559 Grand St, Brooklyn
Rating: L L L L L
Two thoughts occur to me as I sip a Molson while Neil Young’s “Old Man” plays in the background. The first is “My god, I’ve stumbled through a wormhole and ended up in Toronto circa 1971.” The other is that I’ve finally found that most elusive creature: the perfect neighborhood bar.
Creating a successful neighborhood watering hole is no easy task. Make it too casual and you risk boring the jaded New York drinker who has seen everything… twice. Go too upscale and you’ll draw the weekend warriors but scare away the locals and would-be regulars.
Owners Andrew Benedict and Scott Frederick, however, seem to have the formula down pat. They also own Park Slope favorite Great Lakes, as well as Boat on Smith Street and Buttermilk in South Slope. At Ontario Bar, their winning formula is repeated: an eclectic jukebox up to Pitchfork standards, worn-in, comfortable decor and friendly bartenders emitting the perfect level of unforced bonhomie. Their latest joint, as evidenced by its name, has a distinctly Canadian theme. Labatt Blue and Moosehead are available alongside local brews like Sixpoint and Brooklyn, and a variety of Canadian whiskeys, from Canadian Club to Black Velvet.
Yes, the standard Brooklyn aesthetic is in play here, meaning it looks as if archeologists had discovered a long-buried, perfectly preserved bar and simply turned on the taps and opened for business. Still, Ontario Bar never steps over the line into kitsch. Ersatz wildlife is present in tasteful quantities: a wide-mouthed trout and a few deer heads add a cheeky touch to an otherwise restrained design scheme heavy on exposed brick and rough-hewn wood. I settle in and start to feel comfortable, bathed in the warm glow from an amalgam of haphazardly hung Christmas lights, flickering tea lights and the blinking of an unoccupied Ms. Pac-Man machine.
As I chat with the long-haired bartender about the horror movie tropes that scare us most (alien abduction, clowns…), the place starts to fill up. It has barely been open for a couple of weeks but a solid crowd wanders in: no Misshapes rejects, no Dane Cook clones, no perpetually texting would-be models, just regular-looking people in search of cheap booze and decent rock tunes. I’m not trying to oversell its populist appeal; this is Williamsburg after all, not rural Canada, where I assume flannel is worn without irony and people in bars don’t mouth along to Yo La Tengo songs [Ed. This is true]. Still, inexpensive drinks and good company goes a long way and I think even Neil Young wouldn’t mind finishing the night as I am, killing a $4 whiskey and saying goodbye to some new friends.