Tonight, buy a cocktail and help save a legend: A local bartender’s ode to Sunny’s

In New York, the only constant is change – the turnover rate for restaurants, for tenants, for stores and for buildings is disgustingly high. Shops are there one day, gone the next, far faster than the human mind can process. Yet, some entities manage to resist the forces that be, standing strong against the currents of the New York minute until they’ve been in the same place so long, even if they were to give in and go out of business, that spot would be forever theirs. Sunny’s Bar is a place such as this.

Sunny’s has held out, standing with Red Hook through thick and thin, fighting literal and metaphorical waves in the name of continuing to offer locals warmth in drink and art. It’s no secret that the bar is in trouble – in fact, the bar is being as loud as possible about its trouble in hopes it can be in trouble no more, and continue to offer warmth and drink and art for years to come.

Tonight, Monday May 15, Sunny’s is holding a fundraiser from 6pm on at its humble post at 253 Conover St. An entire book-length ode has been written to the beloved bar and its eponymous founder, but here for you is a shorter version and a call to action to go to Sunny’s tonight and spend some money on cocktails. Not such a difficult thing to do to save a legend, mm?

From Quarter Bar‘s David Moo:


Photo by Waywuwei / Flickr
Photo by Waywuwei / Flickr

There are a few bars, and I mean really only a few in the world, that exceed even the great efforts of their proprietors to keep them up and make them go. These are bars that take on lives not only of their own, for any decent bar of some years acquires life as a thing separate from those who conceived it, but lives as legends, places about which ballads are sung and whole books are written, barrooms whose reputations and whose accretion of collective memory could never be held by the actual architectural confines that hold them.

Years ago, I heard a story somewhere (help, anyone?) that Cary Grant once had will-call tickets waiting for him at a box office, and he went up to the window and said, “I have two tickets for Cary Grant,” and the box office lady rifled through the envelopes, and then, while handing him his tickets, said, “That’s a laugh. You’re not nearly as good looking as Cary Grant,” to which Cary Grant replied, “No one is…no one is.”

Well, in the same way that there are actors who are famous now, and then there are actors who will still be famous 50 years from now, there are some bars that have acceded to the position of Legendary Bar. These are places that one might visit without any context, and see the shabby ravages of time that have worn their exteriors, and yet, within 20 minutes and a single round of drinks, one comes to understand that one has found one of the Greats. These are the bars that when you mention them to the initiated they either slowly nod, as if in a beautiful reverie, or snort derisively, as if to scold you for not having known earlier. These are bars that are distinguished not by the sublime concoctions one may (or may not) find in the glassware, but by the attachment and bonhomie one senses around the place. Every bar owner in the world wishes that he or she could run such a bar, but alas, owning such a bar cannot be organized, it can only be conferred: conferred by time, conferred by memory, conferred by community. Cary Grant wasn’t alone in creating Cary Grant. It was you and me.

I write today to alert you all to the endangerment of such a legendary bar. Sunny’s is a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, all the way at the edge of the known universe. It was opened by Sunny Balzano’s parents as a longshoreman bar sometime during the Roosevelt Administration, I’m not sure which one. They ran it for decades until it went fallow for many years, taken up again by Sunny in the early 90s with the encouragement of his friends and neighbors. It’s a simple affair. Mostly a beer and a shot establishment, there’s some smart artwork on the walls, and rootsy music often played live from the backroom. It’s notable for always being perfectly hip, without ever having given in to any of the hipster movements that it has seen come and go over the years. When he reopened it, Sunny at first only unlocked the door one day a week. As things gathered steam, it was two days, then three. Then Sunny died last year. As happens in such situations, accounts must be settled, property is exchanged, and things are thrown into flux.

Here’s the upshot: the entity that is Sunny’s Bar is trying to buy the building that houses it from Sunny’s heirs and relatives who would like to let them have it for a reasonable price, and the bar is throwing a series of fundraisers. You could just go to their website and donate, which you should do if you have a mind to, but I suggest that there is a more fun and informative way for you to contribute to the cause of maintaining a legacy of this magnitude and esteem: On Monday, May 15th, that’s this coming Monday, Mickey Guagno of quarter Bar, Tim Miner of The Long Island Bar, and I will be guest bartending at Sunny’s. We’ll be there starting at 6 until something like 10 o’clock. Being cocktail bartenders, we’ll be making a single special cocktail, as well as whatever else that comes to hand. Some booze has been graciously donated by Greenhook Gin, and all proceeds will go to helping Sunny’s make the down payment on their building.
The down payment, the troubles, the creaking floorboards, these are the concerns and anxieties that mark the inner life of any old establishment, these are the marks of the real Cary Grant. They are the things that must be addressed to keep alive the other Cary Grant, the perfect one, the one that shimmers on the screen of your memory, the one that makes you sigh and say, “that might be the greatest bar in the world.”


Photo via Sunny's
Photo via Sunny’s

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