On a Saturday, on the tonier Upper West Side, couples and stylish gal-pals dined on steak tartare, Thai fare or vegan burgers in elaborate sidewalk setups: heat light-warmed wood cabanas or nouveau yurts. In Harlem, older men bundled in coats sat in chairs in front of apartment buildings, gabbing about the good old days – pre-pandemic, but also pre-gentrification. Sidewalk setups buzzed with laughter and conversation. The strangest of all: Times Square on St Patrick’s Day. Aside from people sitting at tables in sheltered areas outside the Irish pubs and small clusters of revelers decked out in tacky Irish accessories, it was so desolate that I had to wonder if there was a tornado warning.
Maybe the strangest of all was Tribeca. Largely residential and bordering shabby Chinatown, it has long been one of Manhattan’s most expensive neighbourhoods. Given New Yorkers’ commitment to supporting local businesses throughout the pandemic, you’d think the residents of the sleek luxury apartments would be a blessing to the bars and restaurants. Just one problem: those big spenders aren’t around. When the pandemic struck, many took off to their second homes in the Hamptons or elsewhere. Thanks to remote working, many have yet to return. That’s been very bad for business for Flavien Desoblin. Flavien opened the celebrated Brandy Library in the neighbourhood in 2004, making it one of the city’s oldest pilgrimage-worthy whisky temples. In fact, he named it Brandy Library – not Whisky Library – because, at the time, brandy was associated with ritzy refinement. Whisky was for stuffy old people.
I visited on a Friday night. It had been an unseasonably warm day, so there were no heat lamps on the sidewalk or the narrow, elevated patio that leads to the entrance. The leather bar stools from inside were arranged around tall tables in the seating area, which extended into the street, and comfy leather chairs were set up on the sidewalk and patio. It was about 9pm. A year ago, the final after-work revelers would be closing their tabs, and couples and friends would be filling up the swanky yet welcoming, sepia-toned bar room. This night, five or six small groups sat inside, none at the bar, and a few outdoor tables were occupied.
Despite what you’re thinking, this is a tale of victory. “A year in, it looks like we’re here to stay. But I was ready to take it and put it somewhere else,” Flavien told me. He proceeded to chronicle his harrowing year: one without events in his classy, intimate downstairs space, without financial industry workers arriving with their corporate cards and without daters stopping in late at night, anxious to impress each other. He closed last St Patrick’s Day, then followed New York City’s quick-changing rules and regulations – including outdoor seating and food requirements, and limits on capacity and operating hours. He held virtual tastings on Zoom, as nothing can stop him from spreading whisky love. All the while, he was locked in battle with his landlord, who clung tight to his demand for the full $28,000 monthly rent. By the end of March (at the time of writing), after pricey lawyer fees, two Payment Protection Program loans (the federal government measure to aid small businesses) and a lot of angst-ridden correspondence, an agreement looks to be taking shape.
That Friday night, I watched the masked staff engage in conversations with guests. I watched them present bottles like sommeliers at five-star restaurants and smile broadly when the guest tasted it and smiled. Though only a few tables were occupied, the whisky curiosity and love were strong. Hope hung heavy in the air.