“I was just like working as a bike messenger and saved a little money, and Jason was like, ‘I kinda wanna open a bar’ and I was like, ‘that sounds like fun,’” my friend Eric told me recently, adding, “I was certainly good at hanging out in them.”
Eric “The Red” Austin, of Williamsburg, is the punk rock proprietor of neighborhood establishments The Grand Bar and Grill and Second Chance Saloon, with partner Jason Kleinmann, and the venue The Acheron, his project with partners Denis Bramley, Bill Dozer and his wife Carmen Mello, and their partner Addie Dowd, owners of The Anchored Inn, which is attached by a door; like a punk rock Peach Pitt after dark.
“Within the first week we had Trash Talk,” he said of The Acheron, from his dining table when I stopped by recently to talk about his growing list of projects. “They were playing at the Bowery Ballroom and they wanted to do a free after show and so we were into it, they brought fucking 200 people to Waterbury Street and since they’re a hardcore band I didn’t even know really existed anymore, they sound like, and the crowd was like, the hardcore matinees I used to go to when we were teenagers.
“Kids fuckin’ got there and just started like lining up, and there was literally a line that went around the fuckin’ block, down Waterbury Street, up Meserole fuckin’ half way, and we were just like, ‘holy shit what the hell are we gonna do?’ And we just did it – it was just four of us: me, Bill, Denis – and our buddy Fud worked the door.”
If there’s something that Eric loves, it’s telling stories, and he’s got a lot of great ones – many of them not fit to print here, so you’ll have to find him at one of his bars and ask for yourself. But, it was then, in May 2010 that a spark went off and these guys realized they had something on their hands. It might have felt more like the desolate streets of our 90s youth than the crowded ones of 2013 – Eric and I are childhood friends, since we were 13. Recalling those days, Eric asked me, “What else was by Wetlands? Nothing, at that time – one deli a couple blocks away. What was by CBGB’s? Nothing.”
And now? Look at the East Village and Tribeca, and ahem, Williamsburg. The decrepit neighborhoods that once housed the punk rock venues of our youth: CBGB’s, Wetlands, Coney Island High, ABC No Rio – they all existed between the cracks, growing culture where there were previously large zones of autonomy surrounded by concrete. Now, places inspired by that past grow like weeds all over Brooklyn. The Second Chance is a great example – Eric and Jason took a Yelp review that claimed the establishment was either loud and disgusting or empty and gross and made it into a t-shirt.
The Acheron burst onto Bushwick’s DIY scene in 2010 and it’s mostly a punk and metal spot as is particular to the tastes of Bill Dozer, who heads up management, sound, booking, and any other little detail that needs his attention. A year later The Anchored Inn opened its doors next door and brought along with it the legitimacy of a liquor license and a delicious menu, all in the crosshairs of the northside’s music and art scenes.
“The place was built, developed, shaped, not by investment interests in the least,” explained Eric, “Everybody needs to make a living, but it was pretty much just in the name of rock n’ roll and it still is, I mean, it’s a business, now, but yeah it still has – Bill still runs everything himself.”
So once you’ve established your first punk rock dive bar, then a punk rock venue down the street, it only follows that it’s time for a classic New York institution to arise in order to feed and care for the artisanal needs of discerning punk rock palates, right?
“It definitely started with a lot of nights at the Second Chance drinking beer at two in the morning going, ‘man I really wish we could eat some wings right now, fuck it let’s do it.’”
It was time to open a full on restaurant, not a food truck, or a pub offering, but a classic New York style institution in the heart of East Williamsburg. “I’m definitely a history buff and I’ve always loved old architecture and design stuff, especially of New York, and I like the idea of institutional places – not literal institutions, I hate those – but classic places that are timeless and lasting. Neighborhood institutions, I definitely appreciate the details and the craftsmanship.”
“I like to let things happen organically – I don’t like to force things, you know? We had an idea of how we wanted things to look, and had an idea for how the menu should be but for things to really work you have to be flexible – your vision has to also include the awareness to adapt and kind of just let things happen naturally – how they may feel because you know, there’s lots of things that are going to come up that you’re not going to have predicted and you can’t fight them, you kind of need to adapt along the way.”
It was in that spirit that The Grand Bar and Grill was born at 647 Grand Street between Leonard Street and Manhattan Avenue – just up the block from the Second Chance, otherwise known to regulars as the Deuce.
The Grand features an unpretentious classic cocktail list, 13 draft lines of pub standards and local craft beers, and 8 draft wine choices featuring City Winery varietals. Executive chef Wes Davis – who worked previously at Al Di La, Dressler and was the executive chef at Miller’s Tavern – serves up quality food inspired by classic American bar and steakhouse fare but refined for modern palates.
The menu includes pub favorites such as a house burger, mac and cheese and steak frites, but also includes some of Wes’s own creations. Blackberry braised pork spare ribs with pickled watermelon, chicken liver mousse with sweet and sour shallots, and a chicory chopped salad are just a few. Rotating specials such as a veal meatloaf augments offerings like tempura-fried rabbit served with carrot and pea salad and a cheddar biscuit. A full raw bar with a daily selection of assorted shellfish and house made desserts round everything out.
Inspired by classic New York spots like the former Cedar Tavern, and the Old Town Bar, The Grand is a New American gastropub sourcing the finest quality ingredients. The mutual respect between Wes, Eric, Jason and their professional and familial staff make the environment warm and inviting to anyone that might step through The Grand’s doors.
The fraternity and joy of craft is immediately evident in The Grand, which was handmade in Brooklyn by Eric, Jason and their band of buddies including the construction crew headed up by Rob Phelps of RCP Builders, the team who built Peels and Freemans in Manhattan, and Isa and Barber and Supply in Williamsburg. The restaurant’s design was led by Eric and Jason who scoured New England and New York to source the myriad vintage details, most prominent being the restaurant’s original mahogany and oak bar replete hand carved gargoyles and painted mirrors built in the Bronx in the 1870s. Getting a good look at the restored bar alone is worth the trip to this fine new establishment.
The DIY decoration includes floor planks from a lot by the Newtown Creek; vintage mosaic tiles from Glendale, Queens; pine joists from a demolished building on the restaurant’s block that make up a 16.5 foot communal table; vintage windows from Orange, Massachusetts and rose head nails for the floorboards from a nearby factory. Vintage fire extinguishers were re-purposed into draft wine towers.
Rather than the exquisite chaos that is the Second Chance, The Grand offers a classic, simple New York experience mixing vintage and modern aesthetics in a way only these DIY urban dwellers can deliver. Purity without being precious – like the bar, crafted by C. Rieger’s & Sons at 702-704 East 148th Street in the Bronx, now a historic landmark. “Like everything in this world now, we found it on eBay,” Eric told me.
“It was a listing that didn’t seem to be gaining much interest from anybody because it kind of seemed like it was too good to be true – just four shitty pictures of pictures like phone pictures of prints from the 90s.”
But Eric and Jason persisted; they made a call to the listing’s owner – a guy from the Bronx on the verge of retirement in Vermont. He told Eric he wanted to move to Cuba and the bar, along with some other bric-a-brac would all move for $10,000.
“The whole purchase from this guy in Vermont, the bar, all the bar related stuff, the [1916 era Brunswick] pool table, a 1947 bumper car and a 1979 wildfire pinball machine, which I gave to my buddy Neil Mellow (who runs a little vintage clothing and other ephemera store also on Grand, called the Grand Bakery right down the street from the bar. I gave it to him $75 in store credit, which I still have yet to use.)
“I sold the bumper car for $1,500 immediately to a guy from Akron, Ohio. I put it on eBay and the guy called me and was like, ‘I’m leaving right now,’ and drove through the night to pick it up from me. Restored they’re worth $5000; this one definitely needed a lot of work I was definitely not going to do to it, so $1500 was pretty sweet. So basically we paid $10,000, minus the $1,500, minus the $75.”
And that’s not even the best part of the story. After embarking on a road trip to check out the bar in Vermont, Jason and Eric went to lunch to talk about the purchase – over smoked wings in Manchester, Vermont – and decided they were going to buy the bar.
“We went back to the house and the guy was hilarious, he was like a used car salesman – he came out of his house talking on his phone like, ‘uh, yeah so alright, so cool, just send me the $5,000 deposit and I’ll have it delivered in couple days, alright see ya. Hey what’s up guys? So what do you think? Cause I got this guy on the phone that really wants the thing, so?’ We thought that was pretty funny, we kinda thought he was full of shit, but he ended up not being full of shit.”
The guy who wanted it turned out to be the owner of Fat Possum records in Oxford, Mississippi, who then offered Eric $50,000 for the museum quality piece, at that point still sitting in parts in a garage in Vermont. Eric and Jason decided to turn it down. “It’s sort of my civic duty as a native New Yorker, in a place where so many things change, it’s cool when some things last. So I like to preserve things like that.”
“I think it’s well worth more than $50,000,” Eric continued, “And as Rob put it back together in the condition we brought it back to now you can tell – we kept everything original as much as we could – there’s still like staples and nails and little repair work that had been done to it over the years, we left everything like that.”
Like the bar, these guys have character and their resume runs deep; this place is literally the house that hardcore built. The Rob he’s name dropping is none other than Rob Phelps, “a punk rock carpenter extraordinaire, and his crew of punk rockers, along with Jimmy Gestapo and Ian Meredith from Murphy’s Law and Nobby Bones from Broken Bones – what do they call themselves? The thirsty workers, local zero.”
“Just from our own personal taste and ideals, we’ve tried to use as much repurposed existing materials as we could,” Eric told me about The Grand’s design. “Just from the DIY aesthetic – environmentalist, whatever, how far you wanna take it – it’s true you know, why buy a bunch of shit when you can find some used stuff for cheaper or free? Or you know whatever, less waste, blah, blah, blah, you know the drill.”
“My experience of punk rock and stuff is more,” Eric paused, “a place where it’s more just like freedom to be whoever you want to be and still be respected for that, which is how I want to treat my customers as well.”
Here are some outtakes from construction of The Grand.