85 East 4th Street | East Village
At KGB Bar, one may find a certain comfort in witnessing the trivialities of East Village bar culture play out against the red glare of Soviet communism. On a recent Wednesday, under a yellowing photograph of Lenin, a young man sheepishly approached a pretty blonde to offer a drink; after some diplomatic negotiating, he joined her friends instead. A little later, two bald men with bushy white beards heckled the bartender about the music (a mix of generically iconic rock), never loud enough to obscure the laughter emitted from a multi-ethnic group that looked plucked out of a brochure for NYU. It had been one week since America elected its first orange president, and the world, in the words of Fleetwood Mac, had keep on turning.
Housed in a former speakeasy and magnet for the Ukrainian Socialist Party during McCarthyism, KGB Bar evokes a rallying cry that has faded to the somber whisper of kitsch. Inside a Soviet flag drapes over the bar, and stern portraits of Marxist revolutionaries and washed-out propaganda posters hang on fire engine red walls. Even the bar’s location feels political, situated on a strip of East 4th Street that has stubbornly maintained the essence of how things used to be, where cultural institutions like La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, EastVille Comedy Club, New York Theatre Workshop, and Kraine Theatre still thrive. Today, this second-floor walkup is a hub for the downtown literary scene, with weekly poetry readings, publication parties, and writing workshops that typically have nothing to do with socialist theory.
Otherwise, the space operates as a divinely musty dive. Order a Negroni and a regular at the bar might lean in to warn you against it. He’s not wrong—unless you like the taste of cough syrup. Instead, order a $4 Budweiser and listen to your seasoned bartender, Dan, who’s been KGB Bar’s manager since it opened 23 years ago: “One night—this is before 9/11—all of a sudden here comes Condoleezza Rice with two body guards. Sits down right there. I go over and I say ‘I never expected to see you in this place.’ She laughs and says ‘You gotta see it to believe it.’ I asked, ‘Do you believe it?’ She says, ‘Not really.’” His eyes flicker, scan, bulge. He continues: “Then she asked about the music, and requested Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones. Man, she’s really fucking with us, I thought. I find it, it starts up, and when I turn around? They’re already out the door—she didn’t even drink her white wine.”
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.