It’s cliché to call a favorite bar an “extension of your apartment,” but being a regular at B-Side felt like owning a piece of real estate in a neighborhood with unaffordable rents. To be clear, this distinction had absolutely nothing to do with ergonomics or aesthetics. The stools were uncomfortable, and the late-addition pool table didn’t fit in the room, making every game a little bit like that one episode of Seinfeld. It also didn’t look like any place you’d actually want to live, even in college. Despite the fact that there were indie-rock posters in the back and The Matrix often played in the front, to call B-Side “collegiate” would be giving it too much credit for trying to cultivate a coherent theme or vibe.
Instead, the homeyness mostly had to do with the fact that there were single-stall restrooms that never had a line, which made it something of a public utility. Crucially, B-Side was also neither a faux dive nor an actually cool bar, and its liminality is probably why it didn’t bring in a ton of foot traffic. Though it was set to close the weekend of March 28, the coronavirus outbreak — and Mayor de Blasio’s decision to essentially shut down the city’s entire hospitality industry — accelerated its demise. On Monday evening, just before 8 p.m., regulars took their last drinks at a defiant, uncategorizable waypoint in a city where such places were already all but extinct.
Besides a handful of places with hardscrabble, old-school charm, the city is awash in establishments that try too hard to hew to a specific dive-bar schema, or evoke the sense of being in flyover country. Everyone knows these places, with their Mason jars of Evan Williams, and Schlitz signs culled from estate sales. There was nothing about B-Side that screamed “you’re in New York,” or really any place at all, which is a bold business model for a bar in the age of the Instagram experience. It was mostly empty, and sort of ugly with its garish red walls, and that basically guaranteed that no one ever took a first date there to impress them with their knowledge of the city or brought in a bachelor party looking for a good time.
Sometimes a featureless room is ideal if you just want to drink alone and not feel like you’re drinking alone. But I once tried to replicate the B-Side experience at a certain windowless, perpetually empty tavern in Greenpoint, and it was a little emptier than I anticipated. The bartender appeared to be in some sort of fugue state, so I poured myself a beer, drank it, and walked out, never to return again. Anonymity can veer too far in the direction of depressing, and the line between effortlessness and disturbing is a difficult one for a bar to toe.
The bartenders at B-Side had a cult following, but it was mostly the other patrons there who made it work. Despite the fact that there was a chalkboard outside to ostensibly entice new customers, it didn’t seem to do much. While it repelled cocktail aficionados and authenticity-seekers alike, it seemed to be a magnet for a certain type of person. Basically, it was often a place to be a degenerate, or to at least see what degenerates were up to on a random Tuesday at 4 p.m.
People talked to each other rather than stare at their phones, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes you’d meet someone who’d end up cutting your hair for five years, but other times you’d encounter a completely different hairdresser coming in to take shots between appointments, and (perhaps even more usefully) you’d vow to never go get a haircut from a specific shop in the East Village for the rest of your life.
B-Side was certainly more popular at one point than it was toward the end. When the bouncer moved behind the bar a couple of years ago, they never hired another person to take IDs at the door. And while it’s sort of surprising that the bar was outlasted by its neighbor two doors down, a store that I’m pretty sure is literally just called Computer, it’s far from shocking that it’s gone. This may be a boon for public health. After all, one can now just use the restroom at any of the city’s Starbucks without feeling tempted to buy a rot-gut well vodka called Sea Ice and waste away the day watching The Matrix on closed captioning with a bunch of degenerates. But the fact that we’re losing nothing in particular is what makes B-Side’s closing the most devastating loss of all.