300 Malcolm X Boulevard, Bed-Stuy
I was surprised to find the front door of Casablanca locked on a Monday night; I could hear people murmuring from inside the softly glowing bar and the faint hum of music. But I remembered the new Bed-Stuy lounge hasn’t exactly been forthcoming on social media and, save for an address, there’s no contact info online. I shrugged and turned to walk home, figuring the bar wasn’t quite ready for business and still in private event mode. But then out of nowhere a passerby stopped and asked me, “Going in for a drink?” I explained that I’d tried to do just that and indicated the locked door. He shook his head and pointed toward the adjacent side of the building. “That one,” he said, and disappeared into the dark.
When I walked in, it seemed everyone else in the candlelit bar was either me or that stranger—an unsure newcomer or a seasoned regular directing the newbies as to how things were run here, even though the bar has been open for just two weeks.
Casablanca has a massive bar, maybe thirty feet long, lined with comfortable retro lounge seats. The beautifully refurbished interior space is warm and sophisticated, yet isn’t a complete departure from the bar’s storied past. Before it closed its doors a few years back, this spot was a popular neighborhood bar known by varying incarnations of the name “Casablanca Cocktail Lounge,” and its run extended from most of the 20th century and into a good part of the 21st, and it shows inside the bar. But rather than cover up the peeling paint, the owners have embraced the scars of time. They’ve foregrounded original details, keeping the tin ceiling and placing the original Casablanca signage inside above the bar, a projector screens old black-and-white movies, and even the music seems in-step with some kind of historical continuity—soul, R&B, and jazz dominated the air waves all night. I noticed stacks of records and a couple of turntables in the corner. The bartender said Casablanca is still working on the DJ situation, which they hope to have running Wednesday through Sunday every week, but also said that for now I could step over and throw on a record if I felt like it.
There’s ample room for groups at long tables spread out alongside the windows, but after spending a few hours sitting alone at the bar, I don’t know why I’d ever bring friends along. If I did that, I’d be forfeiting the chance to chat up the bartender, who should win some kind of award for being a seriously amazing host, one with the uncanny ability to stir up conversation amongst New Yorkers minding their own business in a dark bar.
But the service and positive neighborhood vibes aren’t the only draw. Reasonable prices welcome everyone from the neighborhood. Casablanca is certainly not a dive, but it’s not pricey enough to be inaccessible. Good beers on tap hover around the $5 mark, while a solid glass of red wine can be had for $8. If beer and a shot is your thing, that will put you out just $7. Casablanca, true to its former namesake as a cocktail lounge, offers a few classic cocktails for a not-exactly-cheap $11. But should you really be indulging in frou frou drinks every day of the week? Unless you can afford juice cleanses and soul-sucking cycle, probably not. But when you are feeling fancy, imbibing won’t completely empty your wallet. We highly recommend the Dark ’N’ Stormy made with fresh ginger.
Thanks to fair prices and welcoming bartenders, Casablanca actually feels like it’s meant for the people who live and work nearby. And unlike some nearby places that exist for the sole purpose of scooping up tipsy visitors stuffed with Dr. Pepper frog legs, this isn’t just the latest white hipster booze trough to stake its claim in the area.
While I sat there sipping my mug of $5 Pilsner listening to Mark the bartender ask each new customer where they lived and how they heard about the place, I realized why Casablanca didn’t care to engage in social media (at least not yet) and appeared to be opting out of a PR push. Word of mouth will get them plenty of business, and clearly they’re more interested in sharing the bar with people they’ll see again and again.