I Tried to Find the Worst Bar in New York and Learned Nothing
I asked strangers where the worst bar in the city was, went there, and repeated the process until I ended up at Applebee's.
The author, on her quest. All photos by Julian Master
A good bar is easy to find. Just do a quick Google search or pick up whatever free weekly paper is distributed where you live, and you'll find a bunch of options. Swanky, aggressively twee "speakeasies" staffed with bow-tied mixologists, sports bars with way too many taps, faux dives where you pay for the atmosphere, nondescript been-there-forever joints that are just places to sit and drink. Whatever your sensibilities, you can find the stool to fit them.
That is, except, if your definition of good is "objectively bad." For people like me, the ultimate test for any drinking establishment is that it induces discomfort in all who enter it. The bars I like are the ones that make me afraid. The best bar I've probably ever been to was in New Orleans, in a neighborhood that our taxi driver did not want to take us to. It was inside a trailer, you had to light a match to see two feet from your face, and it was inhabited by cockroaches large enough they could solve algebra equations.
You can't find that sort of bar in New York, at least not the sanitized, gentrified New York I live in today. But maybe I was missing out on some great—that is, terrible—bars because I didn't know about them. So I set out to find the worst bar in New York.
Here's my methodology: I'd go to a bar (with my photographer Julian in tow), ask the people there where the worst bar in New York was, then head off to that bar. I'd repeat this until I found objectively the worst bar or until I could no longer stand, whichever came first. So I began with:
The Continental sits at the end of a strip of dollar-pizza joints, tattoo parlors, and vaguely shady dudes selling rings from stalls. Right next door, crust punks loiter outside of the McDonald's. Because its most notable feature is a banner outside that says, "5 shots of anything $10 all day/all night (yes we're serious)," I always referred to it in my head as "Shots Bar." Meanwhile, its website vigorously defends this special's authenticity and also has a 1,200-word explanation of how its proprietor, Trigger, is decidedly not racist despite the fact that the NYC Commission on Human Rights has investigated him three times over his policy against baggy pants. It's cash-only, but the ATMs outside are both broken. The decor is straight out of Spencer's Gifts––basically black-light posters of Jimi Hendrix and tigers.
In other words, it was as good a place as any for me to start.
After downing a beer and a shot, I sidled up to two dudes at the bar who were wearing baseball caps. Nick and Jonathan, who were both ordered by the doorman to turn their hats from backward to forward before entering, agreed that the Continental is very, very bad. It was quiet as we spoke—it was 4 PM and the bar had only been open a few minutes—but it apparently gets extremely rowdy at night.
It didn't take me long to start guessing what that might look like. Over the bar was a sign giving a long explanation about how bars aren't legally required to serve tap water, though restaurants are. "SO STOP BREAKING MY BARTENDERS BALLS!!!" it demanded.
As young men wearing University of Central Florida football shirts gathered in a pack behind me and started gesticulating wildly at a small TV, I started to envision what they'd be like after taking ten shots apiece without drinking any water.
"This is the only place I've ever been to where someone can throw up on the bar and just get a warning," Jonathan told me.
Like me, these friendly bros loved bars that sucked. But one place they never went was Wicked Willy's, a nearby "pirate-themed" bar where Nick's ex-girlfriend once worked. It was frequented by college kids, and it just so happened to be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. That sounded hellish. So off I went to:
Half of the people at Wicked Willy's were New York University kids who looked like children, and the other half were people who probably took Pirates of the Caribbean fan quizzes online. As I sipped my allegedly alcoholic frozen peach "Bellini," I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple from Long Island named Joan and Terry who said this was their favorite spot—the drinks were relatively cheap for the neighborhood, and it was "wild."
By "wild," they either meant that there were a bunch of 22-year-old guys who thought they were Johnny Depp, or that Wicked Willy's is the kind of place with a stripper pole and a water-pong table. Bars like this are beloved by 20-somethings who have just moved to New York. But 20-somethings who have lived here longer than a year loathe them with a passion that is actually kind of weird.
To Joan and Terry, the definition of a "bad bar" was a place that didn't really exist when they were my age. Although they didn't have the vocabulary to describe it, they basically were referring to so-called speakeasies, or places meant to mimic secret bars in the Prohibition era. Drinking at one of these places in 2016 involves waiting in a long line to enter through a phone booth inside a hot dog joint then paying $16 for a cocktail that has muddled peanut butter in it.
As much as we differed in our assessment of Wicked Willy's, I thought the two did have a point. The bar is supposed to be a democratic institution, and any place where drinks cost more than a meal is anathema to that concept.
After a lot of bickering, the pair told me that if I wanted a bad bar, I should go to Jake's Dilemma on the Upper West Side. According to them, it was "bland." That didn't sound so terrible to me, but anyway:
Given Joan and Terry's screed against cocktail bars, I expect to end up at one. Turns out their suggestion was sort of a non sequitur, because they sent us to a bro bar that I do not have words to describe. Two tequila sodas later, I was no closer to being able to tell you about Jake's Dilemma. Jake's Dilemma is fine. Jake's Dilemma is OK. The seeing-eye dog outside was awesome.
For the next stop on my increasingly buzzed tour, I turned to a gay couple, two guys named Diego and Saulo, who wasted no time coming up with Toolbox, a gay bar that they described in no uncertain terms as being full of predators. Knowing I would at least be immune to that and not really displaying any sort of concern or empathy for Julian, my boy wonder photographer, we immediately got into a cab, and sailed off to:
Fuck them; Toolbox ruled. It was the kind New York place that Sex and the City's early seasons took place in—frozen in the 90s except it was playing lots of Beyoncé. (At this point I had fully switched to liquor and was starting to feel really good, so my narration from this point on may be a bit unreliable.)
When Kill Bill came on the TV, I got excited because it's one of my favorite movies, so much so that I had the action figures in high school and even made my own T-shirt when the first part came out. After I got super fucking into the movie and started taking shots, I vaguely remember Julian saying something to me about how every time this couple walked by us at the bar, they would use it as an excuse to caress his entire body with their hands. "Shut up, that's a woman's world every day," I replied, allegedly, according to what he told me later.
Eventually we moved after Julian wouldn't stop pestering me about being overtly molested. We talked to a couple of older guys who were happy to point out where people used to go get fucked back in simpler times. "That hallway was considered the place to go," some dude in a hat told me wistfully.
Feeling pleased with myself for stumbling into an actual den of iniquity, I walked outside to smoke a celebratory cigarette. That's where I met Billy, a former Marine, who didn't seem to understand the clientele Toolbox caters to. "I'm supposed to meet a date in here, I think she wants to have sex with me," he slurred. "But I think she's 50, and I just saw her, and she's with her gay friend."
I didn't have the heart to break it to Billy that he and the woman he met on the street moments before were not on a date, but I did get the chance to ask the very drunk soldier what he thought was the worst bar in New York.
"It's Applebee's," he said as part of a really long rant. "It's for people who are afraid to explore outside of their fucking shit."
In my memory, what happened next is that he told me about how he and a buddy used to go to Applebee's and play pranks on tourists, then I moved on. The recording I made of our conversation, however, revealed that we spent a solid 30 seconds just yelling "Applebee's, baby!" at each other, and then I started talking in a Deep South accent for three or four minutes. Then it was time for Times Square, it was time for eatin' good in the neighborhood, it was time for:
Applebee's, I'm sure, is a fine place to go sometimes, for some people, in some states that are probably square-shaped. But when you are me, ten or so drinks in, right after a Tarantino flick in a gay bar inspired an uncharacteristic feminist rage in you, it is extremely disorienting.
Here's what happened to me in no particular order, because there is no such thing as time in Applebee's: I headed up an enormous escalator to the bar, I ordered a margarita that ended up being a scorpion bowl of raspberry-flavored sugar water, I ate some sweet-potato fries that came in a sauce that tasted like it belonged on the top of a Cinnabon, my waitress thought I was famous because Julian was taking my photo, I could not operate the iPad-like thing you have to use to pay your bill, the bill turned out to be $100, the margarita turned out to be $17, I (apparently, according to the receipt) ordered two things called "Whiskey 2.0" and "Long Pour."
I do not know if Applebee's is the worst bar in New York. I do know that mixing a giant vat of alcoholic sugar and then eating food that is probably entirely made of sugar and then dipped in sauce that is also made of sugar does not mix well with a day's worth of beers, pickle backs, shots, tequila sodas, and something called "Long Pour."
I went to another bar after Applebee's because I do not make good decisions. It was called Happyfun Hideaway, it's in Bushwick, and it's actually a very good bar. I met my friend there who said something completely benign to me about how he wanted to get the bartender's number. I'm not sure if it had more to do with the Kill Bill swimming in my brain or the equivalent of three caffeinated Four Lokos swimming in my stomach, but I have a flip-book-like memory of me accusing him of unspecified "microaggressions" (I have never used this word before), me running across the street, me being approximately halfway to my house in a cab, and then me waking up halfway through the night to find a Kill Bill Vol. 2 DVD that I didn't even know I owned stuck in my PlayStation at a 45-degree angle and upside down.
So that's how you find the worst bar in New York.
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