The Petraske Family Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Faced with finishing her late mentor's final project, bartender Lucinda Sterling found a way to collaborate with his vision while making it her new home, too. Leslie Pariseau on Sterling's Seaborne and the second coming of Sasha Petraske.

On a recent wintery evening, a blue light glowed over an ordinary doorway in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Despite the foot of snow that had fallen, inside, candles flickered and people sat sipping cocktails as if they hadn’t noticed Jonas on the other side of the door. While the rest of Brooklyn shuttered, Seaborne was open for business.

Sasha Petraske would have had it no other way.

The little bar on Van Brunt Street is the late bartender Petraske’s final bar. In a way, it’s his posthumous second coming, translated through the eyes of his protégé Lucinda Sterling. Like Petraske’s first bar, the mythical Milk & Honey, Seaborne is a spare beauty that has dovetailed quietly into the arcadian neighborhood. Behind thick glass-block walls, inspired by Montero’s, an old longshoreman bar on Atlantic Avenue, a handful of red booths and a small zinc-topped bar complete the scene. Petraske meant it to be a one-bartender operation—dental water taps, along with ribbed medical napkins, are installed at each booth so guests can help themselves—and, in keeping with his intentions, Sterling strikes a solitary figure each evening as she makes each drink personally.

“I always wanted to do right by him,” says Sterling. “We changed a few things, aesthetically, but not too much.” Across from her, her partner—in life and business—John Bonsignore nods and interjects. “She’s being modest. She likes a challenge. Lucinda did a lot of work to make [Seaborne] what it is.”

Sterling’s story is a classic “small town girl arrives in New York” one. Born in Nebraska and raised in Colorado, she walked through Milk & Honey’s doors in 2005 without an inkling of its cachet. “Vodka Martini, dirty,” she says remembering her first order. She cringes: “No. Extra-dirty, please!” Wearing suspenders (before it became a meme), with his hair slicked back, Petraske looked like he’d time-traveled from the 1920s. Back then, almost no one who walked through the unmarked Eldridge Street doorway, Sterling included, had ever seen anyone like him. That night, Petraske handled her now-provincial seeming requests with characteristic politesse. And then he spilled a drink on her. “He made me promise never to tell anyone,” she says.

Like many of Petraske’s students, Sterling was converted on the first evening. Ushered into a world she’d never imagined existed, she quickly moved to New York, asked Petraske for a job and showed up without a lick of experience, wearing a new dress that she couldn’t afford. “I was a slow learner,” she says. “And it was a challenge. There was no menu to study, but he was optimistic, and I wanted to make him proud.” After picking up his teachings—build drinks simultaneously; encourage moderation; balance, balance, balance—Sterling began working at Little Branch, Petraske’s then-new West Village bar housed in a former gay sex club. John Bonsignore was the landlord.

A native New Yorker with salt-and-pepper hair and a detectable accent, Bonsignore remembers walking into the bar, looking at Sterling and, captivated, saying, “What are you?” Familiar with being quizzed on her arresting looks, Sterling rattled off a list: “German, Irish, Chinese, Polish, French, Vietnamese.” Bonsignore wrote it down and asked her out, but she declined, considering it a conflict of interest. Years later, when they both became partners in Middle Branch, another Petraske project in Murray Hill, she eventually relented. Today, they’re the two faces that greet each customer upon ducking through Seaborne’s door.

Bonsignore, whose family was heavily involved in Coney Island’s amusement parks and still owns the city’s oldest plumbing company, found the building on Van Brunt after some heavy research. He presented the opportunity to Petraske, who, though also a native New Yorker, had never heard of the neighborhood. “Sasha wanted to open a Korean chicken place,” Bonsignore says laughing, “but he went back to classic cocktails.”

Before the bar could open, Petraske, 42, passed away in August of last year. It was a loss the cocktail community the world over felt sharply—and will not soon forget. 

The bar Sterling and Bonsignore walked into was largely finished. Petraske had even illustrated the DOH-required choking posters and bought some ice cream machines for a mysterious confectionary project. He had intended the name to be “Falconer,” a reference from a William Butler Yeats poem, but it was too similar to the name of another nearby business—so Sterling chose Seaborne, which also references a Yeats poem about a bird taking flight and becoming balanced over the water. Sterling finds it a fitting allusion not only to Red Hook’s heritage as a working waterfront, but also to Petraske’s insistence on perfectly measured drinks.

Seaborne’s parallels to Milk & Honey are remarkable. Like his first bar, it was built on a tight budget, and thus retains an elegantly Spartan feel. Simple but cozy booths, old jazzy music and hazy candlelight are the cornerstones of its ambience. The menu is abbreviated, like all Sasha-influenced menus, featuring just a few classics—a Pisco Sour, Rum Fix and Tequila Daisy—alongside some Petraske favorites like The Business and the Palma Fizz.

Though the bar began as Petraske’s, Sterling has taken it under her wing and begun a legacy of her own. It’s a true pleasure to behold her rhythm as she surveys a group, delivers drinks and casually doles out a zinging joke before gliding back behind the bar. She has the stuff of saloon owners and tavern keeps of yore.

“I always had one foot out the door,” she says, describing her once-urgent yearning to leave the bar business before she became rooted in New York and the still-blossoming Petraske family tree. “Now I have three feet in the door.”

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