The Return of the Fern Bar

Long derided for a reputation of bad drinks and kitsch, the '70s fern bar is overdue for some respect. Regan Hofmann visits Oleanders, the Brooklyn bar and restaurant intent on bringing it back.

Though their heyday was only 30 years ago, fern bars are less well-known to the average drinker than Prohibition-era speakeasies, colonial taverns or basically any other period of cocktail history.

Fern bars dominated the bar landscape in the 1970s and ’80s as casual, stained-glass-lamped taverns that were the nexus of the singles scene. If you’ve ever been inside a TGI Friday’s or watched Cheers, you’ve borne witness to the cultural impact of the fern bar. They began with San Francisco’s Henry Africa’s, which opened in 1969. Designed specifically to be welcoming to women, long marginalized in public drinking venues, it was decorated “like your grandmother’s living room,” as owner Norman Hobday described it, with comfy couches, Tiffany lamps and plenty of hanging ferns. The ferns, Hobday said, were nothing more than a cheap décor choice, but they became emblematic of the softer, kinder approach of the bar and its successors, even those that eschewed the greenery itself.

Coinciding with the tail end of the sexual revolution, Henry Africa’s spawned a bar and restaurant archetype that lasted nearly two decades, as well as an ignoble catalog of overly sweet drinks with tacky names and shelf-stable ingredients, ostensibly also designed to appeal to women. Almost all of them were banished by the craft cocktail movement, which put the spotlight on pre-Prohibition high-proof seriousness, handmade tinctures and fresh ingredients.

The aftermath was a mass amnesia, the inverse of the recovered memory scandal of the 1980s, in which hundreds of mild-mannered suburban children became convinced they’d been pawns in their mild-mannered suburban parents’ satanic rituals. After so many years of the fern bar’s cultural dominance, we’d told ourselves that we’d been subjected to horrific abuse at the hands of Harvey Wallbanger and repressed the whole scene deep in our national psyche.

It may seem contradictory to champion the feminist achievements of a mindset that equated “drinks for women” with the fruity, fluffy and foolishly named concoctions that came out of that scene. But while their methods were decidedly lacking, the fern bar’s]motivation—and more importantly, its ultimate effect—can’t be disregarded. To create a drinking space that was comfortable for all women, not just the ball-busting bawdy gals of tavern legend, was a milestone.

But just as repressed memories will eventually rise to the surface, the fern bar has been slowly, haltingly, inching its way back into the cocktail conversation. It started with ’70s-themed bars like Golden Cadillac in New York, Punch House in Chicago and, more recently, Good Times at Davey Wayne’s in Los Angeles, coasting on a wave of nostalgia and millennial looky-loo-ism without using the F-word.

Williamsburg’s Oleanders is the newest bar in this line, and it’s the boldest one yet. Owned by Brooklyn restaurateurs Joe Carroll and Francesco Panella, it occupies a sunken, double-height space in the McCarren Hotel & Pool. And it wears its influence on its sleeve; enormous ferns line several walls, while massive Tiffany-style lampshades hang over the center aisle in front of the bar. There is a game room with pinball machines and a Cheers-style typeface for the front door.

“It’s odd—this was a particularly interesting concept to try to explain, because on the one hand, this was what dining out was, essentially, for so long in this country; so many people are familiar with it, even younger people who didn’t grow up going to these places,” says Carroll. “But when you say ‘fern bar,’ people don’t know the specific terminology—they don’t know the details behind it.”

To build Oleanders, Carroll and his partners took a different approach than simply copying the tropes of the era. “The concept is almost time-machine-like: ‘It’s 1979 and we’re looking to open up a bar,'” says Carroll, going further to explain that it also about fitting that throwback concept into 2015 Brooklyn. Ultimately, playing to both eras has allowed them the freedom to create something altogether new.

The food menu, particularly, echoes that looseness; after extensive menu research, they found that among hidden gems like trout almondine and lobster thermidor were “a lot of oddball things that wouldn’t make sense today.” They weeded out the oddballs and focused on a list that evoked the era without being a slave to it; items like cottage cheese and sautéed liver and onions are “so removed from what people eat today that they would sit on the menu and nobody would order it.”

Crucially, Oleanders also has a cocktail menu with the most unimpeachable pedigree, written by Dale DeGroff, aka “King Cocktail.” DeGroff is the founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail Museum, proprietor of his own line of artisanal bitters and, more importantly, one of the godfathers of the modern craft cocktail movement. It means something that he’s put his stamp on a menu that includes a Long Island Iced Tea. “I loved the idea of making those drinks relevant again with fresh ingredients, better products and a little twist,” says DeGroff referring 1970s classics, “employing premium ingredients that were unavailable two decades ago.”

At the heart of the cocktail program is a playfulness, or a “lightness of attitude that made the fern concept fun,” says DeGroff.

For all its “lightness,” though, the fern bar played a serious role in another revolution. It may seem contradictory to champion the feminist achievements of a mindset that equated “drinks for women” with the fruity, fluffy and foolishly named concoctions that came out of that scene. But while their methods were decidedly lacking, their motivation—and more importantly, their ultimate effect—can’t be disregarded. To create a drinking space that was comfortable for all women, not just the ball-busting bawdy gals of tavern legend, was a milestone. And to take cocktails out of the men’s-only sphere of the darkened tavern and place them firmly within everyone’s grasp was a necessity, a glass-ceiling-shattering step that opened the door for a generation of women to become unapologetic bartenders, distillers and drinkers. It’s no coincidence that California finally legalized female bartenders in 1971, two years into Henry Africa’s run.

On a recent evening at Oleanders, a group of young women drank Pina Coladas at the bar, older couples from the hotel upstairs ate crab Louie, and a man dressed like Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way talked seriously about chakras to his date. It was a scene that was at once a perfect encapsulation of Williamsburg in July 2015, and one that could easily have been cut from the 1977 singles bar movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar. That timelessness is the true legacy of the fern bar—an attitude that’s much more than just a kitschy theme: It’s a legacy of fun and inclusiveness, of the bar as social hub rather than temple of exclusivity. If King Cocktail himself has come around on the fern bar, why can’t we?

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