Drinking: The International Bar, Re-Animated
After a three-year hiatus, the former best little dive bar in the Lower East Side re-opened its doors in 2008 as a serviceable but less memorable pub. Much of the grit and spit’s been scrubbed clean with the Newing and Improving of New York City’s International Bar (120 1/2 First Ave., between 7th and St Marks), and the results are a mixed bag if you frequented the old. The new International certainly meets more building codes and basic sanitation requirements than in days now past, but in smoothing out the former’s rough edges, the new International’s has lost much of its charm. That said, it’s a pleasant enough spot with buckets of potential.
The physical layout of the re-animated bar is much-improved — elegant, even, given that the International is only slightly larger than a matchbox. The two (two!) lavatories are now located within the confines of private bathrooms, which visitors to the old haunt will recall was not always so. In the International of old, if you didn’t wash your hands the other patrons knew if not cared — the sink was few unobstructed steps from barstool and jukebox. Now you can dry your hands without prying eyes, but you’re doing so in just another tiny washroom. The jukebox has moved and been miniaturized. The old Wurlitzer floor unit’s been replaced with a diminutive machine on the wall, but the selections, as before, are superbly edited. Bowie, Miles Davis, and Lou Reed share disc space with the Dead Kennedys and Lorreta Lynn; you could drop in your change, push at random, and have little sonic worry. Many of the old International’s lovable relics have been disappeared — no Christmas tree tacked to the ceiling, no ragtag bookshelf in the corner. The new interior is simple an unassuming. It won’t win hearts like the old, but it’s pleasant and perfectly lit (i.e. just dark enough): equally well-suited for after-work beers with with co-workers and pre-dinner cocktails with objects of affection. The back patio, slightly larger than a piece of peanut brittle, is a small oasis for smokers. The one genuinely troubling aspect of the International is that neither of the two otherwise affable new bartenders I tested knew the constituent ingredients of a “bourbon press” (a.k.a. Presbyterian): bourbon, soda, ginger ale mixed to perfect and delicious proportions. It’s a mark against them and the new International, but I’ll reserve judgment and write it off as bad luck.
I miss the old International, but I’m unbiased enough to stitch my sentimentality on my sleeve. As a lover of dive bars it’s impossible to visit this new more-pleasant-by-checklist International and not feel loss, nostalgia for what it once was, hypothetical nostalgia for what other directions the Newing and Improving of the International might have taken (in the back of my mind I think: preservation, recreation). But those are daydreams. The new International is a decent bar. It has beer on tap — a wild improvement over the former incarnation’s bottles-only selection-and the prices are still surprisingly affordable for Manhattan. It doesn’t have the filth of the old, but that might grow back with time.
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