Memorial Day, the Monday holiday honoring all those who have perished serving the military is this weekend. In certain American port cities, it is also the time of year for Fleet Week – a celebration welcoming Sailors, Marines and members of the Coast Guard who have been deployed overseas. Fleet Week began in San Diego in 1935 and has since become a tradition in cities such as San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale. In New York it has traditionally been timed to lead up to Memorial Day, this year from May 23 – 29, kicking off with a Parade of Ships in the harbor along the Hudson River and continuing with military demonstrations throughout the week, with festivities all over the city along the way (here’s a list). Venues around town participate with their own events at various piers, monuments and other locales, but this is also an excellent time to toast members of these services (which is encouraged even if you aren’t in a Fleet Week city) and if you encounter them, buy them a drink!
While Fleet Week is a tradition that has endured, many of the bars and restaurants frequented by local dock workers and members of the fleet are long gone, and their absence – a result of the waterfront businesses drying up in the 1970s and ‘80s and the gentrification of these neighborhoods in the 1990s and 2000s – is particularly felt near the Brooklyn waterfront. Columbia Street feeding into Red Hook and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill up to Court Street once housed a longshoreman bar/restaurant on practically every corner, and because each pier serviced ships from different nationalities, these were their corresponding national homes away from home, all family owned. The bars would open early to serve breakfast, offer as many as three lunch shifts, serve dinner and close late.
On Atlantic there is arguably only one of the originals left in operation – Montero’s at Atlantic and Hicks. The bar was opened in 1939 by Joe Montero, who was a merchant marine of Spanish descent. He had became friendly with many Danish seamen in his travels, so the bar had the distinction of being both a Spanish/Portuguese dock worker hang and a haven for Danes. Joe’s son Pepe (who happens to be my landlord’s first cousin) informed me the last King of Denmark, King Frederick IX, who spent some time in the fleet, once even paid a visit to his dad at the bar.
Another story Pepe likes to tell – a version of this account is also in the book Bars, Taverns and Dives New Yorkers Love by John Tebeau (who also illustrated the above image of the bar ) – takes place a few decades ago when Argentinian and Greek merchant marines got into a bar fight over whose ship had the best cook. Joe suggested that instead of fisticuffs, they settle the dispute over a cook-off. What he didn’t bargain for was that the Argentinians would grill a whole steer and the Greeks something on the order of 500 sardines (“the ultimate surf and turf,” Pepe says), and that all of Atlantic Ave. would be closed off to an impromptu neighborhood barbecue serving free food for hundreds of people (the number changes from 200 to 300 between tellings, but you can picture that figure yourself filling the street). The smoke wafted at least two avenue blocks in every direction, and all emergency vehicles were called in, but it was a good time had by all. The night ended late with live music, many pours of wine and ouzo, and everyone forgetting why they fought in the first place.
The dark paneled bar, with its fire red formica top, the life preservers hung above it, crammed to the rafters with nautical themed pieces of art created by real seafaring artists or contributed by customers over the years (the live parrots in the front corner by the window, pets of Joe’s wife, are sadly no longer with us), is considered one of the most loved watering holes in the city. (Affection has taken other forms too – metal cages still support the bathroom sinks.) It’s such a time capsule to walk into, once inside, one can almost still picture the Kromberg, Viedo’s and Benny’s (which was once the only place to get pizza in the neighborhood, and delivered to all the other bars until close for only $1 a pie) still keeping it company down the block.
Long Island Bar
Kitty-corner from Montero’s is the Long Island Bar, which is unofficially also still considered part of the Brooklyn longshoremen hangout tradition since it remains in the Montero family by way of Joe’s sister Emma Sullivan, née Montero. As a casual neighborhood restaurant it had been shuttered for several years until Toby Cecchini and his business partner Joel Tompkins managed to convince Sullivan and her cousins Pepita and Maruja to take it over. With the beloved neon sign preserved (the neighborhood got very nervous when it was taken down for repairs), a new one inside declaring NO DANCING (which once inspired a flash mob of local neighborhood kids who rushed in, danced, and rushed out again) and a near inch by inch anachronistic renovation, it opened again in 2013. The myth is he would only secure the lease if he didn’t change a single detail, but the truth, so Cecchini told me for my book New York Cocktails, is he chose to, and it was a much more costly effort to authenticate the tone and fixtures of the original than replace it with something else. Luckily the neighborhood is thrilled to have it back, whether stopping in to sip a Boulevardier or a Miller High Life pony, and dare I say, it’s an even better burger now than back in the day.
Eat Like a Sicilian Longshoreman
A few blocks from Atlantic, one can also still dine much like a turn of the century Sicilian dock worker at Ferdinando’s Focacceria on Union Street off of Columbia Street. Open since 1904, it’s a holdout from a time Union was the weekend market street (a dingy movie theater was at the end of the block, and according to Pepe Montero, one had to bring three sticks: “One to hold up the ceiling, one to sit on and one to beat off the rats”). It still serves inexpensive, delicious and filling favorites like vastedda (a traditional Sicilian spleen and ricotta sandwich), or if you’re squeamish about things like spleen, try arancina (meat, rice and cheese balls) or panelle (made with fried chickpea patties) along with other house specialties.
Long Live Sunny’s
Then there’s Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook, which is thankfully a tough longshoremen era dive bar to beat down, having survived the late 19th century decay of waterfront business and neighborhood demographic turnover, several bureaucratic struggles to keep it legal and up to code, and extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2017, a year after its beloved owner, Sunny Balzano (a direct descendent of Raffaele Balzano, who first purchased the bar in the 1850s) passed away, his wife, Tone Johansen, was able to negotiate its lease from no less than 17 of his surviving relatives, thanks to fundraisers supported by both neighbors and other concerned members of the local bar community. Now that she’s gone though all that trouble, the buttress of booze, filled to the brim with items whose names mostly end in “shaw”, remains an ideal place for a low key drink in the daytime (typically with excellent background music), or to catch live music in the back on nights and weekends while mingling with a crowd of neighborhood regulars and visitors from near and far. Says Johansen in Tebeau’s book, “You don’t have that ‘alone’ feeling here, even when you’re by yourself… Sunny’s is all about people. It’s about the human connection. It’s a recharge station.”
A New Nautical Bar That Feels Right At Home
In the new guard, Grand Republic Cocktail Club was recently opened in Greenpoint by Johnny Swet, who was a member of the Navy SEAL/Bud’s program in the 1980s until a serious leg fracture, when he became a member of the Pacific Fleet and then took to bartending. Now considered a veteran bar owner (Pastis, Freemans, Jimmy at the James, Oscar Wilde and more), he opened this one in an area of the neighborhood that had been Transmitter Park, a former shipping yard, and one of many along West Street. Explaining the inspiration, he says, “The current Transmitter Park was where they refurbished the Grand Republic, the largest wooden ship ever built, and our bar’s namesake.”
The menu is a well traveled mix of different drinks – not just nautically themed ones like a Gin Salty Dog and Navy Grog – highlighting eclectic ingredients from various ports of call in surprisingly balanced ways (the ChichaMorada Margarita with pineapple and Peruvian purple corn punch or the Cold Brew Negroni, for example). However, the decor of the bar is all about the sea life. “I wanted to mix vintage nautical and shipbuilding gear in with the whole decor, so we have old sailing pulleys, and vintage prints of the original Grand Republic juxtaposed with modern shipyard photos, old and new school tattoo flash, and our mascot – Bruno the Bulldog – who’s chained to the bar like a shipyard watchdog. (It’s a stone statue.) Someone recently described our space as a ‘post punk Navy bar, which I like a lot.”
Down on the Boardwalk
Though not officially a nautical worker’s bar, Ruby’s Bar and Grill in Coney Island, is one of the last remaining businesses of the old guard along the oceanside boardwalk. As I wrote here in 2017: The former Hebrew National Deli was taken over in 1972 by Ruby Jacobs, a local businessman with a lifelong affair with the surf life. He was a Coney Island fixture that ended up opening one. No trip to the boardwalk is complete without a visit to Ruby’s, with its photo and memorabilia-covered walls, and the scent of fried clams curling into the briny and slightly sour Brooklyn oceanside air. It’s been saved from extinction many times over the years, and is now one of the only original (they can be counted on a punished thieve’s hand) Coney businesses still in operation. Ruby might have departed this world to the deep ocean beyond in 2000, but after a ride on the Cyclone, you can toast to his memory with a Coney Island Brewery Mermaid Pilsner and maybe join a little impromptu seaside dance party.
Cheers to all those serving the fleet and to everyone still on deck behind these Brooklyn bars!
For nautical and military themed cocktail recipes to celebrate Memorial Day, please click here.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.