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What originally brought you to Brooklyn?
I was already living in Brooklyn when the idea for Tooker Alley began to take shape—having moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2008—and it was evident from the start that the bar had to be in Brooklyn. I found Brooklyn to be a much more culturally astute and aware place than Manhattan and felt that the cultural referencing I was intending to use (Dil Pickle Club, Anarchists, Hoboes, Literati etc) would find an informed and knowing audience here. In Manhattan I don’t think Tooker Alley would have amounted to much more than a theme bar. I was also very attracted to the economic diversity that still exists in certain parts of Brooklyn, something increasingly hard to find in Manhattan.
On the consumption side I could see that the bars and restaurants in the borough were operating on a very high creative level and that creativity, not money, was the point of it all. I was really inspired with both the approach and the level of creativity I was finding here and I really wanted to somehow become a part of that, in my own small way.
What brought you into the bar business?
Truth be told I simply fell into the bar business, or more accurately the restaurant business. There was no career ambition or master plan, I just needed a job. I started as a cook in the very early 80’s and was by any standard a miserable failure in the kitchen. A former employer put me behind the bar, mainly I think because he didn’t know what else to do with me. That was over 25 years ago and, with a few small breaks, that’s where I’ve been ever since.
What was the inspiration behind Tooker Alley—the name specifically, but also the feel of the place, from the aesthetics to the music?
Tooker Alley was the longest serving location of an early 20th Century free thinker’s forum called the Dil Pickle Club. It was a radical place, in many ways ground zero for 20th century American counter-culture. The first thing that really drew me to it was its inclusiveness. People from literally every walk of life filled the place, people who would normally never congregate under one roof. That seemed to me to be what a good bar should do. I also liked that although it was a highly creative place and many well-known writers and artists frequented it and performed there (Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Mae West, Catherine Dunham, Mary Maclane etc) it refused to take itself or the people there too seriously. Full time hecklers were kept around just to deflate anyone’s ego should they get too full of themselves. That seemed right to me too.
Tooker Alley is often referred to as a neo-speakeasy but that is a misnomer. The Dil Pickle Club was founded in 1914, the early industrial era of America. It began life as a pre-prohibition place. When it was being built I wanted to reference that era, when rural America was giving way to life in the big cities. It seemed to me to be a hybrid era architecturally — wood on the one hand, from the pre-industrial era and the rise of iron and steel ushering in the industrial age on the other. Hence the uses of the two materials at Tooker Alley. The backbar shelves for instance. Also the wood on the top of the bar (taken from an old flatbed truck) contrasted with metal bar stools. Industrial metal crank tables on a reclaimed oak floor. The juxtaposition of wood and metal was meant to conjure up the early industrial era, the moment in time when the Dil Pickle Club was born. The light fixtures all follow suit and are period specific. Reproductions obviously, but actually made using schematics from early 20th century factory and residential lighting. I also wanted to reference the working class people of that time, union activists, factory workers, hoboes etc. It’s pretty easy these days to find places that reference money and power, I felt it was time to reference the other side of American life.
The music we play is actually not period correct, it is from the bebop jazz era mostly of the 40s and 50s. The decision to play jazz was based on a personal nostalgia for a lost time in NYC. It seemed to me that the combination of jazz music in NYC bars was becoming a lost tradition and I thought it was something that I wanted to help perpetuate. Once we started to play jazz it was obvious that it was the only music that really gave the place the right vibe, and we have never played any other kind of music.
Do you see a correlation between the heightened interest in high-quality cocktails with high-quality food?
Obviously the “cocktail culture” has crossed over into the food world (and vice versa) to a great degree in recent years and in many ways contemporary cocktails can be as much a “foodie” experience as a drinking one. The two have become very much intertwined to the point where there is even a James Beard Award category for best cocktail program nowadays and most restaurants will have some form of house cocktails to accompany their food menus.
For us it’s a little different since we are a bar. We do have food and take care and pride in it, but the raison d’etre of Tooker Alley is drinking, not eating. And to that end it’s about drinking in all its forms, not just the cocktail - which is why we made the decision to have beer and wine, and to take the time to design a shot and beer pairing menu. You can drink here in whatever way you choose.
But to answer your question, yes there does seem to be a very close correlation between high end cocktails and high end food these days.
What’s your favorite thing to drink?
A well-made Manhattan is, and probably always will be my favorite cocktail. I have also been known to sip a slug of good whiskey (Ransom distillery’s ‘Whippersnapper’ is my current favorite) along with a tasty, ice-cold beer.
Have you enjoyed being in the neighborhood you’re in?
The experience of being in Prospect and Crown Heights has been nothing short of a revelation, honestly. The cultural and economic diversity, the mix of people from all walks of life and backgrounds makes it a really rich experience being here. It’s the kind of neighborhood that defines what I always thought of as being quintessentially “New York” but that is in actual fact very hard to find nowadays.
It is also an area with a tangible sense of community. I have met generations of people who have grown up in this area and still live and work here and are raising their own children here. The son of the family who once owned the building that Tooker Alley is in came over and introduced himself shortly after we opened — and he still lives across the street. There is great continuity here and a sense of belonging to something very deep and very strong. It doesn’t feel like a transient or somehow newly-minted or manufactured place. I feel completely privileged to be here and to becoming even a small part of it. It’s a fantastic neighborhood.
What are the most rewarding and frustrating things about running a bar?
Clearly the most rewarding aspect of owning and running a bar is the people you meet, the relationships you form and the process of becoming a part of the neighborhood. I look at it as a rare opportunity to connect with people, something I’ve been lucky enough to do already. And personally it’s a real privilege to have this ongoing creative project to keep working at, making better and doing more with. It’s something I was never sure I would ever have and I am very grateful for it.
The most frustrating thing is when it feels as if we have failed in our mission somehow. On the most basic level that would be when we don’t give the kind of performance that we expect of ourselves, when the service is lacking or a drink isn’t made properly, for instance. That’s disappointing.
But on a deeper level it’s when we fail at conveying who we feel we are and what we really want to be about, which is trying to bring people together under one roof to commune together. It sounds very corny, but I believe that’s what a good bar should do, so if anyone finds the experience alienating in some way, that is very frustrating and it means the place has failed somehow. Hopefully that doesn’t happen often.