Review: International Bar

by Jay HOLLEY
 

Drawing of the International Bar.

The International is probably the best dive bar in Manhattan. With its name painted on the lone window, and half a dozen neon beer signs, its like the bar is trying to call out to passersby, to pull them in for a cocktail, but despite such indicators the bar remains completely inconspicuous. A wise drinker tracking down the inspiration for the word-of-mouth will have no trouble locating the International, between 7th and 8th streets, but it disappears into the white noise if you’re just walking around the East Village and stroll down 1st Avenue.

The jukebox, if it chooses to acknowledge a deposit, will only play punk rock, or non-punk and quasi-punk music approved of by punks (e.g. Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen: they’re not punk but they carry a certain spirit-in-arms). It’s a cramped space. There’s a pair of bathrooms flanking the door at the back, which opens to a small patio that’s a refuge to patrons itching for a cigarette. The bathrooms are so minuscule they don’t include sinks; there’s one outside the left bathroom, in the bar, laughably close to the tables. Sometimes there’s a roll of paper towels, other times not, leaving you with the choice between not washing your hands and having all onlookers know you’re a filthy pig or washing them and grabbing a handful of napkins like a little kid. Choose the latter, if it comes to it: Keep New York City Clean.

There’s an upside-down Christmas tree nailed to the roof of the table section, Christmas lights strung ‘round the mirror-back of the bar, and a hat-wearing moose head (pictured above) that tantalizes all who gaze it: pretty common hip-to-some dive bar decor, but the International does without feeling contrived, and that distinguishes it from the pack.

All the bartenders I’ve tested at the International have had the competence to make and suggest decent mixed drinks and the restraint to not push Mojitos, chocolate “martinis,” or other silly, overpriced drinks when asked for a recommendation — a rare and appreciated combination.* They’re a pretty attentive lot too, and pretty good about honoring NYC’s buy-back custom.

The International is a watering hole to hipsters, sixty-year old men, and blue-collar delivery drivers, but there’s no tension between the disparate personalities. Walk through the door and sit at the bar; invariably you’ll be pulled into conversation and served a fine drink. Is it the best dive bar in Manhattan? — tough call; I’ve heard decent arguments for other holes in walls. With confidence, though, I call it my personal favorite. Worth your time.

* The way to test whether a bartender’s worth their tip is to ask them to recommend a cocktail; tell them you don’t like a particular alcohol, and that you do like another, then watch if their brain kicks in spin. If they simply say, “oh, how ‘bout a vodka tonic,” they’re lazy or incompetent. If you tell them you like gin, and they suggest a gimlet, a Gibson, and a rickey, they’ve got potential.

Update: Clinton Idol, Gaslight Tavern bartender extraordinarie, points out that the Mojito, with the right bartender, attention, and ingredients, can be a delicious, graceful cocktail. I agree with his assertion, in principle. My characterization of Mojito-pushing bartenders comes from living in New York City circa 2001/02, when the Mojito fad resulted in a wave of watered-down pre-mix monstrosities, each bar claiming their crap Mojito was the best in town. No doubt it is a fine drink, but like the Bloody Mary, when done poorly, it is a monstrosity.

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