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The Grassroots Tavern, a Refuge From the St. Mark's Circus

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, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.

[Krieger, 8/19/10]

The Grassroots Tavern—one of the only worthwhile businesses on the Bohemian theme park that is St. Marks Place between Second and Third Avenues—has a basement-level, cement bunker of an entrance. One would expect a cramped, cold interior beyond those mismatched double doors (one is weirdly wider than the the other). Instead, it's warm and bizarrely enormous inside. A boisterous group of 13 at one table doesn't begin to cramp the place. Sit at the back, near the three dart boards and the strange series of locked wooden cabinets, and the East Village sidewalk circus seems a million miles away.

The walls are made of slatted wood. The floors are wood, the worn tables and chairs are wood. The low, looming ceiling is tin. Grassroots, the bartender will tell you, was founded in 1975. He doesn't know anything about the space being used as a bar before that. The Hell it wasn't! Grassroots does some business, but even 35 years of carousing didn't turn the long-suffering bar into the battered relic it is. And what of the non-functioning wooden phone booth, with its shelf on the side from which you can thumb through the yellow pages? Or the stunted, Wild-West-like bathroom doors? (Inside the men's room stall, five rolls of toilet paper, threaded through with a metal chain, are padlocked to the wall.) These things scream pre-WWII.

But that bartender has other things on his mind than history. As far as I could tell, he was the only person on duty, and his eyes never stopped raking the room for would-be offenders. He'll pretend to listen to stories and jokes from over-friendly patrons, but the only thing he ever said was "That'll be $4, please." And he didn't really mean the "please."

The people who go here are young and old. Plenty of NYU students, for sure. They laugh and talk, and enter the joint as if they were walking into a party. The jukebox is broken, but it doesn't matter. The music that's playing is good, though it never ventures beyond 1979. When some people have had enough draughts, they inevitably try their hand at the darts, even though they don't know the rules, and don't take the time to read "The Ten Commandments For Keeping Score" by Sarah Parson, which are posted. ("Scorekeepers shall not move about when keeping scores. Stand still!")

Finally frustrated, they head back to the bar for another brew. Grassroots has a full back bar. But no one who goes here orders anything but beer. By the pint or by the pitcher, it's cheap. There's no food, unless you count a greasy, lighted plastic box behind the bar. It supposedly contains popcorn, which can be had, says a paper sign, for $1. No one asks for any. There's no telling when it was last popped.
Robert Simonson

Grassroots Tavern

20 St. Mark's Pl., New York, NY