Ode to a Bar: Holiday Cocktail Lounge

Photo by Dicie Carlson
Photo by Dicie Carlson

I love that the first time I’ve ever been carded for I.D. at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge is at the age of 43.

The bar is located at 75 Saint Mark’s Place, and my first New York City apartment was at No. 51, just a few doors down the block. I moved there in the spring of 1991 with an NYU friend. That apartment was the most palatial, sleek and beautiful one I’ve lived in this city to date, but also the noisiest and hottest. It was on the second floor off one of the most bustling, and then most gritty, thoroughfares of the East Village, and each apartment shared an air shaft. So not only did my street-facing bedroom pick up every drunken, post-punk, junkie hangout, rock n' roll, pizza scarfing, house music, acid trip nuance from the street at all hours, I could hear even so much as a repressed sneeze from any floor of the pre-war brownstone. And you can bet there was way more than sneezing going on in those days. One of the mildest springs on record became one of the most scorching, stifling summers the city ever suffered through. We had only one air conditioner and it was nowhere near my bedroom. We couldn’t afford to turn it on anyway. The windows had to stay open to the elements, and my ceiling fan merely served to stir the thick, soupy air in a goth-inflected drone about the room.

The other sounds I would often hear were the drunks spilling outside the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. This was decades before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s smoking ban. They weren’t outside to catch a smoke, they were just hanging out, or they were kicked out and protesting. My future ex-husband was away that summer, the last one we’d spend separated till we separated, and I was spending a lot of time with my college friend Rebecca. One night when we couldn’t take the heat and even Gang of Four wouldn’t drown out the street noise, we decided to stop trying to beat them and joined them at the cool, dark and cavernous Holiday. We'd heard tell they let almost anyone in. Glancing around for the first time, I wondered what exactly you had to do to be kicked out.

Rebecca and I spent many a summer’s eve there after that, with our underage asses seated at one of the torn leather banquettes in the corner, sipping what were probably then vodka Screwdrivers mixed with orange juice concentrate (in hindsight it might have even been Tang), at tables that probably hadn’t seen so much as the shadow of a sponge in weeks. That was a typical Holiday “cocktail” in those days, and you could buy them for $3 a pop. Two or three of those was still cheaper than an air conditioned movie and snacks, and lasted longer. We girl talked while a sparse set of regulars in the neighborhood uniform of ankh-printed leggings, Bundeswehr tank tops and Doc Martens sat around the bar, which, decades after its elegant heyday, resembled three quarters of a horseless, dilapidated carousel. The bartenders pretty much left us alone and we didn’t try to engage them in case we were caught. The regulars eventually would nod and smile in recognition after a few visits. People dry humped and shot up in the corners without a grunt from either the apathetic staff or other customers. There was always something good playing on the jukebox - Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Bowie, Television- when it worked. This was a true New York dive, however at the time I had nothing to compare it to.

I started going alone, even after my boyfriend returned. I preferred the strum of bar noise to the hectic street sounds and arguing neighbors. I preferred the smell of ash and sticky beer to the rotting vegetable stench of St. Mark’s Place. It was an affordable space to read or study or write. Back then I hardly drank. It was just about being in that space. My boyfriend would sometimes get jealous that I hung out there alone, and he wasn’t invited. It was as though I was having an affair with the Holiday.

It was a sad day when it closed for good three years ago after the owner died. It was yet another sign the East Village as we knew it was gone. Though to be honest, I had stopped going there regularly for a good twenty years. It always had its own regulars anyway, some of them likely the same people who had been around in my underage years (some still boldly wearing ankh leggings). It was a huge loss to the neighborhood, which was bracing itself for whatever high rent atrocity would open in its place.

I Know You Are... with a side of fried cheese balls and quince paste. Photo by Amanda Schuster
I Know You Are... with a side of fried cheese balls and quince paste. Photo by Amanda Schuster

Luckily for everyone what ended up opening there just a couple of weeks ago was... the Holiday Cocktail Lounge! Robert Ehrlich, founder of Pirate’s Booty snacks and Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa restaurant next door, have given it a subtle makeover. With the guidance of Michael Neff, the neighborhood bar whisperer who co-founded Ward III and is responsible for reviving the Rum House in Times Square and Three Clubs in Los Angeles, and his brother Danny, of Extra Fancy and the Bar Room, Holiday Lounge 2.0 is exactly what it should be. Because these people "get" it.

The interior was given a good (sanitary) polish, just enough to give the old gal (Sibley informed me the bar has license #TL-50 post Prohibition, think about that for a second) some glow. The carousel bar, now with working light fixtures, was fixed up and moved a few feet to the center and a glamorous 1920s mural was serendipitously uncovered and restored in a corner. The banquettes have been re-covered and I’m happy to report they wipe the tables now. I witnessed this myself.

OK, you’re not going to find $3 highballs anymore. However, you can order a $5 draft Dark & Stormy or Long Island Iced Tea. There is a highly affordable list of draft suds from $5 - $8, decent wines by the glass for $10 and half bottles of wine, and beer + shot cocktails for $10. Bar bites are also available from $6 - $16.

Of course, the new best feature is they finally put the “cocktail” back in Holiday Cocktail Lounge! There are original drinks featuring an eclectic variety of spirits from its well chosen back bar, including I Know You Are… with Ilegal Joven Mezcal, peppercorn-infused Cointreau and Lillet Rosé. The Screwdriver has evolved into a shaken vodka and amaro choose-your-own -adventure drink which can be mixed with wine, apple cider or pilsner. There is also a list of staff favorite classic cocktails and option to request something from “Research and Development” for a bartender’s choice.

With so many New York City establishments disappearing for good or re-opened as a new incarnation that has no resemblance to its for former glory (Mars Bar - really?), it’s such a pleasure to visit Holiday in its current state, and I am pretty sure that even though I live across the river instead of a few doors down, it will be one of my locals. This time the bar is much more convivial, and plenty of people have similar fond memories of the joint and want to make new ones. So go ahead and card me, Doorman. Even my 20 year old self knows you’re just doing your job.