Over the past 20 years, New York City has entertained endless auditions for the role of the definitive 21st-century cocktail bar. We’ve seen clandestine, shoe-box-sized reincarnations of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, a minimalist laboratory of molecular wizardry, a multitude of theme bars cosplaying this or that bygone era and too many “dives but with better drinks” to count.
Opened in 2012 by Leif Huckman, a former bartender at another neighborhood stalwart, Marlow & Sons, Donna was none of the above. It had the confident ease of a great neighborhood bar, the world-class talent of a 50 Best nominee, the Saturday night energy of a nightclub and the escapist sensibility of a tiki bar. But again, it was none of these things exactly.
As an editorial team, we’ve always been drawn to bars that do not have a neat, linear narrative, or that fit into one—or even two—categories. The bars that have held our most intent gaze and devotion are not those whose atmospheres are defined by a well-executed “concept” or that aim to transport via novelty, but rather places defined by people and ideas and the fugitive connection between the two. Donna, a handsome cocktail bar in the shadow of the Williamsburg bridge, was one of those bars.
PUNCH launched about a year and a half after Donna opened. Some of the first photographs to ever appear on the site were shot beneath its etched glass windows and on its undulating concrete bar; some of the first modern recipes to be entered into our CMS—the Brancolada, the Watership Down—were Donna’s drinks; and some of our favorite bartenders—Jeremy Oertel, Fanny Chu, Matt Belanger, Karen Fu—have steered it through the years, helping establish a consistent “new tropical” aesthetic while leaving their imprint upon it. In short, we grew up with Donna.
On Saturday, Huckman closed the bar’s doors for good. He posted a goodbye note on Donna’s website in the form of a personal account of the bar’s life as he experienced it. If you want to understand the unique ability of a great bar to capture a lifetime in less than a decade, or if you need a reminder of precisely why bars are indispensable safe havens for the culture and humanity of their communities, we encourage you to read it. While you do, perhaps you’d like to join us in saying goodbye in the best way we know how: with a drink. Here are some of our favorite cocktails from Donna through the years.