"We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other." –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Think too long and hard on the quote above, and you might need a drink. If you're drawn to the new bar in Clinton Hill that bears the poet-essayist's name, beware: it lacks the sense of character one might expect from a bar with bookish aspirations in Brooklyn, a borough so overrun with aspiring literati it was recently described as "cancerous with novelists" by former poster boy Jonathan Lethem.
The Emerson's attempt to serve that audience falls flat. Its literary leanings feel more arbitrary and convenient (one of its cross streets is Emerson Place) than heartfelt. Sure, there are photos of writers on the walls and a plethora of literary-inspired cocktails (The Sir Walter Scott with Hennessy, Bacardi Light, triple sec, grenadine, and fresh lime juice, $12; The Longfellow, Hornitos tequila, cucumber, cilantro, pineapple juice, $11), but don't be misled by the gimmick. It feels at least one step removed from Brooklyn's thriving community of writers, like the Epcot Theme Park version of a literary haunt. Even the jukebox is strictly decorative. What a tease!
The bar's proximity to Pratt lends it a somewhat arty air by osmosis. Although it features rotating solo exhibitions, its confused aesthetic is anything but artful. A red sparkly bar juxtaposed with wooden tables that appear to be stolen from a log cabin; a menu with a grilled sandwich of American cheese and Bac-Os on one side and an ambitious cocktail list on the other—something doesn't compute, especially for a place that seems to be trying to reach the slice of Brooklyn that has such (sometimes obnoxiously) high standards for all things related to literature, design and food.
The cash-only bar, opened by a team including a co-owner of the Myrtle Avenue establishment Maggie Brown's, is better situated and seems more comfortable catering to the nearby college crowd with a lively happy hour (2-for-1 drafts and well drinks, and $2 off cocktails) and community events like the April Fool's Day Silly Dance-Off Contest, judged by burlesque performers. Who doesn't love a little cabbage patch or funky chicken to go with a fine selection of East Coast beers on tap?
Another, literally, bright spot is the generously situated pool table toward the back of the bar, illuminated by an over-hanging lamp that makes me want to interrogate someone before potting the eight ball. Although I'm no pool shark, even I appreciate all the square footage surrounding the table—fears of hitting my funny bone against the wall in an awkward one-eye-squinted-shut contortion are non-existent.
With its weak and strong points, this bar is on its way to finding its voice. And, as any writer knows, that process, often navigated by trial and error, can't be rushed.