67 Orange Streetby Mitchell Kuga
2082 Frederick Douglass Boulevard | Harlem
All good bars tell a story. Harlem’s 67 Orange Street does so literally, binding its drink menu within used books. Crack the spine to learn you are sitting in what used to be Almack’s Dance Hall, established in the 1840s as one of the first black-owned bars in New York City. The former speakeasy, then in a neighborhood known for its “dodgy gangsters and dangerous liaisons,” was a place where, according to drink-menu prose, “couples drowned in the syncopatic tunes of a newly emerging jazz-infused rhythm.”
Betting on the digital generation’s nostalgia for speakeasies, 67 Orange Street pays tribute to its former tenants with pricey craft cocktails. Fine, the bartender is wearing a brown plaid fedora, suspenders, a bowtie, and pouring $16 drinks, but he’s also hugging regulars and gifting newbies crisp, green apple shots, saying only “It’s my favorite” by way of explanation. The Color Purple—Plymouth London Gin, St. Germain, lemon—was actually the color plum, with blackberries and lavender bitters leading a sweetly herbal thrust. The cigar-smoked Woodford bourbon in the Manhattan After Dark was smoky, as promised, with the suggestion of sweetness by way of ginger liqueur and a brandy-soaked cherry. “So this is what it’s supposed to taste like,” remarked a companion, after sipping a negroni. Parmesan fries and buffalo wings, though perfectly tasty, never obstructed the main act; this is drinks with a side of food.
At 9 o’clock on a recent Friday, a maroon velvet curtain stretched over the rain-splattered, street-level windows, giving the bar the inward-facing secret of a clubhouse. Against an exposed brick wall, two celebratory groups of women chatted under colorful paintings for sale by artist Ruthy Valdez; mystical, surrealist images of female protagonists. In lieu of old-school funk blared the discography of Kanye West, whose lyrics the staff mouthed with vigor. At one point our waitress, who donned a delicately-beaded headpiece, directed her phone towards the craftsmanship of the bartender, who muddled berries, smacked mint, and flamed lemon peels. “It’s Facebook Live,” she proclaimed. “I like to show my family in Florida what I do at work.” By then, the music had progressed to Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’s 1997 single “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby).” It was the first time in hours that I was reminded how far I was from Brooklyn.
Written from the most philosophical of perches (a barstool),“The Well” distills the idiosyncrasies of prized New York City taverns.
MITCHELL KUGA is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn by way of Hawaii.