Sunday, December 18, 2011

Starting With What the Day Holds

Chris S., a Queens school teacher, has a way of deciding what to have on a weekend morning / early afternoon--a hair of the dog, or a coffee.

It depends on what the plan is for the remainder of the day. If the day will involve drinking, then he will have a beer. If the day involves work or other non-alcohol activities, then he will drink coffee.

What's in the Tummy?

Lawrence, a Brooklyn chef and artist, has a food-based framework for deciding whether to drink beer or coffee.

He pictures what the beverage would look like in his stomach alongside what he's been eating. If it jibes well, he'll drink that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ferrari of Coffee Machines

Making espresso can be a high art. We believe that, and that is why we take an interest in the people and technology that push the limits of what is possible.

Yesterday early evening, this writer was introduced to the Stratta E.P., a precision-engineered machine built in Florence, Italy by La Marzocco. I was at the Sweet Leaf cafe in Long Island City. Christian, a barista and manager there, offered to let me take photos from behind the counter, and then demonstrated to me the store's pride and joy.

The machine, built in Florence, Italy, has a very responsive engine.

This is the premier model from La Marzocco. One indicator is its translucency. You can view the gears inside. 
Christian at work.

Thank you for the tour, Christian. We will provide more details about the Stratta in a revised post.

Natural Born Chiller

Nikita (sic), a barista at a Long Island City coffee shop, said she never has to decide between coffee or beer. The answer will always be beer.

"I'm naturally a chiller, not a tweaker," she said. "I don't ever want to get amped up."

and then...

"Beer is like a meal. It's liquid bread."

Okay we see where you're coming from!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eric Baker's Balancing Act

Making a Living Room for the East Village

Coffee or Beer's Matt Hanley interviews St. Dymphna's owner to learn why the  NYC bar is such a cool place to drink Guinness.

There's a bar in New York's East Village that my ex and I dubbed 'The Magic Pub' because it never failed to bestow euphoria on our party regardless of how poorly anyone felt going in. We would take  out-of-towners there to assure their trip had at least one glorious night in New York. A typical visit would begin with the guests -- nerves frayed from the day's midtown barkers, rhythm thrown off walking behind weeble wobblers,agitated after allowing  a persistent  pan-handler to get inside their heads -- cautiously following us into  the mustard yellow building east of First Avenue on St. Mark's Place : St. Dymphna's.

Walk Right in... (from St. D's website)

First, a challenge:  finding enough chairs for the party. Some of you will have to stand for a bit. Then… somehow or another, one by one, chairs do appear and this is the first magic of the evening. Everyone seated at the wooden table relaxes, and realizes she can both hear the music AND one another talk. After one round of prime beer, anyone who had been discombobulated is combobulated. After another round within the low-lighted antiquated walls, you feel like holding your mug aloft and moving it in sing-song pendulum fashion. Not that you would, because it is not a truly rip-roaring place for sailors. But you're thinking about it; goddamit, you're thinking about it!

I decided to find out why St. Dymphna's is magical, which meant talking to the owner. After some inquiries, I met him and made an appointment for the interview at the pub. Baker is a tall, clear-headed Californian who seems he would be comfortable both on a snowboard or in a boardroom. His gray hair hints at the responsibilities he's taken on at an early age: marriage, children, entrepreneurial ventures. It was his wife Patricia and his catering business that made it possible to purchase St. Dymphna's in 2008 when the original owner was looking to sell.

"She did the numbers and realized we could afford to buy this place if we continued the catering business and used the facilities here for preparing the food," Baker said.

The couple have been attached to St. Dymphna's for much of its 18 year existence. Baker, already an East Village denizen and St. Dymphna's regular, helped Patricia, newly arrived from Portugal, get a job there. The catering business began a few years ago when Patricia, a fashion model, complained to Eric about the poor quality of food at photo shoots. Baker realized that offering quality food would win them accounts. To deliver on that, they hired a chef away from the restaurant where Patricia worked (she'd moved on from St. Dymphna's).  The couple has a demonstrated knack for seeing opportunity--and seizing it. This ability to observe and adjust  is essential to running St. Dymphna's, which is in the center of a dynamic, diverse neighborhood.

Indeed. After speaking with Eric, I learned that very little actual magic is responsible for the magical feeling at St. Dymphna's. Rather, it's the result of his analytical skills, diplomacy, management and taste. When he bought the place he declared he would make "no changes, only improvements," in contrast with a competing bidder who signaled drastic change. Let us examine some changes or non-changes to learn how a great bar stays special.

 Sound Clarity:
The reason you can hear conversations and the music is the result of installing new speakers Sound Absorption panels. A neighbor / friend who is a sound engineer fixed and built upon the existing setup. Sounds from the stereo and other customers and employees --sound waves that normally bounce off walls or out into the street-- are instead contained within the walls. The effect is a true Surround Sound experience, if we take that term to mean where sound resides, not just originates. With interference minimized, patrons can 'magically' hear one another without straining their ears. Preventing the sounds from escaping into the street also appeases the neighbors. Currying the favor of the 'Community Board' is a recurring necessity for Baker. More on that later…

 Good Tunes:
  "Musicians work here, not actors," Baker said, explaining why the song selection is consistently cherry. He didn't set out to hire musicians, but once you have a few, and if you normally fill openings with friends of staff, well, it leads to more musicians, each of whom contribute playlists for the bar's iPods, along with Baker and select regulars.  The bar has introduced weekend "iPad DJs," in which a deejay friend of the bar will "spin" tracks from his or her own iPad.
 "The good thing of course is the deejay can make adjustments based on what's going on, and the feedback they're picking up," Baker said, practically describing just what he does as an active owner.

 With the bar  so conducive to music appreciation, it's no wonder many of its regulars are  professional musicians. On Sunday nights, some of them step up to play in a new feature Baker installed: live acoustic sets. There's a different  act, often two, on most Sundays at 9pm. Recent lineups have included Willy Mason, Greg Kavanogh, and Todd Baker. If it's an act that's broken big, the info will only be publicized last minute, a la "secret show." 

It's another positive feedback loop: good music attracts good musicians, who come and make good music. The customers benefit from the variety of musical sources; the friendly competition among the playlist creators delivers innovation and high quality.

Music Moves You:
 "Dancing does happen," Baker says, "Friday and Saturday night" but technically it's illegal. Yes, roll your eyes and compare it to Footloose. In New York City, a bar needs a cabaret license in order to host dancing. It's one of those laws on the books that is rarely and subjectively enforced. The possibility that it could be invoked is one of the ways the Community Board influences general compliance and behavior… more on that later. 
Half of the taps.

 Baker's policy is to offer a balance of "what's good and what's popular." This led him to make room in the bar's formerly European-only lineup of drafts  to accommodate the surging popularity of microbrews. Still, he enforces standards. Although the national fad is hoppy India Pale Ales, Baker deems them unfit for the casual environment of St. Dymphna's. 

"This is a place for hanging out awhile, sitting down and having conversations. For most of us here it's like a living room," Baker said, alluding to the small living quarters of the locals.

"Our customers want to relax over two or three pints without getting shit-faced or full. It has to be drinkable, more balanced," Baker said. 

The top-seller remains Guinness.

 Whatever  brew you choose will be fresh because Baker regularly cleans the lines that connect the basement kegs to the bar's taps. Yeast builds up in the pipes if unchecked, giving the drafts a yeasty taste; Baker's bi-weekly washings assure that won't happen. "It's surprising how many bars don't take the time to clean the pipes," Baker said. "It makes such a difference." The high turnover of kegs also promotes freshness. 

"Nothing's sitting there for a week or so. Some of the bars that offer a lot of different drafts but don't have volume (traffic)… you wonder how that beer's going to taste sitting there for a month." 

Then there's the temperature of the lines. Properly-cooled lines produce cleaner pours, less head. Baker has the pipes insulated with Glycol coolant, the highest level of insulation possible. 

St. Dymphna's serves beer in Imperial size pints--20 ounces compared to 16. Baker did not change that quantity, thinking it a good value that customers appreciate. He did regret, though, not making note of it on the new menus he had just gotten printed. It doesn't seem like a big mistake; the people who appreciate it and expect it already know about it. This type of info is self-evident or passed along among friends. If ever St. Dymphna's  had to create an advertisement mentioning 'big / beer specials,' well, it may as well shut its doors and reopen as a $2/shot sinkhole such as Down the Hatch.  As it is, St. Dymphna's marketing is mostly done via a Facebook page, through which word of music happenings is piped to the regulars.

 "Ten years ago I wouldn't have believed there would be a cocktail list here, but the new crowd demands it," Baker says, referring to the younger, affluent peeps populating the East Village. Latter day anthropologists will have a field day scrutinizing the contradictions of American life circa 2011: that during an economic downturn, college students will be seeking to pay more for drinks. But then, there will always be affluent students at NYU, and lately, they've discovered the East Village. St. Dymphna's maintains a list of about ten cocktails.

St. Dymphna's offers the stand-by popular liquors. The top shelf is an improvement: containing fine tequilas, whiskeys, single-malts that Baker selects.

By purchasing the place, Baker inherited a much-loved recipe list. By installing his chef, Steve,  he has improved the quality of the ingredients, introduced new dishes, and improved the profitability of the kitchen. Chef Steve directs the kitchen staff and handles administrative functions such as food ordering.

"He's great at what he does. He knows what to order and how much to order for each week. That's very important. There's very little waste now."

That is important. If a cool bar - or anything -  is going to thrive, it must have money, and sometimes that money comes from savings and efficiencies. 

Some of the new recurring dishes include a Guinness Stout pie, a Shepherd's pie, and Steak & Pepper, written in the French 'Steak au Poivre ' a small reminder of St. Dymphna's authenticity and style.

Among the carryovers is the raisin-less Irish Soda Bread, served with each dish. It is awesome. They've begun to offer it in their catering business as well.  And there's the St. Dymphna's burger, underrated both as a top New York burger and St. Dymphna's menu item. I've added it to my list of 'destination burgers.'  Another case of those who know know.  If ever they had to put up an awning with a picture of a burger and beer.. Well, they may as well shut down, move to Broadway and start selling cupcakes as well.

Chef Steve also stewards over the Mulled Cider, kept in a casket on the corner of the bar. It's a tasty concoction and often just the thing to seek in the winter. (If you are having 'beer or coffee' ambiguity, you would be wise to have a cup of the cider and move on from there). Keeping it fresh and assuring there's enough on hand is another case of the monitoring and effort that's the bread and butter for Baker and staff.

 Another Baker improvement has been starting Happy Hour when the bar opens at noon. It ends at 7pm. This extension had been adopted by some bars in New York, and it makes sense for St. Dymphna's.  It pleases the regulars, and makes brunch very affordable. All drafts are $3. Yes. Three bucks for an Imperial pint of fresh Guinness. An affordable brunch indeed.


Coffee available during brunch.
Blackboards with menu are written by a staffer who has good handwriting.
Aside from the good vibrations, what makes St. Dymphna's so enchanting? Lighting has much to do with it. Generally, it's "low in the evening, bright in the afternoon." It's generated from a combination of the tables' votive candles, oil lamps, and random bulbs from what they call the "bar decco" arrangement of fixtures.  Readability of the menu suffers. Patrons raise a candle to see the text. Baker's aware of the drawback, and is exploring some technical solutions. Some ideas he had off the top of his head are having a text message with the menu items sent to people as soon as they enter the doors; and, building out the homepage of the WiFi network to contain all the drink and food menus and specials. If he pulls it off, it would be another example of technology enabling intimacy and romance. Fortunately for now, the sound absorption borne 'hearability' between staff and guests gets the info across. 

Baker and his wife have an active partner in her sister Raquel. Having a partner is beneficial even aside from relative talents and resources brought to the operations; it allows them to take time away. By staggering their schedules, the team is able to continuously have a vested manager available while making vacations (and other business trips) possible.

There are now six bars on the block, but Baker does not deem them as competition. "The more, the merrier," he says. This attitude is healthy for the owners. They are able to help each other in cases when one is short a barrel or bottle. They can also provide support when debating issues with the Community Board. But more on that.. right now! Yes, the next section, a lengthy study of the interplay of business and residents in the East Village. 


Ecosystems are complicated. The environment and the inhabitants are intertwined in myriad ways. Actions indirectly impact all or any; often unexpectedly, sometimes immediately. Sometimes only after years are effects known. Yes, yes, we know this. Well the East Village is a Hyper Ecosystem - there's a lot going on, and the participants feel passionately about what they do and what they deserve.  People are defensive of what they have, but also creative and open-minded. So we find a lot of people innovating, trying new things, things that seem just the right thing to do.  Sometimes it is just the thing, sometimes it only seems that way, and can't hold up against a different wave of action, and it crumbles.  Baker is skilled at accommodating trends and imprinting his own taste to make St. Dymphna's a popular, profitable bar. But he and the bar are but one of many objects in the system. He and the bar are impacted by other actors, of the past and present.

It owes its existence to a desire of the community 20 years ago, when the area was unsafe and unpoliced, to have a lighted business to encourage non-drug-related commerce. St. Dymphna's became the first bar on the block. There are now 6, and the neighborhood has prospered into a lively area. Many folks in the community measure happiness by the level of noise. It is a very important factor in their lives. Sound, sound, sound. Is an activity being introduced? Well, how much sound does it make? What kind of sounds? Hmmm. Oh, you want to build a what? Will the construction make noise? Why is it being built? What kind of noise will be going on inside? Will you keep it inside?

These noise-aware residents are not the same people they were twenty years ago. Mostly because they are NOT the same people (who have since left or died). But even the longtime residents are of different disposition due to age, having children.. Many in the community are affluent and simply want a quiet place in the most creative, active part of the world's greatest city.. Is that too much to ask? Didn't they pay to have it 'all?' Taken as a whole, these people, then and now, are The Community. The Community got what it wished for: action on the street, an increasingly safe street, more action, more safety, and now.. It's too noisy. Be careful what you wish for indeed. So, who is the target of the Community's ire? St. Dymphna's and the newer bars. Success breeds success, but success is noisy.

Baker is aware of the sensitivities of the residents. He tries to satisfy them. That's one of the reasons he had the Sound Insulation tweaked. He answers their phone calls. 

"Everyone in the neighborhood has my number and they know they can call me." 

Even if the source of a given noise issue is generic or from another location, Baker is the go-to guy they call to complain. Due to his accessibility he's become somewhat of the businesses' ambassador to the Community Board. He's tuned into the board members' concerns, he can empathize, and yet he's also a builder, a doer, who might do things that unintentionally reduce the happiness of the neighbors. That's just what happened when he decided to improve the patio area of St. Dymphna's.

The patio was a cool courtyard area in the back of the pub with a stylistic Euro-type mural. It was kind of a secret. It was another example of regulars finding it on their own and telling friends. On warm nights, it was an ideal spot, a de facto beer garden.  Baker decided to make it better. He had it cleaned and replaced the furnishings.  He added a telescoping tent and new plants. The improvements attracted more and more patrons. It became the place to be. It was groovy, it was active .. It was … incredibly noisy. The neighbors were displeased. Their happiness was reduced time and again. They had an answer: they would re-read the zoning permit for the establishment. Yes, those malleable, unevenly enforced zoning rules of New York. Ah-ha! Establishments in the middle of the block cannot have an outdoor garden St. Dymphna's, in the middle of the block, cannot have the garden.  Baker had to shut it off to patrons, and the patrons were not pleased. Their happiness reduced,  many of them went elsewhere. Their exodus contributed to a 30% decline in year-to-year revenue.  Unintended consequences. A simple twist of fate that bit Baker in the ass.  But soon enough he would be rewarded for his instincts.

Unable to head out back to the patio, the regulars who came by would stick to the front of the bar near the window, which attracted passers-by. Activity leads to activity. Success breeds success. "It was almost a blessing that the garden closed, because it used to be everyone was in the back, so someone walking by would think it was an empty bar," Baker says. An empty bar of course, stays empty.

 Baker's instinct to improve and beautify created a popular garden that had to shut down because of its popularity. But to make up for lost business he continued to find improvements such as the extended happy hour. The increased traffic up front, and the success of the new happy hours has more than made up for the loss from the garden.

So, what is to become of the garden? Baker researched the possibilities, and discovered that the patio could be altered and encased to come up to code. But, for now, he is putting off any such work. It will be a costly improvement and he wants to line up more ducks, especially his landlord, to share the load. Plus there was no reason to rattle the neighbors. Every two years his license must be renewed, and it could have been held up if a community member protested it. In this case of the 'Forbidden Garden,' Baker has proven to be lucky, resourceful, and wise. Sometimes the smartest move is no move. Keep things cool, get all the facts, and make some improvements every now and then. And yet.. There is a continuous force acting upon St D's. Maybe it is not magic. Probably it can described, as Al Davis, deceased Oakland Raider owner, would call a "Commitment to Excellence." That’s basically what Baker seeks to do. Says he: 

“I offer quality and make it accessible.” 


St. Dymphna's is easily accessed and is entering its busiest season, as winters go hand in hand with "cozy." You'll meet people from many walks of life, most of them artistic, a large number of materialists on weekends. It's pleasantly boisterous but can get a wee crowded when an NYU infusion maxxes out capacity (and makes a trip to the loo a journey). If you're looking for an Irish bar, there are many hackneyed  Harp purveyors around midtown whose bratty hostesses will give you a large plastic, easy-to-read menu and that have a team of terrible vest-wearing bartenders to adequately pour $7 pints. They are the spiritual siblings of Dunkin' Donuts. If you want something different, if you choose to be a New Yorker through and through and open yourself up to magic, then you will feel at home at St. Dymphna's. It can be your living room.

St. Dymphna's is at 118 St. Mark's Place in New York, NY. It was opened in 1994 and has had the current management since 2008. It is open 7 days per week. 
Official Website: 

A note about the name: 
St. Dymphna is the patron saint of mental and emotional illness. She was the daughter of a 7th century pagan Irish king and widower, who wished to marry her. Baptized a Christian, she fled  with a priest and two servants to Gheel, Belgium, where she was tracked down by the king. In his fury, he had the whole party killed (heads rolled). She became revered as a beautiful martyr. In the 13th century, when she was canonized, the investigating agent of the bishop wrote that "a persuasive history of inexplicable and miraculous healings of the mentally ill." An infirmary known for its compassion was built in Gheel at the site of her death. 

Born in the land of Guinness and killed in the land of Duvel, St. Dymphna, a healer of mental cases, is a proper namesake for a bar catering to the creative spirits of the East Village, where often the line between insanity and brilliance is blurred. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sunset: A Dividing Time

Aaron, a musician and bartender in New York's East Village pub Standings:

"If it's before sunset, I'll have coffee. After sunset, a beer."

Day On / Day Off

Nick, of midtown cafe, Piccolo, has a rule about 'Coffee or Beer.'

"If it's my day off, I have a beer in the morning.
If it's a work day, I have a coffee in the morning."

A beer as the first thing waking up?

"Well, maybe a glass of water first."