In the summer of 2000, when I was an intern living in NYU’s West 3rd Street dorms, my roommate and I would hit Down the Hatch for cheap pitchers of Miller Lite, or Off the Wagon for games of beer pong. In my early 20s, when I dated someone on the Upper West Side, we’d spend happy hours at The Gin Mill and play late-night foosball at Jake’s Dilemma. I watched my friend run the New York City Marathon hanging my head out the window of the Upper East Side’s Stumble Inn. I once forgot my credit card at The 13th Step and lost my jacket at 3 Sheets Saloon.
Dotted around Manhattan like an Olympic track with the oval starting in the West Village and ending on the Upper West Side, there are eight bars that belong to the NYC Best Bars group—a series of dives unremarkable in every aspect, except for their unbelievable staying power over the last quarter-century.
“When I look at our trajectory,” notes Jennifer Kay, an operating partner since 1994, “I constantly ask myself, ‘How are we still holding on? Why do people still care about us these days?’”
Not yet old enough to be deified as historical watering holes, they’re likewise not doing anything cutting-edge enough to have a place in the zeitgeist. Most of the bars were opened before the craft beer and cocktail revolutions kicked off and still persevere despite continuing to predominantly serve macro brews and well drinks. Most of my friends and fellow writers thought it was self-evident why the bar group is so successful: They serve cheap drinks in an expensive city. But I thought there had to be more to it.
The group’s origin dates to the late 1980s, when NYU undergrad Mitchell Banchik noticed there were plenty of downscale bars in Midtown, but none in Greenwich Village. By age 29, he and two of his frat brothers had scraped together $75,000 to secure a space, built out the interior themselves and, in October of 1991, opened Down the Hatch. They served pitchers of beer for $4.50, promoted constant happy hour specials and offered a Ladies’ Night. According to Banchik, Down the Hatch was also the first bar to offer Jägermeister on tap, via a system he jury-rigged himself.
“We were a word-of-mouth sensation,” explains Banchik. “All I did was place one ad in the NYU law school paper. It simply said, ‘Don’t Pass the Bar.’”
By 1992, a good real estate deal allowed him to expand to the Upper East Side—another hotbed for young people. He took over a space called Geronimo’s Bamba Bay Cafe; still lacking funds, he ripped down half the sign and suddenly it became Mo’s (today it is known as The Stumble Inn). It was an instant hit.
“Think back to the 1990s,” says Kay. “There are no iPhones. Yelp doesn’t exist. People had less choices and less access to information. The tools people use now weren’t around, so when you got out of the subway station, you had to already know where you were going for the night. And that became us.”
Jake’s Dilemma opened on the Upper West Side in 1994, and in 1996 they added The Gin Mill less than a block away, on Amsterdam Ave. Off the Wagon appeared in 1998 back in the West Village. The 13th Step, Hair of the Dog and 3 Sheets Saloon would all eventually open in the East Village by 2012. They all looked pretty much the same, served the same burgers-and-wings pub grub and cheap drinks and boasted the same type of clientele: 20-something bros and their female counterparts. Today, the company consists of 350 employees, including 12 managing partners, but is virtually absent from any online discussion of New York nightlife.
“We don’t even get a mention when Eater lists their best happy hours deals,” says Banchik. “But ours are by far the best!”
Of course, it’s not entirely true that they don’t get press. “Popular UES Bar Is ‘Drunk Mill’ for Young Revelers, Locals Say,” offers the headline on a 2013 DNAInfo article about The Stumble Inn; “Man smashes pitcher on beer pong player’s head,” reads another, from the New York Post on Jake’s Dilemma. In 2013, Complex ranked The 13th Step the ninth “douchiest” bar in the city, saying it was stocked with the “frattiest frat boys” who cram in a basement bar “damp with shame and sticky discarded Natty Light.” (The Stumble Inn, 3 Sheets Saloon and The Gin Mill appeared on the same list in 2011.) And when Thrillist’s Dave Infante tackled “The 21 Biggest Bro Bars in the Country” in 2015, The 13th Step was his only New York inclusion. The next year, when he offered “50 Signs You’re A New York City Douchebag,” it was again the city’s only bar mentioned by name.
When I ask David Covucci, formerly of BroBible, why these bars are still so successful, he, too, responds with the knee-jerk reaction of cheap drinks, before eventually offering something more thoughtful: “They’re basically college bars you can go to after you graduate,” he explains. “Everyone had spots like them in their college town, and they are the only ones in NYC like that.”
That’s perhaps the most plausible answer I’ve heard. When New York magazine deigned to review The Gin Mill in 2009, they called it a “non-stop frat party for sneaker-footed and jeans-clad 20-somethings, with Fordham and Columbia grads particularly well-represented.”
In a city that, perhaps more than any other, forces its residents to perpetually toe the line between true adulthood (your rent is $3000 a month) and arrested development (you will have roommates forever and your parents will always be your guarantor), maybe the NYC Best Bars group simply offer a comfortable limbo for young New Yorkers eventually headed somewhere else—to better jobs, nicer apartments, marriage, families, maybe even the suburbs.
Anyone who chooses to make New York City their home after college can identify with that need to have a place that doesn’t rush you to grow up. So maybe that’s why these bars are still so packed every night. Because with each vodka-soda ordered, your inevitable descent into adulthood is prolonged just a little bit longer.
Or, maybe it’s just the cheap drinks.