Code and Super Mario Bros. 3. The general tone of these jokes seemed to indicate that the great lengths taken by this particular establishment was just plain ridiculous. One commenter, Grumpy McGillicutty, expressed the opinion that "The patrons are there to buy booze, and the bar is there to make money by selling them booze. The patrons are not there to supplicate and petition the bar for the privilege of supporting their business endeavor."

I'm personally more laissez-faire about the whole thing. I figure that with cocktails and beverages gaining as much spotlight as food, the bar and lounge business shouldn't be treated all that differently from the restaurant business. Especially in a saturated and diverse market like New York, it's not surprising to see how it makes sense to try and differentiate from the competition. So you're not a $1 PBR kind of place. Go get on with your bad self whatever your concept might be. In the end, the market would determine what works or not. Not that I'm particularly politically or economically minded. I guess it's just that the combined experiences of sitting in front of a bar as well as talking to those behind it has me easily playing point/counterpoint about the subject of secret bars and "speakeasies" whenever it comes up.

On the consumer side of things, it's not that hard to see that exclusivity can breed contempt. Whether the negative reaction is "Well, I didn't want to drink in your fancy pants bar anyway," or "This is too much trouble just to get a drink," the pitfall for secret bar operators is that smoke and mirrors can easily cloud the public opinion of an establishment regardless of the operators' intentions.

My friend Kate messaged me a little while back about a question that popped up on the question-and-answer portion of the community blog Metafilter. A user wanted to know how he could gain access to some secret bars in New York.

But Kate didn't message me to ask me help this particular user; her reasons were entirely more Bolshevik. "Give me the number so I can put it all over the internet and ruin their lives. Mwa ha ha."

A chunk of her beef with the place came from reading about about Milk and Honey from the viewpoint of several customer/reviewers online. Her message continued:

"Seriously, I'm reading on Yelp and it's all these douches being like, 'Oh yes, I got the number somehow, but no, boo, you don't get the number, unwashed masses.' Boooo."

I went over to Yelp to see what some of the reviewers had to say about the place.

Some of the reviews were straightforward accounts of visiting Milk and Honey, but then I'd find myself slightly cringing when I'd come across some variation of "But, yea, don't ask me for the number, nyah," or some manner of slight bragging about the well-heeled friend that got them in or how they're tight with such-and-such a bartender would pop up. I wanted to say to my flickering computer screen, "Look, we ALL know it's secret. That's kind of the point. I really don't see how mentioning that you enjoy hanging out with other M&H members or your magical dinner at Babbo beforehand is worth two figs to anyone else besides saying 'I'm this sort of person.' And stop complaining about people bugging you for the number. I have no sympathy for you. Maybe you should have thought a bit more about that before relating to the general public that you are in possession of said hot commodity."

Some might level charges of gimmickery at the place or some would say the entire experience is worth it for a handcrafted cocktail somewhere that wasn't a loud and crowded bar scene, but it wasn't too hard to see how a few rotten apples of asshattery could turn people off. Some were too wrapped up in rapt descriptions, that it made you doubt if their review really was for the benefit of others or if they just wanted to pat themselves on the back for having visited the place.

Say that one finds the crapshoot of whether or not you get a number an attempt to level the playing field in a city where too many times you don't get behind the velvet rope unless you're judged on looks or whether or not you can afford a table. And even say that Sasha Petraske's rules make sense to you since it helps to get away from that meat market-like atmosphere where you're no one unless you know someone and women aren't just there as props to be ogled at or bothered. Even so, unfortunately, customer behavior outside of the bar is something that all the changing numbers and rules in the universe can't do anything about.

Another anecdote: On a typical busy night in Crif Dogs eating my hot dog and chili cheese fries with some friends, I watched several sets of customers sitting around us whisper about the phone booth leading to PDT.

"You ever been in there?" I heard one ask only to be answered in the negative by his companion.

One emissary from another group of diners was goaded by his friends to try and see if they could get in to PDT "just to see what it's like" only to be rebuffed at the phone booth since, unsurprisingly, the place was filled to seating capacity. When a group showed up later and got through the phone booth (probably a table reservation), I overheard one of the rebuffed comment, "I guess they try to, like, keep a balance between girls and guys or something?"

It was so wrong an assessment that I almost stood up to go over and explain things to them, but sure *I* knew that the place took table reservations and really, there's no such thing as a secret handshake to getting into the place than being there when there's a seat, but for someone who only knows the reputation of "secret," what did it matter?

I couldn't oblige Kate's request to help her in her revolution against Milk and Honey, but instead I asked, "Do you want to go to Milk and Honey with me?" Considering my own spinelessly lackadaisical opinion about the whole affair I needed a reaction to the joint from a different perspective.

So Kate, her boyfriend Marc and I found ourselves crammed into a little booth on a Thursday night.

The first general topic of discussion was that the place was smaller than expected. Kate nodded and said that she supposed reservations really kind of were necessary for a place that size. It's not hard to find a bit of crowd control in some of New York's cocktail lounges. It's not hard to understand why either. There are bars, not secret even, that do not allow standing customers. Not so secret spots such as Death and Company and Hotel Delmano do it. In a way, the secret number is a type of crowd control. Though, yea, there's an added twist that if you can't really figure out a way to get the number, you're pretty SOL. Marc had to surrender his ever-present hat, but he said he did think the rules regarding how ladies were to be approached was pretty neat. There were no complaints whatsoever on the drinks front.

On a final note, I've always felt weird describing some places secret bars or speakeasies. They always seemed like just bars and lounges to me with varying levels of difficulty in regards to entrance. Like how with some restaurants, it's just impossible to get a reservation? To the army brat in me it seemed more like a system of like how classified government documents work. You got you Unclassifieds, you got your Confidentials, maybe even a Top Secret*. And like the Freedom of Information Act, you're always more than welcome to submit a request for what you want, but don't be surprised if it comes back inked up with black markers.

In the end, Kate was still annoyed by what she deemed the frippery of having an unlisted number as well as the idea of $15 drinks. However, she did enjoy her drink. Part of me wonders if Sasha Petraske would rather hear someone say that the place might not be exactly their cup of tea, but they still honestly enjoyed their cocktail or would he rather have a mountain of praise full of preening for a bar where rule number one is, "No name-dropping. No star f***ing."

*One time when I was 13 and was accidentally given some classified documents to handle while running errands at my summer job with the U.S. Army. I almost pooped a brick when I opened my messenger suitcase and saw the carmine bordered cover sheet with "CONFIDENTIAL" stamped ominously across it. The response from the commanding officer of the office I worked at was, "Oh, you weren't supposed to get that. Go ahead and go shred it." Fine, Confidential is the lowest level, but I didn't even attempt to sneak a peek for fear that MPs would come bursting in and drag me off somewhere to interrogate me about breach of security.

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