The Tricky Business of Revamping a Beloved Bar

Taking over a bar with a fiercely loyal following is hard. But some owners have figured out how to move forward while paying homage to their inherited establishment's roots. Drew Lazor on the emerging category of bars revamped for a new era of drinking.

Splice DNA collected in the corners of Twin Peaks’ Red Room with the blueprints for Jackie Treehorn’s wet bar and you might end up with something resembling 151, on New York City’s Lower East Side.

Hidden down a nondescript flight of steps, underneath a sake bar and adjacent to a discount psychic offering $10 palm readings, it’s a different kind of project from Proprietors LLC, the bicoastal drink wizards behind bars like Death & Co. and Nitecap. Unlike those ultra-sleek contemporary cocktail destinations, 151 is low-end and proud of it.

Though it’s been called 151 since its original opening in 2002, it was long known more for varying debauchery than variations on the Daiquiri. The bar, along with a number of other properties around the country, experienced a special brand of overhaul, one calibrated to preserve the fragile spirit of forebears, weed out the undesirable and coax an old bar into new territory. The “revamp,” it seems, is becoming a new bar category unto itself.

Proprietors’ Alex Day and David Kaplan, along with their partners in L.A.’s Honeycut, took over 151 in August 2014. The original, hidden behind an unmarked, graffiti-scrawled door, was a bona fide dive. Back in 2007, Day was on the opening staff of the now-closed restaurant Tailor, when he began making the brisk trip over to get his post-shift kicks. ”Everyone used to go to 151 every single night,” says Day, who’d order Jameson on the rocks and Bud Light as his go-to. “Suddenly, you blink and it’s 5 a.m.”

When the opportunity to take over a bar arose, Day and Kaplan pounced. Then they got to planning, realizing quickly that a full-on gutting—physically and conceptually—would be irresponsible. “It’s amazing how important that bar was to so many people living on the Lower East Side at that time,” says Day.

After defusing neighborhood whispers that they were turning the shot-and-beer spot into an expensive bottle-service club, 151, version 2.0, opened for business. The foul-smelling bathrooms and cavalier patrons bumping lines of coke in plain sight have been banished, replaced by comfy stools, kitschy snacks (frozen Girl Scout cookies) a Radler list (“the Gatorade of Europe”) and “The Righteous 75,” a back-of-menu lineup of classic mixed drinks.

When a contingent of former customers balked at the rejiggered beer list, they added domestic macro brews back behind the bar. They’ve also brought back former employees, like 151’s original doorman, to lend a level of comfort to old regulars.

“I don’t want you to feel like I’m shoving something that you don’t want down your throat,” says Day. “It just made sense to keep it close to what it was and pay homage to the old 151, [instead of] focusing on being relevant in the larger New York City context, or in the national cocktail scene.”

Proprietors preserved the 151 name as a hat-tip to the past, but they didn’t have to deal with the added difficulty of having that name evoke an iconic figure in local nightlife, like Marty’s in Birmingham, Alabama. Known for his support of local performers and gregarious but meticulous nature—his instructional “How To Find Happiness Owning A Bar” series, which he sold via mail order, is amazing—the bar’s namesake, Marty Eagle (who ran the bar for 20 years) built up an incredible reputation in town, especially among fellow bar and restaurant employees. When Eagle passed away in 2013, two of the bar’s industry regulars, Phillip and Marsha Mims, took it over from his partner, Kay Ferguson, and got to work—carefully.

It’s now called Marty’s PM, though most people still just call it Marty’s. The Mims didn’t make many physical or operational changes, aside from replacing the carpet and some minor remodeling. Instead, the couple is making its mark in liquid form, growing the beer and spirits selection three-fold to bring in a new crowd, while still honoring the proclivities of the old one. Marsha, a big bourbon and scotch drinker, now stocks high-end brown spirits—but they’re still served in plastic cups.

“Marty, as much as we all loved him, was very set in his ways,” says Marsha. “He had five different types of canned beer and well liquor, and that was it.” Now, “there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get a good Manhattan or a Negroni here.”

Taking the wheel of a bar with a fiercely loyal following is hard. Attempting to preserve all the right elements of a predecessor, then redirecting them to harmonize with your own beliefs without alienating the old heads, is even harder. All this tricky business speaks to the unflappable importance of the “local” to our routines. The bars of the old guard are among the first things people defend and lament when difficult questions of gentrification and generational incongruence arise. These owners, relying on a sensitivity to the past and a hellacious amount of trial and error, have figured out how to move forward, while looking back.

Bill Hankey and Colette Dein found themselves in a similar situation in Austin, Texas, when they took over The Legendary White Swan—you know a place is good if “legendary” is part of its official name—in early 2014. Open since the early 1960s, the White Swan traditionally catered to a mostly African-American clientele as a bar for live blues. In 2011, Hankey’s half-brother, Randall Stockton, took over the venue, adding more rock and punk shows to the performance schedule. He ended up selling to Hankey, who renamed it King Bee, after the Muddy Waters song.

“The space was a club for many years because it worked,” says Hankey. “If something’s not broke, you don’t go and try to fix it.” But he also recognized the need to offer something new to accommodate the rapidly diversifying crowd.

An experienced drink maker, Hankey found the answer behind the bar. He’s implemented a fresh cocktail program that even includes frozen versions of classics like the Zombie and the Bee’s Knees. Old regulars still stop by, but he’s slowly cultivating some new ones.

The true “neighborhood bar”—one that is so ingrained within the fabric of a specific place that even its decades-long patrons no longer remember how it started—is probably the most complicated kind of establishment to update. Navigating this domain of a changing neighborhood is Sarah’s Place, in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia. A corner bar since 1934, the no-frills venue was known as Sara’s Place—no H—for decades before its original owner decided to retire and move out of the city. She sold to MM Partners, a development firm working to build up Brewerytown (about a ten-minute drive north from the heart of the city) as an attractive neighborhood for commercial and residential investment.

A good neighborhood bar is “designed to manage the differences between people,” according to MM’s Jacob Roller, who lives and works in B-Town. Sara’s was already the genuine article—a heavily patronized gathering place, with heritage and personality—so there was no motivation for him to presume he could build a better one.

The original sign, featuring a pair of shapely high-heeled legs kicking out beneath the apostrophe s, still hangs outside. On the other side, not much has changed, at least to the untrained eye.

“We did a lot in here to do very little,” says Roller, who kept many original design elements (an old liquor poster, featuring a stretched-out Wilt Chamberlain relaxing with a rocks glass filled with Lord Calvert Canadian whisky) and many go-to drink orders (the bizarre-but-popular “Sara Special” featuring Manischewitz, lemon juice and vodka, shaken and served on the rocks).

One thing all these “revamped” bars have in common, whether they’re sitting in high-profile NYC real estate or on a nondescript North Philly corner, is the desire to keep things small—catering to their immediate neighborhoods first, and not attempting to preen for attention or business outside those confines. That, after all, is how any bar lucky enough to be someone’s local needs to operate. “Your customers personify your bar,” says Marsha Mims of Marty’s PM. “The people that come in—they’re the ones who define us.”