The first time I went to Henry Street Ale House I went in without expectations. I knew I would order a non-alcoholic beer. I didn’t know much else. Hailing from Indianapolis, then spending three years in Des Moines for law school, and all the while always feeling a strong draw toward New York City, my taste in bars varies quite a bit. Indianapolis and Des Moines taught me about dive bars, and the classic and not so smooth taste of a great Miller High Life.
When I think of these places, I hear Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond and Rush’s Time Stand Still playing in the background. There’s an innocence but also a great amount of energy and depth that’s held within these places. And thankfully, there’s probably a hundred or more great ones all throughout New York. The dive bars, the hole in the walls, for me, those felt like down-home places. Places where people who weren’t all that interested in being charismatic or precise would sit down and have a drink.
But as I was living in the Midwest for all of those years, before I moved here, and thinking of the City from afar, the City for me was the world of Gatsby, and Manhattan in particular, a place that must have been teeming with men who embodied the charisma and precision of Nick Carraway.
I wanted that charisma. I wanted that precision. I wanted to be in that City. Still, after having lived in New York for five years, I find myself pulled toward places that carry a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gatsby feel. What can I say, I’ve been reading The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald as the 2 train has pulled me from Midwood to Dumbo, then from Dumbo to Midwood, then rinsing and repeating again over the last two weeks.
When I first set foot in Henry Street Ale House, a wave of comfort and confidence fell over me. My friend and I had both arrived on time, at about 8pm on a Tuesday evening in early September, just after Labor Day, and when we walked in, we didn’t have any trouble finding two high seats along the bar. Everything inside henry Street Ale House is warm. The bar’s oak. The chairs are black leather with wooden brown backs.
And when you walk in, you get the sense that many-a-famous and historic Brooklyn Heights residents have gathered and huddled together over beers there. A little over a week after my first visit, I’m still picturing members of the Brooklyn Heights Neighborhood Association talking about how they’d save their historic and not quite yet landmarked tree-lined and fruit-name inspired streets.
Once inside, we sat at the end of the bar near the entrance. I ordered my Clausthaler non-alcoholic, he ordered an Oatmeal Stout. I was a bit envious. The stout looked amazing. I had sworn off drinking almost three years ago, but still, some beers just looked so comforting. Plus, the Oatmeal Stout looked as though it could fill up a grown man’s belly, at least halfway, and maybe two would actually serve as a full meal. But my non-alcoholic Clausthaler, though not as filling or inviting as the Oatmeal Stout, was more than nice enough to enjoy.
We didn’t have to wait for the bartender to come by. And when he did, he was more than cordial and courteous. Sean and I stayed for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Two beers a piece. They say a well-dressed man is one in which you do not notice his clothes. The same holds true for a great bar. You’re there. You meet with a dear friend. He orders his drink. You order yours.
Maybe there’s music on, but if so, you don’t really notice it. Maybe there’s a small television in the corner with a game on, but if so, you don’t really notice that either, unless your team is playing. But a great bar, at its core, should be distinctly accommodating to conversation.
This doesn’t mean that it has to be quiet. The jukebox can play loudly all night. Maybe the speakers above the dance floor are gigantic, and you can barely hear anything other than the music. But our conversations aren’t always spoken. But at their center, the very best conversations, are just shared experiences.
What do two people talk about at a raucous four hour Indianapolis Colts playoff game against the Patriots, in New England. They high five after the good plays. They hold their hands over their faces after the bad plays. They say, “I can’t watch,” before the most important plays, and if they’re lucky, they rejoice and embrace when it’s all over, and their team has won.
Henry Street Ale house is my kind of place. It draws you in. It’s there for you. It doesn’t really need you to notice it, to recognize and record what makes it great, it just wants you to have a nice and relaxing time, and if you’re lucky, share the experience with someone you can have a great conversation with. Even if you don’t say all that much.