9 Clinton Street, Lower East Side
Hanging a few paintings in your bar does not a gallery make, a point lost on many so-called bar/gallery owners. Ari Stern and Cole Shaper do things a little differently. At Culturefix, the art is taken as seriously as the booze. Right now it's an exhibition by photographer Mike Mabes, an ode to summer and skin, leathery old men and voyeuristic teens from Bolivia to Brooklyn. It's obvious that the artwork is the focus: the seating is subtle and unobtrusive, just two wooden benches and a worn-in couch that barely take up any of the stark white gallery space. It feels comfortable, sinking down into the cushions with a cold can of Pork Slap in your hands, like you're just hanging in your friend's loft. The gallery is connected to the owners' business partner's (David Aurbach) separate shop, Dijital Fix, the boutique and audiophile's playground you might know from its sister location inside Williamsburg's infamous minimall.
Culturefix also has a small tapas menu that mixes Basque and Asian influences: leek and onion quiches, shrimp with kimchi bok choy and more, available for $6 apiece. The staff cooks them up behind the bar in front, located in a narrow room plastered with yellow-striped wallpaper and cute little flower arrangements. The cramped quarters allow for plenty of opportunities for canoodling. When I first visited, I had to walk through a veritable obstacle course of romance before I could get to the gallery in back. Couples leaned close together, elbows resting on the rough-hewn bar, lit gently by dangling Edison bulbs. A man stood on his tip-toes to kiss a tall stringy model on the lips. I almost felt my cold heart thaw before I could numb it again with sweet, sweet reasonably priced alcohol. There's a decent selection of Old and New World wines, curiously labeled ''Blood'' and ''Summer Time'' (red and white, respectively), with most bottles costing between $30-40. There are some good craft beers, too, but sadly none on tap. I had a Southern Tier IPA, the most expensive on the list at $5, a steal in a neighborhood that keeps getting more and more expensive.
Stern and Shaper seem to be having fun with the space as well, throwing quirky events like an interactive Hipstamatic photo show and musical roulette, where poets and musicians are randomly paired up for improvisational performances. It's the kind of creative, anything-goes spirit that's getting harder to find in New York City, let alone Manhattan, and that's definitely worth drinking to.