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Sophie's, Predictable but Not Lacking in Personality

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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.

[Jenny Adams]

While there are something like 6,000 bars in New York, as the intro to this column states, sometimes if feels like there are just six, only they are repeated every block or so. Much like the city itself, which has been slowly but surely scrubbed clean of telling and characterful detail over the last two City Hall administrations, a certain homogeneity has gripped New York's regular-guy watering holes. Originality and personality are in short supply.

Many's the time when, in service of this column, I've walked into a bar and thought, "Wait, haven't I been here before?" There's the Jägermeister dispenser behind the bar. There's the big piece of cardboard taped to the mirror tracking the NBA/NFL/MLB pool; the lotto cards; the "Big Game Hunter" video game (surely the most popular video game in the New York saloon world); the seven television sets; the dusty, obscure trophies on a high shelf; the rows and rows of every flavor of vodka Stoli, Absolut and Grey Goose have ever put out. If it's Tuesday, it must be trivia night. If it's Friday, there's karaoke. If it's Sunday, it's the big game.

On the walls there's that iconic picture of the construction workers having lunch on an I-beam high above the city streets; the "Oh, my goodness! My Guinness!" poster; the pictures of the great Irish poets; the map of Ireland; the fading World Trade Center imagery; that damn poem about the wind being at your back, and the road rising to meet you; the mirrored pictures bearing the name of some beer company or other; the 1927 Yankees, or the 1961 Yankees, or the 1986 Mets, the 1990 Giants, the 1994 Rangers; that shot of Frankie and Dean and Sammy in tuxes, laughing their asses off; Frank Sinatra's youthful mug shot; the framed pictures of Kennedy or Reagan or Bush. In three years of bar-hopping for this column, I've never once seen a picture of Clinton or Obama on a bar wall.

Sophie's, a small bar on side street in the East Village, is burdened by none of the above mundanity. But it's a type of New York tavern, predictable in its own way. Looking at the storefront and the old walls inside, you know that the space has been a bar for a long time, even if it hasn't always been Sophie's. Probably was a speakeasy during Prohibition. And probably it was a beer hall bankrolled by a local brewery before that. Its clientele is very likely a classic East Village mash-up of old drunks and young hipsters. And, indeed, most of this is confirmed through a few questions with the barman.

Still, the place has personality, it can't be denied. The decor is spartan and much of the furniture looks—and holds up—like the kind of unwanted kindling you seen set on the sidewalk outside tenement stoops. The bartender doesn't know why it's called Sophie's. This isn't surprising. Bartenders never seem to know anything about the history of the bar they work in. Still, it didn't take me much research to find out the previous owner, an old Ukrainian woman, was named Sophie Polny. (The owner since 1986 is Bob Corton.)

One odd touch is the bar, which looks ancient but is not original to the room. For this was the second location of Sophie's, and when the old gal moved, she brought her bar with her. Before Sophie moved in, the space was called the Chic Choc, owned by Virginia Chicarelli and a person named Chocolate. You can still see the words "Chic Choc" (in my opinion, one of the worst bar names ever) on the cement threshold of Sophie's.

Back in 2008, a scare went up that Sophie's was going to close, and the downtown media raced to sing the praises of the old dive that had once catered to the likes of barflies named Jimmy Tokens, Johnny Red, Caveman and Degenerate John. But, four years later, it's still here, hanging on. And it still has no sign. Never did. And no Big Game Hunter.
—Robert Simonson


507 East 5th St., New York, NY

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