Drinking During New York City’s Disco Days

The '70s revival is in full swing, but what was the Me Decade really like? Regan Hofmann pieces together the recollections of one prolific drinker to imagine the New York City bar scene as it was in 1977.

Golden-Cadillac

In 1977, Al Suarez met his wife-to-be at the Champagne Lounge in Jamaica, Queens. Not a big drinker, she was sipping Harvey Wallbangers. He was drinking his usual, Seagram’s VO and water. He was a Cuban immigrant, and she a third-generation Russian Jew from the Bronx; each had settled in Queens as children. They were coming off short-lived first marriages spending the final throes of the sexual revolution meeting people in neighborhood bars just like that one.

In New York City, 1977 was the year of the blackout and the Bronx burning. The year Bianca Jagger rode a horse through crowds of glam socialites at Studio 54 and The Ramones destroyed microphones at CBGB. Barflies drank Tequila Sunrises and 25-cent nip beers in five-ounce glasses. It was a time of glitter and trash, shiny polyester, opulence and deep, desperate poverty in a city so administratively dysfunctional the national government refused to have anything to do with it. New York was a place where the disparate bar scenes of Saturday Night Fever and Looking for Mr. Goodbar could exist—the spectacular and the seedy linked by a common longing for escape.

Al grew up in the New York that we, its adoring residents, alternate between fetishizing and paving over. In the 1950s, he and his teenage buddies clustered into building entryways to sing doo-wop. In the ’60s he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War; stationed in Scotland, he missed out on direct combat while developing a taste for Scotch. And in the ’70s, he worked and drank in Queens.

In a city of transplants, a native New Yorker is exotic. When I started dating Al’s son, the simple fact that he was born in Queens was the first thing I told people, as though he were a concert pianist or Nobel Prize winner. Listening to Al tell stories of his youth—he’s the kind of guy who can’t drive past a building without mentioning its former incarnations—he seems a Forrest Gump of sorts, popping up at all the right moments in which to see modern history made. In New York City, those moments usually involve booze. When Golden Cadillac opened in November, I knew he had to see it.

In Manhattan, the Lenox Lounge is gone, its iconic fixtures and sign trapped in legal purgatory as the owners argue over who will use it to anchor a new bar. Odessa, which stayed open on Avenue A through the darkest days of the ’80s crack epidemic, closed just two months before Golden Cadillac opened. Until Boehm and his colleagues came along, it seemed likely that the CBGB Effect would swallow up an entire decade of New York City’s history before anyone tried to really understand it.

Golden Cadillac, a shining, mirrored, orange-and-brown bar in the East Village, is an homage to the watering holes that Al once frequented. It serves long-abandoned cocktail icons of the era, like Long Island Iced Teas and Buttery Nipples, alongside smart new drinks using ‘70s staples like Galliano and crème de cacao. The owners, all New Yorkers, are a generation removed from the era they’re honoring, and the bar was built from childhood memories filtered through the lens of movies like Mean Streets

For Greg Boehm, one of GC’s owners and the founder of Cocktail Kingdom, it was a welcome departure from his work as a cocktail historian restoring crumbling manuscripts and deciphering ancient recipes. “I get a lot of joy out of talking to people having what may be the first good cocktail they’ve ever had in their lives,” he says. In a way, Golden Cadillac signals a departure from the trend of you-tell-us bespoke cocktail crafting toward expectation-smashing menus that are unmistakably personal. “If you go to some of the real serious cocktail bars, they’re mostly preaching to the converted. But if you’re a cocktail geek, you could come here and bring your friend who isn’t.”

That intangible spirit of inclusive fun may be Golden Cadillac’s most historically accurate detail. While it’s tempting to write the bar off as an inevitability of our mania for nostalgic drinking trends (we’ve covered everything from the shrubs and cobblers of the 19th century to the Golden Age of the ’50s), that’s missing the point. Nostalgic bars are usually temples to the craft, where humble pilgrims come to pay tribute to the master archivist at work. Bars in the ’70s were not about what you were drinking, but who you were drinking with.

Besides, as Al says, “most of the guys drank either beer or hard liquor; the women drank mixed drinks. The next day you’d go back to the bar as soon as it opened, and then you’d get something like a Whiskey Sour so you could hold your head straight.” You’d start all over again that evening and on Sunday night, cap it off with a pasta dinner — “to detox.” For a city that was often bitterly divided, neighborhood bars were a place to celebrate community. “People would move away, and when they came back to New York, they knew that everybody would make their way to the local bar on Saturday.”

To the current generation, the 1970s were a deeply uncool time, the way all of the things your parents love are uncool when you are young and trying to build your own identity. It’s only now, with a few decades of emotional cushioning— many of us old enough to be parents ourselves, staring down the barrel of our own imminent uncoolness—that we are able to look at it with a more tolerant eye. How many of us can look back at the Smirnoff Ices and Cosmos of our college career without wincing?

The period’s aesthetic has slowly trickled back into our consciousness, reaching full saturation with Daft Punk’s disco dream “Get Lucky” and pop phenomena like HAIM and Robin Thicke borrowing some signature beats. The Tumblr Dads Are the Original Hipsters is a parade of late ’70s fashion that can be found today on the streets of Greenpoint. The Movember organization runs a Pinterest board full of images of Burt Reynolds, Saturday Night Live-era Bill Murray and Frank Zappa.

But driving around Queens, the old neighborhoods are a graveyard. There’s a 99-cent store where the Dragon Seed used to be, a tiki bar and restaurant where you could take your Devil’s Gold or Wahine’s Delight into a back room stocked with albums and a sweet quadrophonic sound system. Its sister location still stands just a few blocks away, the tiki gods now keeping watch over the entrance to a Colombian restaurant.

In Forest Hills, the pick-up scene of the Stratton nightclub—“There were a lot of older women there who would line up to pick up younger men. We were in our 20s, early 30s at the time; we called them meat on the hook.”—is now a TD Bank. Nearby is the Triangle Bar, a brick wedge of a building that, after its heyday as a low-key neighborhood bar, cycled through life as an Argentinean restaurant and a pizza joint. Today it’s Il Triangolo, a white-tableclothed red sauce restaurant.

In Manhattan, the Lenox Lounge is gone, its iconic fixtures and sign trapped in legal purgatory as the owners argue over who will use it to anchor a new bar. Odessa, which stayed open on Avenue A through the darkest days of the ’80s crack epidemic, closed just two months before Golden Cadillac opened. Until Boehm and his colleagues came along, it seemed likely that the CBGB Effect would swallow up an entire decade of New York City’s history before anyone tried to really understand it. As Al said to Boehm, “You’re carrying the torch.”

“Right now, I think the 1880s and ’90s are more well-documented than the 1970s,” Boehm said as we sat in one of Golden Cadillac’s tufted leather booths, Al sipping his first whiskey and water in 30 years. “Would you have ever thought to pass along your knowledge of that time?”

“No,” Al said. “Nobody asked! You have to have an audience to tell a story.”

FROM AROUND THE WEB

Regan Hofmann is a food and drinks writer and onetime New York Press food critic whose work has appeared on First We Feast, Dipsology, and more. A transplant New Yorker, she has lived in Queens for eight years and has no plans to leave.

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