Cocktails

Goodnight, Nitecap

September 28, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Photo: Eric Medsker

Cocktails

Goodnight, Nitecap

September 28, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Eric Medsker

The boundary-pushing New York bar was a model of inclusivity and a showcase for the light-hearted side of serious cocktails.

Nitecap, the intimate subterranean cocktail bar that opened to acclaim on New York’s Lower East Side in 2014, has permanently closed. It becomes the latest victim of the COVID-born shutdown that began in March, which has severely limited the ability of bars and restaurants to remain financially solvent. It joins other recent cocktail-destination casualties such as Pegu Club, Existing Conditions, Bar Sardine and Mother of Pearl, all in New York, as well as Clyde Common in Portland and Marvel Bar in Minneapolis.

Negotiations with a landlord who refused to budge on base rent or back rent proved fruitless. It was the final jab in a blizzard of blows suffered by the Rivington Street bar. Nitecap was unable to take advantage of sidewalk seating due to local zoning, and its to-go drink trade was complicated by the recently mandated food requirement, as the bar does not have a kitchen. The financial situation grew so dire by August that the bar allowed its liquor license to expire because it simply could not afford the $5,000 renewal fee.

“When the closure happened, every business owner thought it would be a tough month,” said Natasha David, Nitecap’s co-founder along with David Kaplan and Alex Day of Death & Co. fame. “After a month and a half, then you really start itching. After three months, it turns into panic mode. We’ve been climbing this mountain for so long, and the top was never in sight.”

When Nitecap opened in the basement of 120 Rivington Street in 2014, newer cocktail bars were backing away from the serious-minded, sometimes pretentious business models that characterized the early years of the craft cocktail movement. While the menus didn’t shy away from complex and challenging drinks, such as the Bananarac (rye, Cognac, banana liqueur, bitters and absinthe), the bar also championed a more relaxed way of drinking, offering a variety of creative boilermakers, for example, such as one consisting of a 375-milliliter bottle of amontillado sherry and four ponies of Little Kings Original Cream Ale. And the bar was an early adopter of new-and-improved spritzes; over its six-year life, it served 43 varieties.

Moreover, since its inception, the bar had set its sights on becoming a place of inclusivity. Its house rules declared that the bar would welcome and celebrate all ethnicities, religions, countries of origin, sexual orientations and genders—all people.

“It was about getting away from this very serious and male-dominated and white cocktail scene,” said David. “It became this loose and fun-loving hub where so many people came together from so many walks of life. As a collective, we created these beautiful menus together, and welcomed everyone.”

The Nitecap crew, March, 2019.

Despite not being able to invite customers into its space for the past six months, Nitecap remains on the hook for the entire rent during that period, as well as an additional four months it must pay until its lease expires. To lessen that financial burden, David and her partners will launch a series of fundraising initiatives over the next few weeks. For several Tuesdays, beginning October 6, Nitecap will offer to-go drinks at its sister bar, Death & Co., in the East Village. Nitecap merchandise, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs and tote bags, are being sold through Bonfire. And David and her staff will offer virtual Nitecap “experiences,” in which they will host a Zoom happy hour or curate your home bar.

Finally, there will be a Nitecap yard sale at which all of the bar’s equipment, glassware and furniture will be sold off. (Watch for announcements on Nitecap’s Instagram feed.) Among the items will be custom-made bar stools that have never been used.

“We finally, in 2019, became profitable,” said David, “despite all the hurdles that had been put in our way.” Armed at last with some extra cash, David had planned to give the bar a refresh—she hired someone to come in and repaint; found workers to redo the battered banquettes; and ordered 11 new bar stools. That very week, the bar was forced to shut down. While David was able to cancel the painting and repair work in time, the stools could not be stopped.

David hopes to one day reopen Nitecap in a different location. But it would be on new terms, incorporating the hard lessons she has learned about the hospitality business during the pandemic and the economic crisis it fostered.

“I think these past six months have been a time to reflect on what we want to do in the future,” she said. “In the past, I always thought, ‘I wish I could pay my staff more. I wish I could give my staff health insurance.’ Now that we’re here, whenever this bar reopens, wherever that may be, it won’t happen unless all that can be true.”

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