In my younger, drunker days, I worked in too many bars, restaurants, and coffee shops within walking distance of Milady’s, the corner bar in Soho that closed in 2014. Back then, it was a working-class place where beer might cost a couple of bucks, and I heard “Last call” more times than I care to remember.
So it felt strange, to say the least, when I walked in last week to find the same bar looking completely different. Gone is the CD jukebox, as are the multiple regulars who sold drugs and, most important, the pool table, its real-estate given up to seating. The bar is still called Milady’s, but if you somehow missed the news of its closing and pop in expecting the classic dive, surprise: It’s a cocktail bar now, one that (re)opens to the public this Wednesday.
How would you feel if you read the words “beloved Soho shot-and-beer bar now offers sexy lighting and tiny martinis”? I know how I usually feel when I see a new business aping a former institution’s good name: Why couldn’t they leave it alone? So you might have some feelings of trepidation around this new Milady’s, as I did, even though this incarnation is helmed by Julie Reiner and her business partners in other ventures, Christine Williams and Susan Fedroff.
And that alone is reason for optimism. If you know even the slightest bit of NYC bar history, then you are familiar with Reiner’s work and influence either directly or through the bartenders she has trained and mentored at stops such as Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, and her bar in Carroll Gardens, Clover Club.
Take that into consideration before you make any decisions about the new Milady’s. This bar is not the product of a lifestyle conglomerate that wants to open branches inside its hotels around the world, and this is not some place that’s dressed up for dive-bar fetishists with cocktail-bar money to burn. Really, what would a dive bar even look like in the Soho of 2022, dropped into a neighborhood where Sadelle’s sells $125 appetizing towers to European tourists?
This is not to say that Milady’s ignores its past. Instead, it embodies it. Look at the bar’s $17 Big Apple Martini. It is a fully realized appletini in both name and spirit; it is not a trend-chasing novelty drink. The recipe’s been tweaked for modern tastes, but the drink remains a Sex and the City–era throwback that Reiner herself helped to popularize when she put it on the menu at the Washington Square Hotel bistro C3 in 2000. It is also delicious, made with gin, vodka, and apple brandy — a good start to the night for anyone who wants an aperitivo but doesn’t enjoy bitter Italian liqueurs.
The bar is filled with little old-school touches that don’t call too much attention to themselves. The lighting is dim enough so the room doesn’t feel primed for Instagram selfies and TikTok videos, and the playlist —I recall Eminem and more than one song featuring Shaggy — is made of choices that could have been exclusively downloaded on Napster. This is faux-stalgia done right because it is not pretending to be the Milady’s of yore.
Still, comparisons are inevitable. Maybe Reiner and her team did themselves a disservice keeping the moniker, or maybe in time it won’t matter; people and places are constantly reinventing themselves. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago, after all. That version of me would have probably hated the idea of a $19 Hawaiian iced tea. This version of me understands that no matter how much I wish a space like the old Milady’s could still exist, the city doesn’t work that way. There will always be a demand for dives — likely in boroughs where the average rent isn’t $5,000 per month — but that shouldn’t stop this new bar from existing. Have another appletini and enjoy yourself.
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