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Firemen, Young Singles, and Three Floors of Tonic East

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There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.

[Krieger, 6/3/10]

Readers of this column may have noticed that I tend to wander in old and scruffy saloons, bars with a lot of years on them and a lot of old men in them. I admit to a bias toward the traditional tavern model, where televisions are small in number and small in size, and pool and darts are played more often than beer pong. Even when they're sad and dirty, they have a bit of class. But such bars only represent a fraction of the unsung joints in town. So I figured it was time I wandered into a newer, flashier, yet equally anonymous place—the kind of bar I'd probably never go in if not in sociological service of this series.

Tonic East on Third Avenue is what I call a loudmouth bar. A loudmouth bar is the kind of bar where there are usually a lot of young loudmouths inside, and where the music is so loud it's impossible to have a conversation unless you shout. (The Yelpers have worse names for it, believe me.) It's shiny, it's brassy, it thinks its cool and it's three stories tall. Horseshoe-shaped booths sit under glowing-red circular skylights. Five windows onto the world, in the form of huge plasma TVs, form the wall behind the bar, where two bartenders sloppily (spillage is massive) worked 20 taps for the squealing masses.

The sets were tuned, left to right, to hockey, baseball, hockey, baseball and hockey. Some of the young junior exec types actually watched the games, including the "Pizza Hut Stanley Cup Intermission Report"; one mug in a straw, short-brimmed hat, standing by himself, did nothing but. Many of male customers are firemen. They hugged each other a lot in warm camaraderie. One wizened veteran was in full dress, and danced solo to "Ghostbusters" or "La Isla Bonita" or whatever awful song was playing. As for the women, they seemed to all be under 25, and to have recently taken in "Sex and the City 2"—and liked it. (How that show has ruined an entire female generation's fashion sense and dating habits.) "There's no keeping the female gender down tonight!" yelled one. Two others tipsily stumbled around on high heels looking for the bathroom. When they found it, they went in together.

On the second floor, the black-and-red color scheme continues, and there was a disc jockey. If you choose, you could look down on the first-floor throng from this level. Don't worry about dropping your beer; there's a net. On the third floor, the ceiling disappears. The stale beer atmosphere is replaced by fresh air. More firemen and young women mass and yell under darkening skies. There have been actual firemen singles parties up here in the past. Both the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are visible, but nobody looks at them. More TVs. The same blonde from FOX Business that nobody watched on the second floor is not watched by the drinkers on the third floor. "Love Will Keep Us Together" plays. Beers are served in plastic pint glasses. Shots come in even cheaper plastic. I guess this prevents them from becoming weapons when fights break out. And you know that fights will eventually break out. And you know the firemen will help break them up. Unless, of course, the firemen start them.
—Robert Simonson

Tonic East

411 3rd Ave., New York, NY