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Let’s Talk About Flatiron Lounge

Former bartenders, patrons and owners reflect on the recently shuttered bastion of the New York cocktail revival.

Flatiron Lounge, which closed on December 23 after 15 years of doling out craft cocktails on West 19th Street, occupied an unusual place in New York’s modern mixology history. Like Employees Only, which arrived a year later, it was a bridge bar between hidden speakeasies like Milk & Honey and Angel’s Share—which possessed the craft, but lacked the space and hospitality instinct—and the larger, more accessible drinking emporiums to come, like Pegu Club, which it helped spawn, and Flatiron’s co-owners Julie Reiner and Susan Fedroff’s own Clover Club.

The mixology movement was still working out its kinks in Flatiron’s early days. Vodka was still welcome behind the bar and early Flatiron bartenders free-poured. But the ship soon tightened up. Drinks became more sophisticated and adventurous (though the best-selling vodka-based Beijing Peach never left the menu); process innovations, like batched drinks and “cheater” bottles (small vessels containing lesser-needed liquors) increased efficiency and speed; and a whole generation of bartenders went from ignorant drink-slingers to taste-makers with a deep knowledge of their trade and tools.

Before it closed its doors—the victim of a rent hike—we asked several employees and customers to share their recollections. Included below are memories from Reiner, who opened the bar with Fedroff and four partners; Phil Ward, an early hire who graduated from barback to head bartender, eventually becoming one of the top mixologists in the city; Tonia Guffey, a bartender who would go on to run Dram in Brooklyn; Cabell Tomlinson, another bartender, who would later work at Death & Co. and Frankies 570 Spuntino; Katie Stipe, who graduated from server to head bartender, and went on to work Prime Meats, Vandaag, Bourgeois Pig and Clover Club; and Martin Doudoroff, a cocktail enthusiast and authority who was one of Flatiron’s earliest and most faithful patrons.  

On the Hiring and Training Process:

Phil Ward (barback; bartender, 2003 to 2005): “There was Sue [Fedroff] at one end interviewing people and there was Julie [Reiner] at the other interviewing others. It was like a bank teller which-one-do-you-get situation. I looked back and forth between them a few times and resoundingly thought: BOY I HOPE I GET THAT LADY!, obviously preferring the look of Sue. Well I did get Sue and I did get the job, but I wonder to this day what would have happened had I got Jules.”

Cabell Tomlinson (bartender, 2006 to 2007): “I was recommended to Julie by Phil Ward. One of the bartenders at Flatiron had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend and punched a wall, breaking his hand. She had to find a replacement ASAP. I was working at a Brazilian restaurant in the West Village. Phil used to go there for dinner. I was a decent bartender but ‘craft cocktails’ were new to me.”

Tonia Guffey (bartender, 2008 to 2010): “Initially I was hoping to work at newly opened and highly regarded Clover Club. After my first interview Julie determined I was a little too green for CC. The head bartender at the time, Ryan McGrale, was actually out of town when she interviewed and hired me. When he came back we were scheduled to work a Thursday night together. He was, like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I was, like, ‘Surprise, Hi!’”

Julie Reiner (partner): “Katie Stipe was another great hire. She came in with her resume, and we were not hiring, but I hired her anyway. She had such a great presence, and was so tall and striking. I wasn’t going to let her walk out that door.”

Katie Stipe (bartender, 2003 to 2007): “I had just finished up a U.S. tour of The Will Rogers Follies and was on the hunt for a new gig. I’m not sure if they were even hiring, but I just happened to walk in the right place at the right time to find Julie Reiner and hand her my resume. Julie… hired me as a cocktail server on the spot. So being a six-foot blond fresh off a tour made an impression, and Julie, coming from the Red Room days of San Francisco, a bar run by bad-ass women, was already building her legacy of empowering women whether she knew it yet or not.”

On Meeting Julie Reiner and Sue Fedroff:

Cabell Tomlinson: “Julie struck me as a badass, Susan a towering angel.”

Tonia Guffey: “Julie was like the badass sister that I wanted to please so bad, but would sort of always feel like a fuck-up around. You know when you know your shit but you second-guess it because you’re around someone that like really helped write the book on shit.”

Katie Stipe: “Julie was wild-eyed and fierce. We could be three deep and in the weeds at service but she had hawk eyes and could see everything that everyone was doing. She was a bit of a drill sergeant when it came to training her bartenders. She’d sit or stand right across from your well while you were getting pummeled with service tickets and she wouldn’t miss a beat. Sue was our Zen Buddha, our rock.”

On the Cocktails:

Cabell Tomlinson: “I had never used a jigger before. I’d never drunk a gin Martini before. Hell, I didn’t actually know the difference between an Old-Fashioned and a Manhattan. Julie told me one time (in reference to the vodka-based Beijing Peach), ‘This drink pays the bills; it makes everything else possible.’”

Martin Doudoroff (longtime patron): “I recall the original menu being not that far from what [Reiner] was doing at C3 [Reiner’s previous bar]. Her infusions, such as pineapple rum and apple vodka, were still featured at the outset. A number of drinks might have still been named ‘-tinis.’ But things evolved very quickly back then. The infusions didn’t stick around very long.”

Phil Ward: “I remember my first shift going, ‘Jesus she is putting like five things in that drink.’ Also, the care she was putting into each drink was really nothing I’d ever seen before. I was still in the Cro-Magnon drinking stage. I remember trying my first drink there after my first shift and I just couldn’t fathom that something that was made to get you drunk could taste so good.”

Tonia Guffey: “The awe has sort of been lost in the mix of expectation these days, but back then, being six-deep all night, at a service bar with 15 tickets on your board with egg white drinks on the menu and eight-bottle pick ups and rum agricole… everyone just has this feeling of wonder and excitement—it was electric.”

On the Regular Clientele:

Julie Reiner: “When we opened, there were cabs pulling up all night long dropping off New Yorkers looking for a high-quality cocktail experience. We had a surprisingly large female clientele. I remember looking down the bar and having it be all ladies quite often, which was rare for a bar in 2003.”

Tonia Guffey: “The clientele was higher-end, a lot of dates, a lot of canoodling in booths, but a good mix of adventurous drinkers and basic bitches. And late night a lot of industry.”

Martin Doudoroff: “Flatiron was competing with all the other neighborhood bars and restaurants, and people had to figure out largely on their own that Flatiron was offering something distinctive. They gradually did… It took a couple years to ‘train’ a more consistent clientele and I suspect there was some anxiety early on that it wasn’t going to happen.”

Phil Ward: “Friday and Saturday were shit shows. Vodka, vodka, vodka. This is where I started my long quest to get people to drink gin.”

Cabell Tomlinson: “There was one night when Katie Stipe was working the point and a bunch of bros were showing off with each other and demanded loudly for her to make them ‘the best drink.’ Katie looked at them sideways and proceeded to shake up a White Lady variation with crème de cassis, poured it out in the classic Martini glass and smiled as they looked on in horror. To make matters worse, she plucked an edible pansy from the tray and proceeded to garnish with flair. ‘You can handle it,’ she said.”

On the Celebrities:

Julie Reiner: “We had Chelsea Clinton and her secret service in quite a few times. She lived right around the corner. Lucy Liu, Matthew Broderick, who was a childhood friend of one of our regulars. He drank Manhattans and was always very polite. Elijah Wood and Kirk Hammett from Metallica who is married to a high school friend of mine from Hawaii.”

Phil Ward: “Frodo Baggins [Wood] came in. Real down-to-earth guy. Smoked a cigarette with him and was just a normal guy.”

On “The Hole”:

Tonia Guffey: “The basement was pretty much overflow because the bar got too busy on Fridays and Saturdays and we had to give people a place to go. People in basements always feel untouchable. Maybe that’s what no windows does to people! We called it The Hole because it was a tiny little bar, very compact, like a cockpit where you could just bang out drinks so fast.”

Phil Ward: “I have a soft spot for The Hole. That’s where I started as I wasn’t presentable enough for upstairs bar, even though I was a much better bartender.”

Cabell Tomlinson: “I wanna say it was considered a punishment, but I loved it.”

Julie Reiner: “The downstairs was also well-known for the heavy petting that would go on. Whew, we broke up some serious make out sessions that needed to be taken home.”

On the Staff:

Martin Doudoroff: “I remember two nights in a row of working with Phil Ward on trying to create a decent cocktail with muddled Italian basil, and failing miserably. I’m pretty sure we weren’t all that far off from the Gin Basil Smash, but we missed the mark.”

Cabell Tomlinson: “We worked so hard. I remember waking up in the afternoon after working a closing shift with my hands curled into claws. We were shaking cocktails with Boston shakers. Tin on glass. I have the arthritis to prove it.”

Katie Stipe: “Every cocktail had its own choreography and I loved the ‘dance’ of sharing space with another bartender or barback and moving fluidly in a small space and fast-paced environment.”

Julie Reiner: “One night [early bartender] John Blue and I were behind the bar getting crushed, and the bar back hurt his hand on a pour spout. We looked over and he was hunched down by the sinks crying. John ran over and gave him a serious pep talk, ‘There’s no crying in bar-backing!’”

On the Partying:

Julie Reiner: “We had security seven nights a week, and needed to use it regularly to escort people out of the bar. There were guests trying to steal pictures from the bathrooms, drunk and disorderly guests and people doing inappropriate and illegal things.”

Tonia Guffey: “At one point I remember Julie sitting me down in the office and in a non-threatening and non-attacking way she basically told me to cool it on the drinking and partying. Not in a worried intervention way, but in ‘You’re young and dumb and I’m looking out for your best interest.’ I will say our holiday parties were fucking epic.”

Phil Ward: “One year we hosted the Gramercy Tavern after-party and that was real messy. Some kitchen guy actually ripped up one of the tables bolted to the floor.”

Julie Reiner: “Party was over then and there. TJ, our seven-foot bouncer, picked the guy up and made him give me his credit card to pay for the damaged table.”

On Flatiron Lounge’s Legacy:

Julie Reiner: “I think that we sparked a love for cocktails in many New Yorkers who hadn’t had quality drinks before. We were teaching people how to drink.”

Cabell Tomlinson: “It was the first high-volume cocktail bar in New York City that brought fancy cocktails to the masses. We got it done.”

Martin Doudoroff: “Flatiron was inclusive, not exclusive. Flatiron did not indulge in the snobbery that was an epidemic in the cocktail world for a while, or the pretensions of a strict dress code or anything like that.”

Tonia Guffey: “Flatiron was one of very few places that had the ability to completely and totally transform you into another era. It changed the way an entire group of bartenders and guests responded to drinks with no stiff door policy and a true and honest respect and care for the craft. End of a fucking era.”

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