“Opening today,” reads the press release, “Ray’s joins New York City’s roster of iconic dive bars.” This may be the most audaciously nonsensical line written in the history of PR. It’s akin to an office memo that declares, “Please welcome Bob Smith, recent college graduate, on his first day as our new senior vice-president.” And that doesn’t even touch on the surreal circumstance in which a supposed dive bar sends out a press release at all.
It goes without saying that Ray’s — a new drinking den with a would-be old soul on Chrystie Street — hasn’t put in the years to call itself a dive. But the owners of Ray’s have read heavily from the do-it-yourself-dive handbook, and they have come up with a pretty good facsimile of what some of us think of when we think of a dive — that kind of frozen-in-time, no-nonsense, blue-collar, charm-free charm that stubborn and/or lazy bar owners occasionally stumble into when they refuse to change with the times, or change the décor, or change the draft lines.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the future of the dive bar in New York over the past decade, as beloved and begrimed watering holes have fallen one by one to the merciless forces of gentrification: Mars Bar, Jackie’s Fifth Amendment, Hank’s Saloon, O’Connor’s, Timboo’s, Hickey’s, the Rum House, Blarney Cove, Reynolds Cafe, P&G Cafe, the list goes on and on. Like diners and Jewish delis, they have rapidly lurched from ubiquitous Gotham icons to endangered species. What’s to be done? Some have fought to save individual specimens. The iconic Subway Inn, long at 60th and Lexington, found a new space on Second Avenue. Hank’s was moved to a food hall in downtown Brooklyn, only to die a second death there.
The owners of Ray’s, none of whom is named Ray, have taken a different approach: Create a new dive to replace the lost ones. Those owners are Justin Theroux, Jon Neidich, Taavo Somer, and Carlos Quirarte. The last three are responsible for Manhattan hot spots like the Happiest Hour, the Smile, and Freemans. Those places are good, but they ain’t dives. For Ray’s, Neidich has cited Lucy’s, one of the last great surviving East Village dives, as an inspiration. The two bars do share some cosmetic similarities. Lucy’s has a crummy linoleum floor; so does Ray’s. Lucy’s has a pool table with a beer-branded canopy light above it; so does Ray’s. Lucy’s has Christmas lights strung up all year long; I assume the lights now at Ray’s will remain in place. Lucy’s has Lucy, its long-serving Polish owner; and Ray’s has … well, who the hell is Ray anyway?
Ray is “a cowboy plucked straight out of New Mexico,” according to the owners. He “isn’t one specific person, he is the Country Western wonderful essence of this space, the concept that has inspired the unique and fun design and vibe of this bar.”
In other words: not a real person. A good dive bar is typically defined by its crusty, long-suffering owner or head bartender whose personality infects the place. In this matter, Ray’s is rudderless. But, you have to give the earnest owners some points for the general atmosphere they have assembled through a hundred canny details. Though the vibe inside is more heartland tap than New York dive, they really have made a close study of old neighborhood bars and have executed that vision down to the last antique beer can, old concert poster, and dogs-playing-pool artwork. They have a real, working jukebox, something that’s become a rarity as modern bars have become more and more besotted with their personal playlists. The only food available are bags of chips from a chip rack behind the bar, as is appropriate. (The Frito’s felt right; the Zapp’s too trendy.) The beer selection is fittingly limited: Miller High Life, Bud, and PBR. Even the back bar is fairly free of fancy bottles. When it came time for shots, Evan Williams sat front and center and was the obvious choice.
A dive bar should be able to put together a good, shitty G&T, and Ray’s did not fail on that front. The house gin, Citadelle, betrayed the owner’s upscale pedigree. But it was paired with Seagram’s tonic water from the gun and a basic lime wedge and served in a utilitarian rocks glass. That there was wine on offer gave me pause. Who drinks wine at a dive? But my fears were put to rest when I realized there were only three selections and they were described clinically by the bartenders as “a Cabernet, a Pinot Grigio, and a rosé.” They are served in stubby, shock-stemmed glasses. (Stackable, unbreakable glassware is a hallmark of any dive bar.) I didn’t wait more than 30 seconds for any drink I ordered. The prices weren’t dive-bar prices, but they weren’t bad. My Miller cost $6; the wine $10; the G&T $12.
Dives are as defined by their regulars as they are by their owners. Ray’s hasn’t had time to grow any barflies, obviously. The patrons the night I went were young and appeared to be gainfully employed. That some of them ordered buckets of KFC from 14th Street and were eating it at the bar lent the joint an appealingly low-rent air, however. While there, I ran into a couple bartenders I know, and we ended up discussing who stood the best chance in the NFL central division this fall. I rarely talk about sports in bars. That got me to wonder if, in this, too, Ray’s was working its counterfeit dive-bar magic on me. Is there something about wood paneling and Dale Earnhardt posters that sucks all pretension and pose out a person? Possibly.
Still, Ray’s is not a dive. It’s just theoretically impossible. But it may be a good lo-fi bar. No one is going to feel uncomfortable or underdressed when they walk in. And, given a decade or two, with minimal housekeeping, it may even start to look genuinely lived-in. For the time being, it’s got heart and chill and good intentions. It’s like that line from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when one character tries to explain Holly Golightly’s persona: “She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it.”