Bad Nerves at Sebastian Junger's Bar

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Half King, Full Up

Half King
505 W. 23rd St.
(10th Ave.), 462-4300

Have always been what the kindergarten teachers called "high strung," but lately the symptoms of my condition have become remarkable, and I've become acquainted with what the medical professionals have?in their detached harriedness?assured me are psychosomatic maladies. In other words, the stuff Poe wrote about, when a disquiet emotional life makes you hear, for example, the phantom beating of a telltale heart. Or, in my less virulent case, makes you break out in itching, to the point where people you work with are making fun of you for it, and you're scratching your scalp all the time. Or you get stress headaches. Or you fiddle with your hair?with my flowing curly blond locks, spilling over the collars of my frilled shirt and satin coat to rest on my sickly, sunken, aristocratic chest. Maybe I'll become a neurasthenic fin-de-siecle fop, and read decadent poetry and spend all day staring out from my terrace bedroom in a rotting palazzo in the Alps beyond. My valet will wrap me in a brocaded smoking jacket and roll my bed down the hall to a darkened parlor where I'll address myself to opium and languid whores.

"Let me explain to you what this is like?" I offered grandly, but in fact alcohol?as would have any relaxant, I guess?solved the problem; stabilized the picture's hold. So I managed to secure reality to the wall with that glue known as liquor, which, along with sterilizing needles and quieting aggressive, persistent toddlers, is one of the things that drug is for.

Half King, by the way?which, you've heard, is part-owned by the writer Sebastian Junger?is a bit of a phenomenon. Before visiting the place I'd assumed that its atmosphere would be informed by that empty moodiness that, for the moment at least, you can still find in West Chelsea if you look for it, and that's the psychogeographical reality that's made that neighborhood so appealing to me. In this fattened-up and overcrowded city, where by now you often have to wait for a table even at casual, high-turnover restaurants?and where, besides, economic imperatives have imposed a certain high standard of service and a pretty much unified Young Professional esthetic?a bar or restaurant's degree of "unpopularity" can be the most crucial thing about it. If you, and whomever you've managed to attract to yourself, can in fact physically approach the bar and order a drink to crawl off with to some comparatively unoccupied margin or corner (the alley out back, where the guys from the kitchen throw dice, presents itself as an option), much less secure two stools, you've located a place you should return to, and that you might be able to call your own, for several months at least, until it becomes overpopulated. As of Friday morning, I couldn't think of more than a couple bars in New York at which a patron is consistently assured of physical accommodation, another testimony to the toll that the contemporary city exacts from its inhabitants. You can't be assured of sitting down around here anymore, as you can in Portland or Boise.

Half King isn't uncrowded. It's a huge space, with several dim rooms stuffed with The Demographic ("Everybody's 30," a middle-aged graphic designer told me of New York at a barbecue in Montclair this weekend, explaining why he'd moved to the suburbs), and a thick crowd spilling out into a garden, to nibble at drinks there in the humid torpor and heavy recycled air of New York's encephalitis season (like "alternative country" or "acceptable suburbs," an innovation of the 90s). Huge, buzzing tenebrous expanses, receding into infinity?and Junger, a little guy, standing around against walls and in corners as hundreds of bodies shot and weaved around him (this place can feel a lot at times like a campus rathskeller), looking dispassionate.

What little food we ate was good, which wasn't surprising given that Half King represents Junger's partnership with the former proprietor of St. Dymphna's, that good Irish bar/restaurant in the East Village. Both the steak au poivre and the salmon were served with a steakhouse-style severity: just the steak and a pile of fries and a ramekin of pepper sauce on the white plate in the case of the one; just the heap of salmon and some asparagus in the case of the other. (Like an unbroken horse, the steak insisted upon having its own way, making for the western hills?whip, whip, whip, whip?before I came to an agreement with it and convinced it to stay on my plate for the duration of the meal.) All the food?including a beet and artichoke salad?was better than I'm accustomed to eating in bars, so I've got nothing to complain about.

The bartenders are very friendly, especially under the feverish circumstances.

The bathroom line was stupendously long in that way that?again?defines the bars of contemporary New York. So we paid our bill, loped into the night and spent 10 minutes skulking around 11th Ave., looking for a PortoSan, or a lonely spinster who might invite us upstairs or, what would have been best, a copse of sheltering aspens, preferably at least 50 yards from the nearest body of water (in this case the Hudson), as is consistent with outdoor ethics.

A note toward the definition of Half King: What I seemed to have been the last to know was that the place has defined itself, no doubt under Junger's influence, as a "media" or "literary" establishment, and one that leans toward the virile range of the spectrum. Readings, and so forth, some nights; rumors of a Men's Journal celebration to be held at some point soon on the premises. I learned after my visit that a media-world friend of mine was, without our noticing each other, ensconced down the bar from me, talking with two guys who run one of the big men's glossies.

So maybe Half King will position itself as a crowded professional canteen, the product of what occurs when Elaine's is grafted with the essence of a superpopulated Yorkville beer-hall, or?given the free-for-all in the place on a given Friday night?a cattle yard in maybe Abilene. The media types will fight for dominance of the establishment with the club-kid contingent that seems to spill over from the meat district clubs, and insinuates its glamorous languor through the clean-cut crowd.

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