Passing the Bar: Coal Yard Bar

| 13 Aug 2014 | 08:00

    The East Village’s status as a countercultural bastion filled with funky, low-end hangouts has steadily been chipped away by the influx of deep-pocketed, fancy-cocktail-loving hordes, and though many have lamented the neighborhood’s loss of character, few have done anything to reverse the trend. But Molly Fitch and Shawn Dahl are making it their business to keep old-school dive bars alive and thriving in the once-gritty neighborhood, and the Coal Yard Bar is their newest refuge from the yuppie throngs.

     First, Fitch and Dahl resurrected the International Bar (a long-standing institution of dive-bar culture on First Avenue that had been closed for three years) in 2008, a move heralded by devoted locals and new converts who embrace its scruffy cordiality. And now they’ve given new life to a spot just a block away that has a long, storied history as a watering hole. At Coal Yard (which was once the divey Old Homestead Inn Inc. and more recently the Irish pub Lilly Coogan’s), the scene is quintessentially anti-scene, and the welcoming vibe makes it feel like the spacious living room you’ve never had in New York.

    Fitch and Dahl, who both moved to the city in the late 1980s and live in the neighborhood, frequented the original International Bar before it shut down.

    “It was one of the bars that when you were younger, you could go in and still feel like you fit in with a bunch of oldtimers,” Fitch says. “It was comfortable to go in by yourself.”

    Fitch started bartending in New York in 1994, and in recent years, Dahl and she had been tossing around the idea of opening their own bar.

    “The way the neighborhood had changed, we were like, ‘Jeez, I wish we could open a place that we would feel good about going into,’” Fitch says, referencing the gentrification of the East Village, and then she rattles off a list of dive bars she loves, including Horseshoe Bar (otherwise known as 7B and Vazac’s) and Holiday.

    The two revived the International Bar with the intention of recreating the laid-back quality of its previous incarnation. “We just felt like there was some need for extensions of home,” Dahl says, explaining that they wanted to offer more space for communing to those with limited square footage of their own. “It’s like your living room.”

    And since they opened its doors, the International Bar’s vibe has proven so enticing that the narrow compact space often fills up, which may be fantastic in terms of popularity, but has sometimes put out regulars.

    “To watch a friend walk in, when there’s only 16 seats at the bar, and they can’t get a seat, it kind of bummed me out,” Fitch says. So when Lilly Coogan’s shut down earlier this year and the lease became available, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand, Fitch explains. “We could sort of have an extra seat for that 17th person, a block away.”

    And though they opened Coal Yard (so named for a neighborhood coal yard that existed in the 1800s) at the end of October, it already has a comfortable, lived-in ambiance. And it shares the International Bar’s underlying character as a spot where, regardless of your background, you’ll be welcomed at the bar, as long as you leave any pretensions at home.

    “It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you do for work or what you like to talk about,” Fitch says.

    Coal Yard grafts the relaxed attitude and the low-low prices of the International Bar onto an ample, but equally inviting, environment. The lights are turned down low to enhance the features of both the space and the patrons. And at the heart of Coal Yard is a vast semicircular wood bar that Fitch dreamed up.

    “I always thought it would be neat to make it out of maple and make it look like a Les Paul,” Fitch says, referring to the bulbous shape of the classic electric guitar. “I love that sort of Knights of the Round Table feel. Everyone gets to talk to each other.”

    And the egalitarian nature of that setup, where everyone has an equal status, does encourage conversation. It’s the sort of place where no one would bat an eyelash if you spilled your drink, and if you took a spill, it seems likely that some nearby stranger would gladly extend a hand to pull you up.

    Both Fitch and Dahl collect records, and their tastes inform the classic contents of the CD jukebox, which includes rock (Led Zeppelin and The Stones), punk (Dead Kennedys, MC5 and The Misfits), soul (Etta James and Ray Charles) and old country tunes.

    And the prices are a throwback to the past as well, in keeping with the spirit of accessibility and affordability. Coal Yard delivers the basic domestics on tap (including endless $2 pints of Michelob, as well as Bud and Bud Light, which go for $2 for a pint until 8, and $3 after) but doesn’t slouch on the microbrews. The smooth, buttery Captain Lawrence Pale Ale, brewed in Westchester, and Brooklyn Pennant Ale (both of which are $4 until 8, and $5 after), among other fine choices, are on hand. House drinks are a mere $4, and higher priced liquors are available too. But you’ll find no mixologists touting complex cocktails here. If you need a stiff drink, though, your friendly bartender will be only too happy to pour you one.

    Two women who are lured in by the dive-bar vibe, having seen the Miller High Life and Jameson signs burning brightly in the front window, are instantly won over.

    “This is the kind of place where you can drink alone and not look sad,” says Dara Pattinelli, who lives in the Village. She loved hearing Janis Joplin upon entering Coal Yard and is impressed by the lack of pretension.

    Her friend Arielle Baer, who lives in Astoria, was immediately struck by the warm atmosphere. “I wanted a place to destress,” says Baer. “It’s my new favorite bar.”

    >> Coal Yard Bar 102 1st Ave. (betw. E. 6th & E. 7th Sts.), 212-677-4595.