Farewell to a Perfect Bar
RIP Angel's Share
Without its bars and restaurants, New York City is just a vast storage system for people. The pandemic made this clear. Bars and restaurants, the real ones, give the city its character: each has a little spirit of its own, breathing an individual character: friendly; cheerful, warm; welcoming; seductive, sleek, elegant, or grand. New Yorkers treasure these genius loci. We half-jokingly call such places “institutions,” but they really are: in a city that changes so often, any long-standing establishment, where memory has a chance to adhere to the walls, gives life a sense of continuity, stability, reliability. They bridge the public desire for sociability and display with the private virtues of intimacy and comfort. Bars and restaurants each have their own character and they are also where city-dwellers become individuals, where we cease being part of the general mass of commuters or pedestrians. You sit down and become instantly more specific: a friend, a date, an old-flame; maybe you’re a minor celebrity ushered to a special table, or just plain old Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So, with a long-standing reservation every Sunday at 7:00 pm. As these places form the background of life, atmosphere is sometimes valued over the quality of food and drink, but where those combine sufficiently, you can forget about getting a table.
Recently, one of these great New York institutions closed forever: the bar Angel’s Share. I wanted to go one last time before it closed, but missed the chance. I sort of bore the news stoically—places close all the time in New York, especially with the pandemic, cry over one and you might never stop—but a profile in the Times about Angel’s Share’s creator, Tony Yoshida, made me reflect how I grew going to his mini-empire of stores and restaurants on Stuyvesant Street. I went down to the East Village from prosaic, bougie Yorkville in search of a punk dystopia, which was already nearly gone. I think I grew to love the Little Tokyo on 9th and Stuyvesant more, anyway. In high school, I went to Around the Clock with a group of cronies in a phase of pretending to be a computer hacker; if my punk friends got bored hanging out at the T-shirt shops on St. Marks or at the Astor Place Cube or Tompkins Square Park, we’d go up to Sunrise Mart and get Japanese snacks and sodas.
Then when I got a little older, there was Angel’s Share, literally above the fray, on the second floor, hidden behind an unmarked door within Yoshida’s more gregarious, pub-like izakaya Village Yokocho. The secret had been out for many years, but knowing about it still made you feel special: it felt like initiation into adulthood itself. Angel’s Share long pre-dated the trend of secret speakeasies and “mixology”—it feels embarrassing to even commit the word to the page now—cocktails, fads inspired by its example. The experience was deliberately mannered, from the polite, firm, but friendly hostess, the serious, focused bartenders in bowties and vests, to the code of conduct that was literally framed and written on the wall. If you were lucky you could get a seat in the lounge-y back room or at the window counter, close alongside a date, and watch the nightlife crowds scurry around below, with rain or light snow falling on the little park situated in the triangle between Stuyvesant, 9th Street, and Third Avenue. It’s probably the height of bourgeois sentiment to find the feeling of the sublime in a bar or restaurant, but that’s okay, I’ll take it where I can get it.
There's new restaurants and bars in New York all the time, all trying very hard to distinguish themselves, but very few of them accomplish the urbane coziness that Tony Yoshida's places did: they felt glamorous but not pretentious, traditional but not stuffy. In short, they were classics. One of my favorite books is called The Structure of Iki, written in 1930 by a Japanese philosopher Kuki Shuzo. Shuzo studied with Husserl and Heidegger and the book is a kind of phenomenology of taste, setting out to describe an entire aesthetic called iki. It is hard to translate, but it means something roughly like chic or stylish, but it’s a much richer and more philosophical concept. It comes out of the experience of urban culture in Edo and is perhaps most recognizable in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. According to Shuzo, iki was a worldly combination of flirtatiousness, pride, and resignation acquired acquired through long experience of city life. In the arts or in clothing, it’s associated with cool, subdued colors: grays, browns, and dark blues. It signifies a preference for infinite potential above actuality:
In sum, we can say that colors expressive of iki offer inactive afterimages that accompany a luscious experience. Iki lives in the future, holding the past in its arms. A coolly discerning knowledge based on personal or social experiences rules iki, whose existence depends on maintaining possibility as a possibility. The soul that has tasted the last drop of sizzling excitement of warm colors draws on the quietude in cool colors that offer complementary afterimages. Iki embodies in its sensuality the gray of color blindness. Iki allows for being tinged by another color without being muddled by it. Iki shelters a dark negation concealed within its sensual affirmation.
To summarize the preceding, when iki is objectified in design and contains the two moments of form and color, parallel lines are used to express duality, the material cause of iki. When it comes to color, the formal cause of iki, its unrealistic idealism, is served by cool colors or dark colors low in saturation.
I have to I admit hadn’t gone to Angel’s Share in years and when I tried—I gave up after being told of the wait—some of the charm was gone because of the crowds. Like Yogi Berra once said, nobody went there anymore, it was too crowded. But I’d like to think Angel’s Share was a real experience of iki. And all the more so now for being gone; just a fading set of memories, floating above the street.