Dumps, Dives and Holes: Welcome to the Johnsons

A regular night at Welcome to the Johnsons is a bit like going to a distant relative’s house for a holiday no one particularly knows the genesis of. It’s loud, drunken, and packed with overly friendly strangers. But unlike the utter undesirability that is the extended family celebration, Welcome to the Johnsons offers an upside: cheap drinks, low lighting, and the option to leave. 

The decor is exactly that of a late ’70s suburban family’s basement. Cacophonies of patterned linoleum tiles comprise the floor, and the bottom half of the walls are covered with wood paneling. Christmas lights cling up and down the walls framing old family photos, mirrors, and various kitsch. The chunky wooden living room set with plastic-covered cushions sits opposite the bar, and a random selection of chairs and small tables accumulate toward the back (including a cool working Ms. Pacman table). The back room houses the pool table and very decent jukebox. In fitting with the suburban rec room theme, they’re the only forms of physical entertainment in the place.

During the daytime or early evenings, it’s best to snag a seat at the wrap-around bar, preferably next to the window. The little area is secluded enough that people won’t try to constantly talk to you, and I’ve found that sitting on the sofa can make you quite tired. In general, it’s better to come to this bar earlier. I mean, it gets packed! And not with people you want to be packed in with, either. It’s usually a combination of young tourists and Greek life-oriented college students. One time I was sitting there, and as sundown approached some sort of activity-related tour group flooded in wearing matching monogramed t-shirts, all of them drunk. It was rough. 

Another reason to go earlier in the day is the awesome happy hour! Opening at 3PM on Mondays through Thursdays and 1PM on weekends, Buds and all well drinks are only two bucks until 9PM. PBRs are two dollars at all times, and a beer and a show runs seven dollars. If you go, get there early, and bring a little cash and a friend or two. It’s a great pregame spot before the club, or a good place to catch up with an old pal on a summer afternoon. 

Lower East Side Reborn (as a Fat Baby)

At the beginning of the aughts, scenesters were already chattering that the Lower East Side was dead. After decades of hosting immigrant cultures and earning a reputation as the neighborhood most likely to relieve you of your wallet, Max Fish be damned, its moment as an urban frontier for artists and cool kids, off the radar of tourists and the tragically unhip, ended quickly. It rapidly swarmed with high-end boutiques and expensive lounges and out of town guests directed there by a knowing concierge, while staples like Luna Lounge, Tonic and Collective Unconscious were forced out of the ‘hood they helped create.

Because the new offerings were targeted to a bland, wealthy audience dependent on the ‘00s boom economy, and unlikely to move into apartments the size of tenements, whatever the counter-tops were made of, it was predicted that customer traffic would eventually trickle down and high-rents would topple the new neighborhood order. Blogs like Eater pulled no punches when reporting on venues like The Blue Seats, whose initial customer “deal” was to offer NFL game-day seat reservations for $50 a piece – excluding the cost of drinks. (Despite being “Deathwatched,” Blue Seats is still open for business.) Back in 2006, I had an assignment to write a piece about the rumored closing of Ludlow Street’s split-level club Libation and what that meant for the neighborhood. It, too, is still open.

In fact, despite the financial and real estate markets having soured, business is still booming on the LES. Clothing boutiques abound in even greater numbers than they did five years ago. The pricey and unremarkable restaurant at the Hotel On Rivington, now called Levant East, seems to be humming along after several misfires. The weekend lines outside the overpriced, widely-reviled, tightly-packed rock club Fat Baby are long, and brimming with a bridge and tunnel crowd. There’s no shortage of acclaimed restaurants or $6 draft beers within arm’s reach of the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington. It’s hard to get weekend seating at beer havens Spitzer’s Corner or the Marshall Stack and just about impossible to spend less than $20 on two beers and an appetizer in either venue.

And, there’s so much more to come. At least two dozen nightlife venues have opened, or are about to open, in the hood this year, despite the recession. Apparently, flavorless gentrification can go on and on and on, a lesson we should have learned from the Meat Packing District.

The LES’s new hangouts include, The Doghouse, a cavernous dive bar that serves free hot dogs; Meatball Shop, self-explanatory; T-Poutine, dishing up the newly trendy Canadian confection involving fries, gravy and cheesecurds; Los Feliz, a three-story upscale taco and tequila bar; Thompson LES, a trendy hotel with a poolside lounge and a zero-star restaurant (hello, alumni sorority mixer!); Bia Garden, a mostly-hidden Vietnamese beer garden; an upcoming piano bar AND an upcoming karaoke lounge; and yet another unnamed, unlisted speakeasy far from the subway. I don’t intend to label any of these concepts as dreadful (Los Feliz and Bia Lounge seem to be well-regarded), but none of them seem particularly inventive, with their well-studied, one concept hook. Would you brag about any of those things to your out-of-town friends to justify your four-figure rent?

Of course, if you’re forced to hang on the LES, which inevitably, you will be, many of the spots that opened in the aughts, and especially the later aughts, aren’t so bad. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well enjoy a Banh Mi and a good cocktail. So if you do find yourself wandering south of Houston, east of Bowery, here’s a game plan that works. The LES is dead, long live the LES.

Eat lunch at An Choi. The entire menu is superb, and it’s a particularly suitable place to grab a lunchtime banh mi and beer — and if daytime drinking is not your thing, the Roasting Plant serves exceptional coffee mere steps away. Grab first date drinks at Allen & Delancey, which still runs an impressive bar even if the kitchen is infamously volatile. Get your snack fix at Mikey’s Burger, imminently opening in the old Rush Hour space, where Michael Huynh promises to offer clever Asian spinoffs of the American classic. Browse leather jackets at Orchard Street on Sundays, when pedestrians reclaim the street from vehicles and the storefront’s move their racks to road’s center. Drink one of the last cheap PBRs around at Welcome To The Johnsons, which hasn’t changed since you were last there in 2004. Find one of the first respectable LES sushi restaurants at Uo (mostly unmarked, above longtime resident 151 Bar). Eat fresh liquid-nitrogen-made ice cream — indeed, they make it right in front of you with KitchenAid Artisan mixers — at Lulu And Mooky’s. Get your dance party fix at 200 Orchard, once the hottest new neighborhood nightclub in 2007, for just over a month until it had licensing issues — it recently reopened, finally. You know exactly what you’re getting at Stuffed Artisan Cannolis (as a self-respecting Italian I can tell you that the regular cannolis are good, but the cannolis with unusual fillings, PB&J, pumpkin spice, are better). Finally, if you are nightlife royalty and you must do one thing that is late-night, exclusive, luxurious and satisfying, stop at The Eldridge. You will find a buzzworthy hotspot that delivers the goods — if you can get past the doorman

New York: Top 10 Bars to Kick Off a Serious Bender

Le Souk Harem (Greenwich Village) – East Village pariah/magnet Le Souk adds “Harem” to the name, signals that it’s not going all PC yet. Belly dancers, hookahs, general debauchery spread out over massive tri-level space. Start this thing off classy. You’ll eventually make it down to the Mars Bar level. ● Little Branch (West Village) – Apparently, “little branch” is Native American slang for “get loaded, righteously, with elegant grace and speed.” Subterranean lounge known for stiff pours. Will definitely kick-start a couple of weeks to not remember. ● Superdive (East Village) – Bottle service is so 2008 — hook us up with a keg, brah! Adult supervision not an emphasis here, therefore good launching pad for the myriad enticements of the EV.

Welcome to the Johnsons (Lower East Side) – Funkiest spot in town — at least in the smell department. Our fraternity basement was Bliss Soho compared to this joint. Décor looks like the rec room of a pedophile uncle, convenient when verticality or even bar stools are more than you can handle. Do not touch any surfaces. ● Automatic Slim’s (West Village) Once dazzling, now dingy black ‘n’ white floor says it all. Bender- starting kind of begs for bar-top dancing, does it not? ● Tortilla Flats (West Village) – Girls gone wild turning muy moronic. Ahh, the real Cancun right here in Manhattan, sans the tans and natives, though commensurate number of social diseases. Perfect when you’re about to indulge in an extended spate of anti-culture. ● Jeremy’s Alehouse (Financial District) – What’s more refreshing than a mega-sized Styrofoam cup of brew under a low acoustic-tile ceiling? Real New York scene of firemen and brokers, plus MTA crews enjoying after-work beers at 8am so you won’t have to drink through the morning alone. ● 123 Burger Shot Beer (Midtown West) – Spring break hits Hells Kitchen. Gimmicky, sure, but satisfyingly cheap. Two burgers, two beers, one shot, one tenner. Easy math for newly unemployed financial analysts. ● Holland Bar (Garment District) – Hard times? Good times. Holland Bar gets squeezed out by rent hike, only to have Port Authority-ass-end retail not look so hot after all. Original memorabilia is gone, so come bleed on a new era’s worth. ● Mars Bar (East Village) – Regulars are a bunch of grizzly drunks, and not the cute variety, who definitely don’t want you fucking with their jukebox, no matter how “authentic” you think their joint is. “Authentic” as in bloody condoms on the windowsill. Can only go up from here.

New York: Top 10 Ways to Get Drunk on the Cheap

imageAre you tired of hokey recession specials that never end up scratching your gnawing, thirsty itch? We are rapidly becoming a city of broke drunks, thus it is vital we learn how to be the best broke drunks we can be. If you have no job, no prospects, and only a few bucks, but still maintain flawless taste, then check out the top ways to get your drink on without further damaging the already broken bank.

Calle Ocho (Upper West Side) – Go to this spacious, attractive UWS Nuevo Latino on Sundays and order an appetizer. The policy is you must eat some sort of food in order to partake in the monster “sangria station,” which is totally and completely F-R-E-E! That is correct, kiddies. A bevy of fruits, wines, rums, and all sorts of tasty drinkable treats line the dining room buffet-style, where you can ladle yourself to inebriation for hours. ● Welcome to the Johnsons (Lower East Side) – I like my bars how I like my men: grungy and cheap. This place is suitable for getting sloshed before going to the neighboring, pricier hotspots such as the Hotel on Rivington, 205, or Stanton Social.

Bar 13 (Greenwich Village) – If you don’t mind a little poetry slam, Monday features two-for-one cocktails. Maybe you’ll get some inspiration, grab the mic, and produce your very own poem for the crowd. Here is mine: There once lived a broke girl from New York. She could barely afford fried rice with pork. She spent her dollars on drinks. It is not foolish she thinks. For calories taste better via straw vs. fork. ● Village Pourhouse (Upper West Side) – The Columbia-area outpost has a deal so creative and alluring you will consider grabbing a cab to 108th Street from wherever you are right now (I know I am). If you take a taxi anytime and save your receipt, the bar will reimburse you in alcohol for whatever amount you spent to get there. Afterward, take the subway home, and you just had yourself an almost free night, other than tipping the bartender and one swipe of the MetroCard. ● Delancey (Lower East Side) – The roof is wonderfully enchanting for a spot on the less-attractive edge of the LES. If you are unemployed, they give you free shots of tequila on Tuesdays, which is magical in its own regard. Do not ask me how to prove you are jobless. Perhaps bring a record showing your pathetically low bank statement or letter of dismissal from your most recent employer? ● Antik (Greenwich Village) – This lounge on the Bowery employs bartenders that are fantastic about buybacks, and the occasional surprise open bar is a bonus too. Promoter Ruben Araneta told me the real secret: Go on a Monday, say his name at the door, then find him inside to cop a free vodka cran from his bottle — especially if you are female (duh!) and attractive (double duh!). ● The Orchard (Lower East Side) – BYOB Sundays. Go to the liquor store and buy a cheap bottle of wine (or stop by a bodega and grab some brew) which you can bring to this delightful restaurant. From there, order the cheapest dish on the menu and enjoy a night out while your money stays in — your wallet, that is. ● Hill Country (Chelsea) – Tuesday is the day to venture here and let your nostrils take in the BBQ aromatics while putting back two-for-one specialty drinks from open till close. They also have their usual 3-6pm Happy Hour all day on Tuesday, which includes two-for-one PBRs, $5 well drinks, $20 buckets of Lone Star, and $2 well shots. Spend $10 on five shots. Before you know it, you will have forgotten your money woes, mindlessly square dancing to the live country/rockabilly bands. ● Alligator Lounge (Williamsburg) – Because let’s face it: When one gets boozy, hunger is sure to follow. With the purchase of any alcoholic drink at this Willyburg dive, you receive a free personal pizza hot out of the wood-burning oven. The pies are surprisingly tasty for the fabulous cost of free, and they become even yummier after two beers. ● Rosa Mexicano (Union Square) – Warning! This place is not inherently cheap. But there is one drink that you will only need two of to do the trick. Avoid all expensive food and cocktails — except for the pomegranate margaritas. These lethal, frozen concoctions look harmless enough. They are pink after all. But the drink must be laced with sodium pentothal or something because they get you stripping-in-the-streets-singing-show-tunes-dialing-your-ex smashed. Do not consume more than three.