Nestled between a Buffalo wing place and a diner and right across the street from a Crunch gym on Flatbush Avenue, where the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and Prospect Heights meet, there’s nothing outwardly special about Sharlene’s. It’s dimly lit, the booths are comfortable and the Miller High Life is affordable by New York standards.
Yelp reviews are varied. Some love that it’s “dingy” and find it to be “an excellent place to hide from the world and drink.” While others take issue with how the bar’s notorious bartender (whose normal greeting is, “What do you want?”) “yells at patrons,” and is “openly hostile to people sitting at the bar.” Another user, Christian D. from Dallas, Texas, perhaps sums it up best: “The bartender’s shitty attitude turned me off… I was gonna buy a shirt, which was kinda cool, but now I don’t want to own a shirt from this dismal place.”
Yet Sharlene’s has become the go-to media hangout. Podcasters, designers, producers, fact-checkers, novelists and just about everybody else who makes up the New York media landscape end up there at some point. It’s a place where people with dissenting views on Twitter might share a whiskey or four, and where others escape to for a quiet drink with the book they’re reviewing.
There’s been at least one for every era. Pete’s Tavern near Union Square, where O. Henry used to drink, has been open for 150 years. Anyone who knows at least one Dorothy Parker poem knows the history of the Algonquin Round Table. James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and, most famously, Dylan Thomas, drank at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village in the 1950s and ’60s. Spain on 13th Street in the East Village served cheap wine and free meatballs to staffers at Forbes and the Nation in the 1970s and ‘80s. Siberia, once nestled in a crumbling hole near Port Authority, called to young music writers and grizzled New York Times vets. The golden years of Gawker featured nights at The Magician, Tom & Jerry’s and Botanica. You can still find former Village Voice writers in a booth at The Scratcher, and the next generation of leftist activists and thinkers at Blue & Gold. None of these is or was better than the others, but they all share a common thread; they felt like home to a certain group of people after a long day, and that’s all that matters when it comes to dropping a pin on one’s own emotional map of New York.
“The sign looks like it’s from another era, and represents a reassuring constant on a stretch of Flatbush that’s otherwise rapidly changing,” says David Klion, a freelance writer and Sharlene’s regular. “Every time I see the sign I want to go in.”
Opening in its current form in 2009, when borough native Sharlene Frank rechristened it, the space had previously been a watering hole named Mooney’s. Before that, according to The New Yorker, it was “a bar for as long as anyone can remember.” The jukebox is stocked with everything from The Kinks to At the Drive In, but the bartenders only turn it on when it’s really busy; before then, it’s usually a steady flow of bebop. That lack of pretension or gimmick is exactly what has made it the beloved second living room for an extended web of ambitious young people looking to mingle, hook up, swap stories about the sorry state of their industry and hatch schemes to improve the lots of their comrades.
Located in the middle of Brooklyn, Sharlene’s is hardly central. It’s nowhere near The New York Times Building or any of the big publishing houses. Yet at a time when several political and social catastrophes strike daily, when media jobs are disappearing and those that remain are becoming more precarious, spaces that exist outside of any existing narrative about these industries aren’t just a respite—they’re a breeding ground for solidarity.
“Other places I would consider to be legendary, every other status bar must have just been someone’s comfortable place at some point,” says John Cusick, a literary agent who lived above Sharlene’s for four years. “One of the things I loved about it was that it was pretty low-key,” he continues. “It was the perfect blend of old-man-bar dive and welcoming, comfortable space.”
Sharlene’s stands out because it’s a relatively new place with the effortless feel of an old-school staple. Edward Hopper would have painted it. There’s the sign—”Sharlene’s” in simple red cursive—flanked by “Beer” and “Cocktails,” the awning that obscures the brick façade hanging around a window that offers just enough of a view of the interior, the Miller High Life sign that illuminates the window and the handful of smokers clustered around the door. But the thing that really makes Sharlene’s feel like it belongs to another time is the surly bartender, described in reviews as the “self-hating,” “miserable bar man” with “the hair bun.” He’s possibly one of the last in a distinguished line of drink-slingers who don’t give a damn about you. And there is something oddly comforting about it amid the area’s rapid gentrification.
“I liked the fact that it was just a bar, which is really rare in New York, where almost all bars have the pretension of a fancy cocktail bar or an intentional dive,” says Alana Levinson, an editor at MEL Magazine who relocated to the West Coast. “Sharlene’s gets that the best thing about a bar is the people you are with.”
Hardly a regular, my own experiences there over the years have varied; I’ve gone for happy hours, birthday parties and “just got fired” emergency whiskey sessions. It’s the sort of bar that manages to shift its form to accommodate whoever needs it at the moment. And unlike a great punk venue or metal bar or a dive with an established crew of regulars, Sharlene’s has room for more than one kind of person, and no one rung on the professional food chain matters more than another.
That, maybe most of all, is why people always end up at Sharlene’s. There are plenty of places to go around it, from the decent pizza place across the street to Fausto a little up the block towards the park. Yet the dimly lit bar has become more of a necessity than a destination. There’s no guarantee you’ll see anybody you know, but there’s a pretty good chance you will. It’s welcoming without being particularly hospitable. It’s nothing special; but with the daily news usually ranging from bad to horrible, sometimes it’s nice to have a stable place with a bartender who you know will ask you, straight up, “What do you want?”