The secret to a good bar has nothing to do with what beers are on tap or what its décor looks like. The only valid measure of a bar is its character, it supersedes all other measures. I’ve been in bars that reeked of piss and fruit flies that were a thousand times better than the cleanest, sleekest pre-fabricated gastropub.
Dive bars are often the best bars to visit. One of the finest pubs in the recent history of New York was the Village Idiot, which closed its doors in 2004 and had the most eclectic crowd ever. My first visit there a 6-foot-plus transvestite played pool with some tipsy yuppies while construction workers drank at the bar. Mars Bar had bathrooms that were even filthier than CBGB’s bathrooms, which were legendary for their filth. But it didn’t matter. Mars Bar and Village Idiot brought some of the most interesting varieties of people to drink together.
Of course there’s a certain hip cache to the dive bar now, but you can tell which bars are faking it and which bars aren’t. I like to think I’ve visited enough bars to be able to tell the difference without too much effort, but I’ve been out of the drinking game for more than five years now and my visits to bars are few and far between.
And New York City has lost some of its best dive bars. There are a few though that are keeping things alive. Nancy Whiskey, Rudy’s and The Patriot are all the real thing: good dive bars with real character.
But great New York bars are not restricted to the five boroughs, and one of the finest bars ever recently hosted its last hurrah.
The Alumni Club just outside the city limits in New Hyde Park, New York is a place I discovered through my wife, who was a long-time regular and used to tend bar there. It sat among a row of storefronts and its location was generally unremarkable. You needed a car to get there though theoretically you could take a Nassau County bus.
The Alumni Club was a bar that was both eclectic in its clientele and without pretension. While it had its population of longtime regulars, no strangers were ever made to feel unwelcome. I don’t even drink and I was welcome there. I would even bring in large beverages from the 7-Eleven across the street and no one would mind. I’d always ask the bartender if he or she wanted anything. I’m convinced the bar lost no money on my account; my wife could drink enough for both of us.
There was almost always some offering of free food and the owner or bartender encouraged visitors to eat. Once I went there to catch the end of the Georgia Bulldogs game and found they were in the midst of a “casino night” themed evening. The bar had some system worked out where they weren’t technically gambling there but I wasn’t sure how it worked and I figured the less I knew the better.
But the best part about the Alumni Club was the character and good atmosphere. It was not in a trendy part of the city and had nothing to prove. People who went there were working people who wanted to drink, not people who wanted to be seen drinking.
Needless to say a bar of this caliber of excellence tends to have many loyal patrons and when the bar announced it was going to be shutting its doors, employees and patrons alike began planning the farewell party.
The last Saturday this May was the Alumni Club’s big blowout party that included a lot of food and copious amounts of alcohol. T-shirts made for the event read, “We drank it dry.” Patrons lived up to the boast: when bartenders showed up for work the next day they found that the place had run out of beer.
This week Alumni Club will close its doors for good. Guests and employees will remember their alma mater with pride.