Good-bye to Pacific Standard, and the Best Trivia Night in New York

Pub Quiz was no-frills and remarkably difficult. Photo: Paul Bogosian

At some point this month, the low-key, California-themed bar Pacific Standard will close its doors for good, after a very respectable 12-year run on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. Every New Yorker must learn to cope with the closing of a seemingly eternal hangout, of course, but I’ll never mourn a drinking establishment’s shuttering as wistfully as this one, because with Pacific Standard goes what was — for my money, anyway — the greatest pub quiz in the city.

For more than nine years, a small, shifting circle of companions and I convened at the bar almost every Sunday night to answer a few dozen challenging questions. This simple ritual — kicked off with a Friday-morning “Who’s in?” email from me, our fearless team captain, and capped with a thematically fitting Built to Spill tune played over the bar’s PA at the conclusion of every game — became as hardwired into our routines as subway delays.

Pub Quiz did much more than take the edge off going back to work on Mondays. It served as a reliable respite from subpar dates, uneven employment, and mounting political chaos as our unsettled mid-20s melted into our slightly-less-unsettled mid-30s. It promised at least 90 minutes of lively conversation uninterrupted by phones — strictly verboten during gameplay — and brought with it the specific kind of pleasures that only cherished routines can supply. The warm companionship of old friends, the spiritual ballast, the bartender who knew my standing order of stout and water: The whole thing began to feel like a personal rejoinder to one of those hacky David Brooks columns lamenting the loss of community in American life. Yes, Pacific Standard really was our “third place.”

None of this would have been possible if the quiz itself didn’t deliver the goods, week after week. The setup was uncomplicated. There were four rounds of ten questions each, and one of five, recited by the emcee and owner, Jon, who devised the lineup with the help of an unaffiliated — and mysterious — friend. From the very beginning, there were a couple of constants: One round consisted of current-events questions, another of general knowledge. The other three could cover the traditional (“Literature”), the whimsical (“American, Canadian, or Dead?”), or the arcane (“Prussia”). For years, there was also a near-impossible beer round, in which each team collected a small sample of one of the rotating microbrews on tap, and had to guess what they were sipping based on the descriptions listed on the IPA-heavy menu. (The bar wisely abandoned this segment a while back, perhaps for sanitary reasons.)

The quiz was very hard. Casual Sunday-afternoon patrons who stuck around to give it a shot tended to be stunned by its difficulty, sometimes giving up and leaving midway through; some nights, just getting half of the questions right felt like a major accomplishment. This was trivia that didn’t talk down to its audience, trivia that existed for the kind of know-it-alls who aspire to appear, or perhaps already had appeared, on Jeopardy. And indeed, the media-industry-centric crowd, which was less annoying than it sounds, fit that description well.

At Pacific Standard, there was none of the gimmickry that tiresome Pub Quiz aficionados expect to find at other contests around the city, country, and world. Jon did not ramble in the manner of an irritatingly digressive stand-up comic; there were no “joker cards” on which teams could wager points; no prizes were awarded for the best team name. Beyond the beer identifying and the occasional audio — or visual-identification rounds, Pub Quiz’s only real affectation was Jon’s idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word what, which he styled to sound more like hoo-what. He did not even pause to remark on particularly clever handles, though there were plenty of worthy candidates, from the Avatar-era “” to the much more recent “The Kids Are Alt-Right.” (My team’s shifting monikers reflected the changing tenor of the times. For the majority of our run, the 80 to 100 percent Jewish squad included an obligatory Hitler reference in its name — our best effort was probably “Raymour and Flanigan and Hitler.” But post-2016, Nazi jokes had been sapped of some of their frivolity, and we switched to something more pedestrian.)

The bar itself was a funny place. Opened by two Bay Area transplants not thrilled with Brooklyn nightlife, the place was dotted with Northern California paraphernalia: a Chez Panisse 25th-anniversary poster in the bathroom, old Oakland A’s baseball cards displayed under glass on the rickety tables. Yet the atmosphere was more New England flinty than West Coast chilled-out; most of the staff was not big on small talk, and after nine years, our relationship with them consisted mostly of a nod and a “hey,” at best. The bar was sweaty in the summer, poorly ventilated in all seasons, and seemed all-but-unpopulated on weekend nights. An ill-fated attempt at food service is better left unmentioned. But the beer selection was on point, and the quiz’s superiority was more than enough to outweigh any of the place’s other quirks.

All the soft-focus bonhomie aside, there was a competition to win every Sunday night. And at some point I began to despair that, though our team prevailed in plenty of individual games, and sipped plenty of complimentary Jamesons as a result, we never took home the ultimate prize in the bar’s playoffs, held roughly three times each year. Finally, last year, in the deciding round of what none of us knew would be one of the last seasons ever, we went on a tear, dominated a key “second singles from hit albums” round, and shocked the world — or at least the six of us — by finally winning it all.

It was a crowning moment of my adult life.

The prize was a keg party (a tasteful, 30-something version of one) at the bar, to which we invited the motley cast of characters who had contributed to our quiz success in the past, and helped pave the way for this glorious moment. Our extended team of relatively light drinkers and assorted friends didn’t even finish all the Sixpoint Sweet Action we were owed that night, but the prize was hardly the point, anyway: It was another chance to gather among friends, to bask in the glow of tradition, to commemorate this seemingly immovable staple of our lives that would soon be a relic.

And, okay, yes: The beer did taste just a little better as winners.

Good-bye to the Best Trivia Night in New York