When the Manhattan Sideways team walked into Sugar Bar, there was an audible reaction. It was unlike anything we had ever seen: the walls are covered in decorations and musical instruments from Africa and a roof of straw covers the full-length bar. Colorful masks adorn the doors and lights peek out of artistic holes in red pipes, giving off a warm orange glow. Everything appears to be made of organic material: even the chairs are made of pieces of wood lashed together. In the back of the main room, a cave is dug into the wall where performing acts usually set up to play. That is what Sugar Bar is best known for: the music. Some truly soulful artists, such as Roberta Flack and Allison Williams, have passed under the straw roof. We learned from one of the servers, who also occasionally plays bass and guitar on Tuesdays, "For musicians, this is the place to be. This is the scene."
Leila, who is in charge of PR for Sugar Bar, told us a bit about its history. It was opened in 1996 by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, also known as the songwriting/performing duo Ashford and Simpson. All of the extraordinary pieces that decorate the space are part of their personal art collection. Their goal was to bring the culture and warmth of Africa to New York City in an “east meets west” fusion atmosphere. The décor of the space represents this mixture of worlds: While most of the pieces – such as the swords, carvings, and statues – are from Africa, there are many American pieces placed seamlessly alongside them. For example, Leila showed us some of the original panels from the S.S. Normandie, a ship that famously caught fire and sank in the Hudson River. I was shocked to discover that the panels were no behind glass and that any customer could go up and touch them. “This is not just a place for music,” Leila pointed out. “It is a place for culture. It transports you to a different time and place.”
Hugo, who has been working at Sugar since 2005, took us upstairs to the Cat Lounge, which can be used as a private room but also functions as a spillover bar (Valerie Simpson own the whole building, which dates back to the early nineteenth century). Bows, arrows, and representations of giraffes and elephants surround the Cat Lounge, but it was not until Hugo urged us to look up that we understood how it got its name: an enormous cat design is sprawled out on the ceiling. Despite his long career with Sugar Bar, Hugo said that he keeps discovering new things. He pointed out two little carved faces above the stairs as we descended. “It’s a fun place to work,” he said. “I like it.” Leila agreed with him, joking that she has tried to leave Sugar Bar multiple times, but keeps coming back, because there is no better place to be employed.
Downstairs, we met Terrell, who was manning the bar. He made us the signature "Sugartini" with cherry, peach nectar, Absolut, and peach schnapps, culminating in a not-too-sweet summery cocktail. He brought out an amazing sample platter, featuring fried catfish, jerk chicken wings, and lightly battered shrimp, which the Manhattan Sideways team delved into with vigor. Olivia exclaimed that the chicken was impossibly tender as it fell off the bone, while Tom found the two seafood dishes to be perfectly battered, providing crispiness, but not masking flavor. Nickolas and Valerie are both from South Carolina, hence the southern comfort food on the menu.
Terrell then surprised us with a "Passion Island" cocktail made with lime juice, mint leaves, and coconut rum, accompanied by plates of cornbread with strawberry butter, something that is served to every guest prior to their meal. Hugo continued to entertain us behind the bar as he poured a drink of his own making, which he calls "Coquito" or "Little Coconut." It was deeply refreshing, thanks to the healthy dose of coconut water. As if we had not eaten and drunk enough, Terrell presented us with plates of apple cobbler and bread pudding from the pastry chef, Jenny. The divine bread pudding was dripping in butter and cream, and when I took a bite of the cobbler, I immediately understood why Terrell had been raving about it. "I push the food honestly," he said. "I can't sell something I don't eat myself, and I eat here three times a week!"
The one thing we kept hearing from everyone at Sugar Bar was "You really have to come on a Thursday." Every night has some kind of music, whether it is Blues on Tuesday or Jazz on Wednesday, but Thursday is when the Sugar Bar really heats up with its open mic. Thursdays are often so crowded that the Cat Lounge fills up right away, and famous faces, such as Stevie Wonder, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Chris Tucker have been known to come by. Hugo mentioned, "Some people have been coming every Thursday since we opened and haven't missed one week." Terrell also urged us to come back on Thursday, saying that he would be working. "But it doesn't feel like work," he insisted. "It feels like you're hanging out with friends until four in the morning."
When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure.Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father.Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different," Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window." He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock."Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here."It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right." He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week." Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me."
“We are beer nerds, not beer snobs.” That is how Bo Bogle, the general manager of Gebhard’s Beer Culture, and Peter Malfatti, its beverage director, would describe the wood-furnished, cozy bar and restaurant that they opened in the summer of 2016, featuring various local and foreign artisanal beers on tap. The people behind Gebhard’s Beer Culture - the sister restaurant to Beer Culture on 45th Street - are as enthusiastic about beer as they are about educating customers.Because many of the beers that they offer are unknown to the general public, Gebhard’s will always work to find the draught that best suits each customer’s palate. If one feels like tasting several selections, the beer flight - a tray of four small glasses - is a good choice. Along with the continuously changing list of beers, the kitchen offers an ample menu of munchies, many from Belgium, as this is where owner Matt Gebhard spent time as a foreign exchange student.I was enchanted to discover how playful the space is: Upstairs, there is a games room, complete with a dartboard, shuffleboard, Hacky Sacks, and BulziBucket. The decorations throughout the bar and restaurant are eclectic, with various beer signs and novelty items covering the walls. At the front, I discovered a nook full of records, as well as a well-loved bicycle helmet. Bo and Ryan, the bartenders on duty, matched the vibe of the restaurant with their jovial nature as they poured beers for the Manhattan Sideways team. They set out glasses of citrusy TarTan Ale, a Central Waters Brewing Co beer, and a fresh, hoppy Southern Tier 2x Tangier. The two men knew exactly what to select for a hot day in the city and enjoyed tag-teaming descriptions of each beer and brand.Bo explained to us that the motivation behind Gebhard's Beer Culture is essentially a “passion for the local beer market.” With the recent proliferation of local breweries around the city and in the rest of the country, Bo feels that “individuals are making great beers and that should be acknowledged.” However, he believes it is not enough to simply have them on tap, but rather, the bartenders should teach customers about the local beer scene. Beer Culture’s objective is as much educational as it is to host many good nights with friends. When asked about the one thing that he would like customers to know about their new bar, Bo grinned and said: “the second beer always tastes better than the first.”
With its prime 72nd Street location, I have passed by Malachy's Donegal Inn almost daily, but had never stepped inside. I was always waiting for the day when I would be working on this street, so that I could go in with the Manhattan Sideways team and have a good time. And that is exactly what happened. "Looks can be deceiving, believe me," owner Bill Raftery immediately said when we popped in during the lunch hour in the middle of the week. He continued to speak lovingly and confidently of his pub, which has been in business since 1989. "This bar has the best pub food of any like it in the area," Bill stated. Looking around, we were pleased to find the old wooden bar packed from end to end. According to Bill, most of his lunch customers are crew guys from local theaters like The Beacon and Lincoln Center, and "they are loyal." Engaging in conversation with more than a dozen men and women, we learned a lot about Bill, and the warm environment that he has built.As Bill continued to serve people from behind the bar, he spoke of how much the neighborhood has changed since he purchased Malachy's. On Saint Patrick's Day, the area used to be blanketed in green bar-goers. "You could not move in this neighborhood the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There's nothing like seeing them blow up those balloons." Hikes in parking and travel costs have drastically reduced business on both of those days, he lamented. Still, he brightened up when pointing to the crowded bar, and said how his regulars are certainly devoted customers. Quite busy, he told us to stop by for a drink sometime soon, and headed into the kitchen.