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Suburban New Jersey’s Secret Bar Scene

Hidden within the quiet bedroom community of Maplewood, a growing crop of decked-out, dad-run “garage bars” have become fixtures of the town's nightlife scene.

At 400 square feet, the garage at John Garbarino’s recently-purchased home in Maplewood, New Jersey, is bigger than any room in his house. It boasts a soaring cathedral ceiling and an interior outfitted entirely with antique wood. Upon move-in, it needed a new floor, but he and his wife weren’t planning on parking their cars there anyhow. For Garbarino, a recent SoHo transplant still adjusting to suburban life, the novelty of owning a garage presented a different opportunity.

“I thought, maybe I could design this to look like Spring Lounge, my old local,” he explains, naming the famed Lower East Side dive bar where, coincidentally, he first met his wife.

Working in mobile design and development by trade, he wasn’t exactly Bob Vila. So he started simple, with a floor-model TV from Best Buy and a Kegerator. It became a place where he and a few friends could hang out at night without worrying about waking the kids up—a strange inverse of teenagers drinking in their parent’s garage to avoid detection.

By 2011, he had the gumption to try and actually build a proper bar. Garbarino’s initial blueprints were thrown off early on by his own lack of carpentry experience. (He failed to realize, for instance, that two-by-fours did not actually measure two inches by four inches.) Eventually, he managed to fashion a wooden bar with oak veneer railings; he bought church pews on Craigslist and installed a fireplace he found on Facebook Marketplace; he added decorations his wife wouldn’t let him display in the house, like a Donovan McNabb Philadelphia Eagles jersey and an antique rotary club sign. Soon his friends started donating stuff—one gave him stools, another found a bar mirror in Massachusetts—which was quickly integrated into the decor.

“Then one night everyone came over,” he explains. “People were walking around going ‘Holy shit. This is the best bar in town.’”

While certainly a compliment, there wasn’t exactly a lot of competition in a town with only two “real” bars. Maplewood is often called “the Brooklyn of the suburbs,” a bedroom community where young families migrate after leaving Manhattan, Hoboken and, naturally, Brooklyn. These are 30- and 40-somethings ready for a bigger home, but still seeking some semblance of the bustling nightlife of the borough they traded for more living space. So perhaps it’s no surprise that, at the same time Garbarino was building his “Gar Bar”—a term he would eventually trademark—another resident just across the street was also building one of his own.

Joe Melvin had recently relocated from Hoboken, a party town whose residents like to boast that they hold the title for “most bars per square foot” in America. Like Garbarino, when Melvin began building his bar in 2016, the white-collar professional had little knowledge of home improvement, but was adamant in his pursuit of a personal space to kick back with a beer.

“You reach a certain age in your life and think, ‘I need my own space,’” says Melvin. “I’m more of a dive bar guy, so there wasn’t really a plan,” he explains. “As a new homeowner I was spending a lot of time at Home Depot and I just worked out [a design] as I went along… It’s not perfect and I’m still adding things to it.” His bar eventually took the name Sloppy Joe’s, though the Englishman claims that, at the time of its christening, he was unaware of the American sandwich with which it shares a name.

A Brief Tour of Maplewood, New Jersey's Garage Bars

As the legend of Sloppy Joe’s and The Gar Bar began to grow, others in the neighborhood became inspired to build their own. Today, Maplewood is home to at least a half-dozen garage bars, including one loftily dubbed The Garage Mahal.

A few blocks away from Garbarino and Melvin, Brian “Smitty” Krupkin, a few months shy of turning 40, decided he wanted to celebrate in a manner appropriate to the milestone. After years of envying Garbarino’s space, turning his two-story, detached garage into a bar of his own seemed apt. In the late spring of 2017, he spent two months building Smitty’s Tavern, which features a reclaimed wood bar with a faux-tin tiled face.

“It’s not that hard to build a bar,” he says, “It’s basically just a box.”

But not all boxes are alike. When Phil Di Giulio and his family moved to the Maplewood-Millburn border five years ago, the former Brooklyn resident claims he didn’t even know how to change a lightbulb. But a conversation with Garbarino during their shared commute to Penn Station changed all that.

“He basically spent about 12 seconds talking to me about his startup then immediately pivoted to, ‘Have you seen my bar?’” says Di Giulio. After Garbarino texted him the bar’s official website, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I don’t want to say I was Kevin Costner [in Field of Dreams]—there weren’t ghosts whispering to me at night—but I became obsessed with getting my own bar built.”

Within two years, Di Giulio had started working on turning his carport into what he describes as a “very humble” tiki bar. It houses an L-shaped bar made from 700 pounds of concrete that he poured himself, two beer taps, a chest freezer for ice and a camera security system. It cost him a little under $10,000, fits 15 to 20 people and, with spillover to the backyard, has hosted upwards of 65 guests.

It might be easy to dismiss this garage bar frenzy as a typical case of keeping up with the Joneses, but it’s more than that. The Gar Bar, for one, has become such a neighborhood institution that it has held everything from middle school charity fundraisers to Maplewood Chamber of Commerce events, an NBA team-building exercise and even a stand-up comedy show.

“It’s much more camaraderie based. Our bars have such a diverse set of ideas. No one is trying to compete,” says Di Giulio, before pausing to consider it. “It is a little bit about showmanship, however.”

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Tagged: bars, beer, New Jersey