The door to Cherry Tavern on 6th Street doesn’t close. If someone forgets to pull it tight behind them, a long reach fashioned from a decommissioned pool cue that sits behind the bar is put to use, allowing the door to be shut from the keep’s station. This happenstance solutioning seems to encapsulate everything about the Cherry. It sits just slightly ajar from everything else around it, and there doesn’t appear to be any plans to close the gap.
Most places in the dive bar genre in New York can be likened to the no-frills virtues of Cherry Tavern. What makes it worth our time together here, though, is its proximity to two cocktail-forward establishments of a different nature, that are often chosen over what’s being offered at Cherry Tavern. Nouveau speakeasy Death & Co. and “bitters tasting room” Amor y Amargo flank the bar’s east and west sides on a small stretch of 6th Street between 1st and Avenue A. It’s here that Cherry Tavern plays the role of equator between the east and west hemispheres of popular taste.
From one of the Cherry’s two, small square windows, I often watch people pass through this trifecta of drinking experiences. Sometimes they stop for a moment and consider the tavern’s matter-of-fact presence in contrast to the more secretive establishments on each side of it. On few occasions, some come in, but most continue on to the other bars located on this curious little strip.
And If they do come in, they don’t seem to stay long.
In the quiet solitude of the Cherry, there’s not much to do except contemplate your existence in concert to the quiet discourse around you. During my last visit, I floated in and out of conversations that ranged from two young women expressing fear over the day that will inevitably come when their parents die, to a man repeatedly telling his wife how good-looking his friend is. Another couple sat away from the bar, in one of the booths attached to the back wall. They didn’t say a word, but you could still hear everything through the language of their bodies. Every bit of their demeanor suggested they were at the end of things.
The Cherry is ideal for conversation, but not a private one.
It was within this communal calmness that I began to wonder what could possibly keep the masses from the realization that this is the great establishment of 6th Street. What could be keeping this bar in a perfect state of unpopularity when what it has to offer is so valuable? With a city as populated as New York, escape from crowds can come with great effort and high cost. Not only is the Cherry affordable, it’s open as late as a bar can legally stay open. Best of all, it’s never busy. Why then are its charms so often refused?
Maybe it’s the chairs.
Few match. And most of them, not unlike the door, have some kind of modification keeping them alive and in service. A lack of opulence, perhaps? The Cherry is covered entirely in wood paneling, giving its interior the look of a cabin. A cabin placed in the middle of the woods where warmth, shelter, and sustenance are waiting inside.
Could be the wallpaper.
It appears in the few spots that aren’t paneled with wood. But it’s not actually wallpaper, it’s a painted pattern. A damask deception rendered in red. And the foam stapled to the ceiling can’t be helping with the Cherry’s ability to attract crowds, but it does help to swaddle the room in a cozy, quiet blanket of comfort. And I’m sure the bar’s relatively late daily opening time of 6:30pm is a turnoff for day drinking tourists who start searching for happy hour by 3pm. By the time you can even think about closing a laptop, the city’s inventory of seats has dwindled to a few, leaving the rest of us happy-less.
But I don’t think it’s any of those things. Instead, I always eventually come to the same conclusion.
Like most vices, drink has rituals and behaviors held close to the heart. Obviously the Cherry caters to mine, ideals best summarized by a lengthy treatise written in 1953 called Everyday Drinking, by Kinglsey Amis. Allow me to summarize its 320 pages in a single sentence: Drink often, drink well, drink in or among the company of others, and drink the best libations you can, but good god man don’t make a fuss about it. Judging by the average nightly population sitting in the Cherry, it would seem that the majority has mostly moved on from these wise words.
If you haven’t noticed by now, this is isn’t journalism.
This is a love letter.
But one evening, mostly out of curiosity instead of duty, I felt an inclination to investigate what everyone was so enamored with on each side of the Cherry. To the west, stood a collection of waiting patrons milling about in front of a dark wood facade. A figure of authority, holding an iPad, controlled the flow of drinkers coming in and out.
I haven’t stood in line for a drink in 10 years. This wasn’t the time to start.
To the east, a snug room that, when I opened the door, greeted me with a wall of voices coming from a standing-room-only crowd.
Overwhelmed, I put the cocktail list I was handed back on the small bar and quickly found myself back on the street, a failure in my attempts to capture the whole story. I headed for 6th Street’s consistently dry equator, where I found the Cherry’s door propped wide open.
Detailing the inadequacies of the establishments on each side of Cherry Tavern isn’t my intention anyway. These places aren’t bad, they’re just different from what I’m looking for in a drink. At one point they were new and radical, but everyone else has followed suit so it seems like even the ubiquitous hotel bar is trying to come off as a nouveau speakeasy.
You know what I’m talking about.
Bartenders dress as practitioners administering medicine. Cocktail lists explain with great detail ingredients that attach themselves to mysterious origins and histories. Some of the more popular places have customers filling their Instagram feeds nightly with drinks served in or on elaborate vessels — glass houses, sliced sections of logs, beds of flowers, on fire, smoking with dry ice. Even worse, many are hidden behind faux businesses you have to walk through to get to the bar, like a pet food store, or law firm.
But the secret is a lie.
Every guidebook to the city is in on the take.
Who wants to drink with tourists?!
That evening, I took my usual seat at the Cherry, just by the window. Its predictable emptiness endorsed my choice. Silence permeated the room. A gin and soda arrived in an unassuming highball glass, naked except for a slice of lemon and a handful of ice. I had two. Total cost, $10.00.
Then I went home.
But not before having to walk back towards the bar on the Cherry’s west side, where a small crowd still lurked, waiting for approval from an iPad. I passed through, appropriately tipsy. A slight smirk on my face.
I had won.
The Cherry had won.
But how long can it continue, being sandwiched between the seductive sex of faux obscurity, photogenic beverages, and the art of craft? One day, I fully expect the Cherry’s worn-out wood bar, with an underbelly of discarded gum, will be dismantled and closed like the Blarney Stone, Manitoba’s, and St. Dymphna’s before it. Or bought, and turned into a characterized undead version of itself like Ray’s or Holiday Cocktail Lounge.
No wonder the New York dive bar is becoming a precious commodity. It’s rather obvious that being among crowds of fellow humans, drinking high-priced, luxurious libations presented in a big screen format while (in some cases) deafening house music plays, could be perceived as more attractive than simplicity and quiet. For it’s in the silence and solitude of responsibly administered intoxication that the aspects of the human condition most of us are trying to forget are most vivid.
Well, I have some news.
No matter your position in life, you’re ultimately alone, and headed towards death. Just like Cherry Tavern.
There, I said it.
Was that so bad?
Embrace this sobering fact. You’ll find the Cherry, and bars like it still operating, ripe and sweet. Standing in line, or standing at all, will seem like a pointless waste of your precious time on earth. And quick, easy, everyday drinking without the fuss paramount to your preference. But if you do pass by, and decide to pop into the Cherry, be sure to close the door behind you.
It’s broken to perfection.