The Cabin Was the Best Secret Bar of 2009 — Now It’s Back

A drink being poured at the (reopened) Cabin Down Below. Photo: Liz Clayman

When word started to get around about a ten-year anniversary party at Cabin, or the Cabin, or the Cabin Down Below — what you actually call the semi-secret East Village bar depends on when you started hanging out there — there was a lot of speculation about how to get in. As in, how people would physically enter the space. Rumor was, you would go through the original entrance, at the top of the stairs at the back of the burger spot that used to have a different name, which of course replaced the Pizza Shop, which is where Cabin’s story really began in 2009.

When it was opened by Johnny Yerington, Jesse Malin, and Matt Romano, the basement bar on the corner of 7th Street and Avenue A started as a sort of clubhouse for, Yerington says, the guys’ “musician friends and their Hollywood girlfriends,” with the added benefit of bringing some foot traffic through the pizza joint they’d opened. For a while, this worked: There was an extremely tight guest list that included Mark Ronson, members of the Strokes (Romano was the band’s drum tech and backup drummer), the Black Keys, Kings of Leon, and other early-aughts rock bands. People who knew what was going on downstairs hung out in the Pizza Shop late on Friday and Saturday nights trying to see who was getting in to the Cabin.

The original 60-person guest list grew, but the Pizza Shop didn’t, and when it turned into a table-service burger joint called Black Market in 2010, the entrance to the tiny bar was moved around the corner, so the steady stream of leather-jacket-clad patrons, like Fabrizio Moretti and Drew Barrymore, started coming in through a patio entrance on 7th Street.

I was 21 when Cabin opened and, yes, easily impressed — but it’s hard to deny the magic of being in an intimate, windowless room with a couple of your friends and the bands you grew up listening to. On a Friday or Saturday night, you could show up after midnight and the people just ahead of your would be told there was a “private party” going on, but then if you managed to get inside, there were sometimes only three people there — one of them might be Daniel Craig and another would be the bartender. (On nights when there were actual private parties, they started as the rest of us were leaving and the cast of SNL poured in.)

The sign that let people know the entrance had moved, in 2009. Photo: Courtesy of EV Grieve

It was a late-night place, and the mutual understanding was that everyone was just there to have a very good time, mind their own business, and not document any of it. When I asked the actor Sam Rockwell about it, he told me, “Best thing about Cabin is you never talk about Cabin.”

Still things did happen there: a blonde actress getting kicked out for skipping songs on the iPod that shuffled the consistent dad-rock playlist, Lindsay Lohan ordering double Grey Goose vodkas and slipping her phone number into the sexy bartender’s bra, the lesser stars of Gossip Girl just … being around, Sean Penn posted up telling the kind of insane stories that of course Sean Penn tells.

“Back then I was doing a lot of ketamine,” artist and musician Adam Green told me. “I became convinced that, if I snorted a Super Mario Bros. Nintendo cartridge, I would enter the video game.” He says he did the only logical thing: “Matt Romano had a blender behind the bar and he stuck my Super Mario Bros. cartridge into the blender and pushed the button. He took the ground-up video-game dust and put it into to huge lines, which I eagerly snorted — it totally worked and I’m still in the video game now!”

The party started to slow down in 2014 or so. Bands broke up, people moved to Nashville or L.A. or Brooklyn, and Hollywood girlfriends got Hollywood boyfriends. It also turns out that “cool and empty” is a difficult door policy to maintain when you still have to pay rent. Black Market, the burger spot that replaced the Pizza Shop, was renovated and renamed Sister Midnight, and in 2017 so was Cabin. The restaurant portion eventually closed, and then became Tompkins Square Bar, another cocktail and burger joint. The door policy loosened, and the regulars moved on. It happens.

So it was something of a surprise to everyone when the tenth-anniversary party turned out to also be a relaunch. The basement bar is Cabin again, and you do, in fact, get in through Tompkins Square Bar. It’s still dark, and filled with people who don’t want to take pictures, even if the cameras on new iPhones can probably handle the low-light conditions.

For anyone who’s lived in New York for any real amount of time, it’s practically a bonding experience to mourn long-gone bars and to gripe about how the new ones aren’t as good. But what happens when those old ones come back to life? Do we still want to go back? In this case, it’s great to know that you can show up on a Saturday and run into people you know, or at least know of. New people will be there, too, and things will evolve. After all, there’s no going back to 2009, but I did hear a rumor there’s a new Strokes record coming out soon.

The vibe is still … intimate. Photo: Liz Clayman
The Cabin Was the Best Secret Bar of 2009 — Now It’s Back