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The Auction House

Opening Hours
Today: 6pm–2am
300 East 89th Street
The Auction House 1 Bars Upper East Side Yorkville

With velvet curtains, old art, and gilded mirrors, the Auction House resembles a centuries-old salon. Although regal and classic, I found it to be very approachable. The exposed brick walls – now a common feature of New York City bars – and warm, low lighting makes the space seem more like someone’s living room than a museum. The cozy drape-enclosed rooms attract locals who enjoy huddling around the fireplaces in the cooler months.

The bar calls itself a “diamond in the rough,” a term with which I heartily agree. I spoke to Johnny B. Barounis, who explained that when he first opened the bar in 1993, it was the only one of its kind. Johnny got his start in 1978 working the door at places like the China Club. He prided himself on being “the first person somebody sees on the way in, and the last on the way out.”

After a while, he became tired of the “big, loud, schmaltz-filled nightclubs” and wanted to open a place where people could have conversations and escape the chaos of the city. He opened the Auction House, which earned its name because most of its furniture and art came from the auction houses that Johnny scoured throughout the Northeast. The reproductions of old paintings, especially by Rembrandt and De Goya, fit very well in the space, which, being an old carriage house, has fifteen foot ceilings. As for the furniture, “the turn of the century motif will never go out of style,” Johnny said while discussing the timelessness of his design choices.

At the time, the only real bars were traditional Irish ones, so Johnny was a true innovator in creating something more like a drawing room or a parlor – “a lounge.”

“We were one of the first lounges in the city. Now everyone has a lounge,” Johnny stated, adding that many policies that are now commonplace were first set into motion by the Auction House. For example, after spending many years running the doors of nightclubs and seeing the damage that people fresh out of college (“In their fifth year of college,” as he put it) could do, Johnny implemented an over-25-only rule, which was enforced with ID checks at the door. He also did not allow baseball hats: “It’s always the kid with the baseball cap that causes problems.” As a big animal rights activist, he does not allow fur to be worn in his establishment. The Auction House also has never had any signage. When the lounge first opened, not having a sign was a very risky move. It soon leant the place a sense of mystery and privacy, however, suggesting that patrons of the bar “had to know about it.” The policy attracted quite a few celebrities, including many SNL cast members. These days, however, many bars opt to have no sign. Johnny suggested that he has considered adding a sign to the auction house, just because the idea of having no marking on a bar has become so mainstream.

Johnny is very proud to have been continually running a bar for over twenty years. “In this city, four years is considered a long run.” More specifically, however, Johnny is happy to have designed a space where people can make connections. “Five different people met their spouse here in our first year,” he said, proudly. “We’re putting people together.”

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The Auction House 1 Bars Upper East Side Yorkville
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The Auction House 5 Bars Upper East Side Yorkville
The Auction House 6 Bars Upper East Side Yorkville
The Auction House 7 Bars Upper East Side Yorkville

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Trinity Pub

I walked into Trinity Pub just a few moments after it opened at 5pm, and was soon followed by a stream of customers. "It's a neighborhood bar, " Barry, the bartender, told me. "The kind that's quickly disappearing in Manhattan. " He pointed out a man and a woman who had just taken a seat at the bar, explaining that they used to live in the area, but had recently moved to Westchester. Though they had a few other errands to run, they essentially decided to visit the city in order to have a drink in their old pub. "It's the best bar in NYC, or at least the friendliest, " the man exclaimed. The woman nodded, saying that she had met her husband in medical school, "And he remembers every exam we've taken, " she said, pointing to Barry. Barry is clearly a big reason why people become regulars. With his genuine nature, big smile, and quick wit, he is everything one might want in a bartender. But he was quick to heap praise on the owners of the bar (Gene, Billy, and Timmy) for their management. He told me that they used to work around the corner at a bar called Fitzpatrick's. After it closed in 1996, they opened Trinity Pub, and the entire Fitzpatrick's crowd showed up to help get it ready for opening night. I then learned that the space had been a bar since the 1930s, mostly run by German and Hungarian immigrants. In the 1940s and 1950s, the bar was known as "Schubert Hall" and then was a firefighter's bar called "Sidestreets" in the 1970s and 80s - much to the delight of those of us from Manhattan Sideways. Barry showed us an old photograph of the bar from the 1940s as well as an online list that named Trinity Pub as one of the oldest bars in the neighborhood. He also shared a story of how he had once met an eighty-year-old woman who remembered coming by and pulling her German father out of what was then Schubert Hall. In addition to Trinity Pub, the owners run two other bars in the neighborhood (Banshee and The Gael), and Barry was proud to tell me that they have been able to pay for their children's education thanks to the three bars. Barry pointed out some of the signature traits of Trinity. He pulled out the plaque that listed the pub as pouring one of the greatest pints according Guinness consumers in 2008. In addition to trivia every Monday and a well-attended happy hour from 5pm-8pm, Barry informed us that the bar offers the chance for charity guest bartending, where the proceeds from a group of thirty or more go towards a charity of the guest bartender's choice. On the back wall, there is a mural of three Irishmen sitting at a bar. Barry told me that they call it the "three wise men. " And how fortunate were we to actually witness a meeting of three modern day Irish men as they sat down next to each other. They all appeared to know Barry, an Irishmen himself, but did not know each other. They quickly began asking about their hometowns, inquiring how often they go back, and offering one another candy. What better way to be given a clear glimpse of the friendships that are born and grown in this welcoming pub.

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There are twenty-four taps in use every night of the week at Bondurants, and when the bar hooks up a cask to the final, larger tap, there are twenty-five beverages available. Bondurants has become known for its rotating draft list that features both local brews as well as lesser-known international brands. The bar also prides itself on its small batch of bourbons made at local distilleries and its quirky cocktails with names that include "Fizzy Lifting Drink" and "Fernet Me Not. " There is also a full dinner menu, offering everything from traditional southern pulled pork to a fresh kale and collard salad, as well as a brunch menu that is beloved in the neighborhood. Specials rotate with the seasons and everything is sourced locally whenever possible. Caity Prunka, one of the owners of Bondurants, told me, "We make nearly every food item in-house, from grinding meat daily for burgers to smoking our own cheeses. "The bar is decorated to look like an upscale moonshiner's haven. Many customers link the name to the famous moonshiner family, though Jess, the bartender, smiled and suggested that the name comes from elsewhere. The walls are lined with shelves holding barrels, glasses and funnels with lettering that is reminiscent of Appalachia or the Wild West. It is a true urban saloon. Many of the decorations have stories behind them. For example, when I pointed out the manatee statue on the central bar column guzzling whiskey, Jess told me that one of the owners is from Florida, where manatees are considered the state marine mammal. "It's his piece of home, " she said with a smile.

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Brandy's Piano Bar

Brandy's Piano Bar, located on a quiet Yorktown street, has been a piano bar since 1979 but has been a straight-up bar for even longer. When the current owner took over in 1985, he renovated the space and discovered the original panels that decorate the short dividing wall between the bar and the seating area. They feature the bar as it once was, and the two men portrayed in front of the building are thought to be the original owners. I spoke to Peter, who has been working at Brandy's Piano Bar since St. Patrick's Day in 2014. Although Brandy's features a singing wait staff, Peter works the earlier hours, noting that he only sings "in the shower. " The bar offers a happy hour from 4pm to 8pm with live music beginning every night at 9: 30pm. The piano player rotates each night; therefore, one can expect to be able to listen to anything from Broadway hits to classic piano tunes to the top forty. Requests are welcome and according to Peter, "There's no song they won't try... though they might be crap at it. "While customers sing along, it is the waitstaff that steal the show, with many of them moving on to roles on and off-Broadway. Peter pointed out the signed posters from New York professional productions that decorate the back wall. They represent the shows that feature ex-Brandy's employees. Some even return to Brandy's after a run on Broadway, including Lauren Mufson, who played Donna in Mamma Mia. Peter explained that Brandy's is a great place for people who do not want to visit a "touristy" location. Though the after-9: 30pm crowd is different every night and comes from all over the city and the world, Peter's early evening crowd is familiar to him, full of locals and regulars. Despite the amazing musicians and voices that pass through, Brandy's is still a neighborhood joint, complete with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

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Reif's Tavern

It is not every day that one can walk into a bar at six o'clock in the evening and be greeted by an eighty-four year old woman in a soft pink cardigan sweater with pearl buttons, serving beer to her customers. "She is our shining beacon, " one of the gentlemen announced as soon as he saw the expression on my face. He then told me that Rosie began working at Rief's Tavern as a young woman, when there used to be a kitchen in the back. She would cook side by side with "Mama Reif. " Today, the kitchen is gone, but what remains is a room complete with a pool table, shuffle board and golf machine. Farther back, there is an outdoor garden. Rosie returns each Wednesday to act as the bartender and to serve her loyal customers. "We are doing our best to keep her out of retirement, " one gentleman piped in. He told me that he travels in from Queens every week "just to sit at the bar and order a drink from our Rosie. " Rosie smiled and commented, “I've been around a long time, but that doesn't mean I'm the best bartender. " Apparently, others do not agree. Before I could fully explain my reason for stopping by, several people interrupted me, wanting to tell me not only about Rosie the bartender, but about the history of their neighborhood tavern. Michael and his friend Susan were kind enough to speak on behalf of everyone, as he seemed to have been coming to Reif's the longest. Michael has lived in the area for his entire life. When he was just a toddler, his mom would "kick" both he and his dad out of their apartment on Saturday afternoons, so that she could clean, and his dad would take him to Reif's. This was in the early 1960s. Today, at the age of fifty-three, Michael still lives nearby and continues to patronize the tavern. As for the origins of the bar, John and Bobby were two brothers who opened Reif's in 1942 and then were clever enough to purchase the building a number of years later. In 2016, the next two generations are still running the place and living upstairs. The environment that these two men created years ago has continued on, so much so that Michael told me that though they might be considered a "dive bar, " to the many locals who frequent Reif's almost every night, but, he said "This is family. " The regulars are involved in every aspect of each other's lives, attending celebrations from births to funerals. They even "abandon the bar sometimes" to go bowling together, and have traveled as far as Barbados as one big happy crew - including the Reifs. After spending a very pleasant time with this splendid group of regulars, I received one more heart-warming quote from Michael: "This place is not just about having a cocktail in a bar, it is more like a social club that if you're lucky enough, you get to be in it. "

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Ryan's Daughter

Though Ryan's Daughter has been operating since 1979, there has been a drinking establishment on the corner of East 85th Street and First Avenue since the Prohibition era, when it was a German club. It remained under German ownership through the 1930s and was then officially licensed as "The Old Stream" until the 1970s, when it passed into Irish hands. It was renamed "The Minstrel Boy" in 1974, after the traditional Irish song. In 1979, under new ownership once again, the name changed to Ryan's Daughter, a reference to the famous 1970 Irish film starring Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles. Throughout this entire period, the spot remained a friendly neighborhood watering hole. "This is a home for everybody, " Michael "Mick" Mellamphy said. He owns the bar with Jim Gerding, whom he met while working here in the late nineties when it was still owned by Stoney McGurrin. The two men made sure to share this information with me: Though they officially took over in 2011, Stoney is still around and very much involved. While I was speaking to Mick, I was able to witness Stoney's involvement first-hand when he dropped off a plate of food to Mick, encouraging him to eat during his long bartending shift. "He's the most interesting guy in the world, " Jim told me. Stoney was born in Ireland and moved to the United States in his teens. He worked at a series of odd jobs, including as a bartender, a cabdriver, and as a truck driver with an African-American partner in the 1960s. "He's a great storyteller, " Jim added, mentioning that Stoney lives above the bar and essentially acts as a live-in handyman and consultant. "He doesn't go fishing; he wakes up and goes to work. "Jim and Mick have tried to keep the bar the same ("We keep it like we found it, " Jim said), and they have been rewarded by meeting people who recognize the bar from years gone by. For example, Mick told me about a regular who was married at the bar back when it was The Old Stream, as well as an elderly woman who lives in the neighborhood whose father used to come to the bar during World War II. As I talked with the two men, I was surprised to see how busy the bar was, notwithstanding that it was midday on a weekday. Mick said that it was not uncommon to see a crowd that size. He then pointed to a group of nurses who had just gotten off an early shift, and were celebrating as if it was Friday night. Mick said that when he first started out in 1999, there were a lot more construction workers and retirees during the daytime hours. Now, the neighborhood has gotten younger and construction workers are no longer allowed to drink at lunch. "Places that do well are places that appeal to the locals, " he told me, and Ryan's Daughter certainly fulfills that requirement. The bar itself is a fun, two-storied collection of eclectic knick-knacks. There are assorted signs from Ireland, a Hoop Fever game in the back, and various advertisements for the "Unofficial Upper East Side Billiards Competition. " My eye was drawn to a shoe repair sign in the back. Jim told me that the bar acquired the sign after hosting a party for a man who used to repair shoes across the street. He had been in the same shop for fifty years, and so when he went out of business, the pub decided to send him off in style. The whole neighborhood turned out, as well as Channel 7 News, and Jim and Mick kept the sign as homage. Jim led me to the cozier upper level where the bar holds a variety of events, including jazz on Thursday nights, various play readings, and private parties. Ryan's Daughter tries to appeal to a variety of tastes and demographics. As Jim said, "Whether you've lived here your whole life or just got here a week ago, either way, this is your extended living room. "

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