While most of the cocktail world has its sights set on the future, creating, for instance, bars that double as laboratories, there’s a segment of modern nightlife that is looking backward instead of forward for inspiration. Maybe you’ve noticed an uptick in checkered floors underfoot, or spied patterned wallpaper in shades of brown, burnt orange and harvest gold? Perhaps you’ve felt the bouncy creak of a rattan chair or basked in the warm glow of a biomorphic lamp. Of course, there’s no one thing that defines a 1970s-inspired bar. Disco ball? That’s the Nike Swoosh of nightlife—ubiquitous enough it acts as a neutral. Wood veneer paneling? A statement, for sure, but not necessarily limited to the malaise era. No, a ’70s-style bar is one part décor, one part vibe. And it’s the second part of that equation that explains the popularity of places like these at a moment like this. The experience economy is booming, and the inviting, unpretentious vibe of ’70s bars offers a widely accessible, low-stakes slice of that pie. They invite you to come in and stay a while. To make a night of it. The drinks may not be trendy, but they’re unfussy and satisfying. The seats are comfortable, the lighting is moody. If there’s a dance floor, it’s inhibition-free.
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This past winter saw the openings of The Let’s Go! in Los Angeles, a glam, Italian-style club that’s more discoteca than grandparent’s rec room, and Nowhere Lounge just north of Buffalo, New York, a neighborhood bar with a distinctive, handcrafted feel. Then there’s Pins & Needles outside Cleveland, “a 70s time capsule,” which opened in the basement of a bowling alley last summer. Cleveland is also the home to Good Night John Boy, the original location of a chain of 1970s-themed bars that’s since expanded to Columbus, Ohio; St. Petersburg, Florida; and, most recently, Chicago. What these places share beyond a warm—some might say ugly—color palette is, at least aspirationally, a feeling of actual warmth. They’re less about evoking a simpler time than about having a good time with fellow patrons who have all agreed (in the form of dress codes, playlists or general attitude) to commit to the bit.
For some bar owners, the appeal of the ’70s is the design; for others, it’s the camp. (See: the Burt Reynolds painting over the fireplace at the new Good Night John Boy.)
“For me personally, it was always first about the music,” says Jen Shorr, owner of Joyface, which she describes as a disco or, alternatively, a bar with dancing in New York’s East Village. Shorr says interior designer Elizabeth Ingram took her vision (“I want to open a place that only plays disco and oldies,” Shorr recalls telling Ingram. “I want it to feel like a ‘70s living room basement, not like a bar. Go.”) and ran with it. Stevie Wonder, ABBA, KC and the Sunshine Band, smatterings of Madonna—music like that, Shorr says, “allows people of all ages to all hang out together.” Her commitment to age-inclusivity is real. (She named the bar after her mom.) There’s even a highlights section devoted to parents on Joyface’s Instagram. At last count, it has over 200 posts.
The result is a space that’s transportive but familiar, intense but fun. Ingram was the one who suggested a water bed, an idea Shorr wasn’t immediately sold on—it sounded cool, but also potentially disastrous. “Thank god I listened to her,” Shorr says, “because everyone knows us as the place with the water bed.” Most of all, Joyface is a destination, both for locals and visitors. It’s the kind of place people take their parents who are visiting from, say, the Midwest. “They come to town and come visit, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna only have one drink,’” says Shorr. Six hours later, they walk out, sweat-drenched from dancing.
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Travel some 400 miles north, and you’ll find the more low-key Nowhere Lounge, which also attracts a wide range of ages with its ’70s milieu. Owner Jason Wood describes the majority of his customers as “anywhere from 81 to 21.” But whether it’s Gen Z kids who have caught reruns of That ’70s Show or people who actually lived through Watergate, he’s found that there’s something for everyone to get nostalgic about. The look of the bar, which Wood and his wife, Julie, built out themselves over a year and a half, was partly inspired by the shape of the original site: a barstool lounge in the front, plus an area in the back with enough room for a couch, chairs and a coffee table. (Conversation corners like this, usually anchored by a well-worn loveseat, may be the single uniting factor among neo-’70s bars.) Nowhere Lounge mixes modern materials like Corian counters and VCT floors—dupes for Formica and linoleum, respectively—with vintage bibelots and furniture, like recently acquired Steelcase bucket chairs, a replacement for thrifted seats that buckled under the pressure of newfound constant use.
Schorr, at Joyface, says her décor gets a lot of wear and tear, too. But like Wood, she doesn’t consider any of it too precious. “I feel like I’ll end up buying something that was probably in somebody’s basement for, like, years and years and years and never saw the light of day,” she says. “And then I have it out on display and it will last for a year. And then it will get broken or stolen or smashed because it’s a raging dance floor. But, you know, at least it gets out there.”
The objects may break, but the spirit behind them endures. There’s an attraction to the look and feel of an era whose challenges (record-high inflation, political disillusionment) match our own. The superficial excesses of the ’70s were a response to the limitations at the core of its culture. In some ways, the ’70s-style bars of today are doing the same thing—they’re keeping things upbeat, even as the world outside them is looking a bit down.