John McNulty, the cocktail veteran behind Swine — and later, acclaimed West Village bar Katana Kitten — is branching out with his first standalone project, a loosely ’80s-themed bar in Williamsburg. Thief, named after the piping tool used to extract alcohol from barrels, opens at 595 Union Avenue, at North 11th Street, on June 23.
The corner bar is meant to be “an elevated neighborhood” hangout, a bar one half-step up from a dive, says McNulty, where customers can sip small-production orange wines and tall boys of Miller High Life at the same table. “I was trying to create a place that I really wanted to go to and haven’t found yet.”
When Swine opened in the West Village in 2012, McNulty felt like he had “something to prove,” he says, having just come off a stint working with acclaimed West Village restaurateur Gabriel Stulman on the openings of Fedora and Jeffrey’s Grocery. The bar debuted with a lengthy menu of charcuterie and other meats, prepared in a kitchen that was smaller than its ambitions. “Looking back, I think that was a mistake,” he says.
With Thief, he’s mostly trying to have a good time.
The food menu has been shortened to eight or so dishes — chicken parm sliders, vegan mini-corn dogs, and a strawberry-chardonnay ice cream made in partnership with Mikey Likes It — that can be prepared from a small kitchenette attached to the bar.
The drinks list is likewise going for simplicity. There are five cocktails to start, each accented with thoughtful touches but a far cry from the sophisticated beverages at bars under the Cocktail Kingdom umbrella. One cocktail, made with gin, celery shrub, soda, and tonic, is outfitted with a cucumber ice cube. Another, a distant relative of the Bloody Maria, consists of carrot, lime, cilantro, and tomato-infused tequila. A concise list of casual and craft beers, small-production wines, and a friesling (read: frozen friesling) round out the menu.
Thief isn’t exactly a dive bar. (It serves orange and sparkling wines out of Cocktail Kingdom glassware, and unlike many of the city’s best dives, McNulty promises his bathroom will have a mirror people can actually see themselves in.) But it’s also not too far off. For every double IPA on the bar’s menu, there’s a Miller Lite or Estrella Jalisco. The 50-seat space is outfitted with second-hand boomboxes and double-cassette players McNulty acquired on eBay and loosely nods to 1980s New York City in its decor.
McNulty, who lives across the street from the Williamsburg bar, previously owned Swine, an ambitious neighborhood bar he opened in the West Village in 2012. The bar closed after five years, and McNulty went on to work for Greg Boehm, one of the bar’s investors and the founder of barware manufacturer-slash-hospitality group Cocktail Kingdom (the Boilermaker, Mace). While there, he helped open and relocate several of the group’s bars, including Existing Conditions and Katana Kitten, an award-winning cocktail bar in Swine’s former home.
Thief was originally slated to open in the East Village, according to McNulty, but those plans were ultimately derailed by the pandemic. When a corner bar space opened across the street from his apartment — close enough to watch the construction from his window, he says — he decided to move those plans closer to home.
This time around, the cocktail veteran has figured a few things out, the least of which is timing. Swine opened in the months leading up to Hurricane Sandy, a catastrophic event that resulted in the bar’s temporary closure at a time when foot traffic can matter most. “I was impressed we lasted the five years,” according to McNulty. Timing the opening of Thief with a post-pandemic, citywide reopening “is more than coincidence,” he says.
Thief is now open Monday through Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., Saturday from 11 to 3 a.m., and Sunday from 11 to 2 a.m.