I had never given Brooklyn much thought beyond the odd walk over the bridge and down into Dumbo, outmaneuvering the hordes of Instagrammers trying to get that perfect shot of themselves on the cobblestone streets with Manhattan Bridge in the background, perfectly framing the Empire State Building between its nervous legs. What with the tourists and the hipsters it never quite felt like my sort of place, so I happily stayed on the wrong side of the bridge, ignorant of the treasures that were hiding from me.
That all changed on a chilly November evening a couple of years ago when my friend Zack invited me to meet up for drinks at his local, The Long Island Bar, nestled neatly between Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. It’s hard to overstate the understated perfection of this place — flashy it is not.
And that’s the beauty of it — as you enter it has the feel of a classic diner, with a long bar to the right running down the length of the room, and booths to the left for those eating, separated by a low dividing wall which nicely keeps the drinkers from the diners. It has huge windows onto the street above a long tabletop and stools for you to sit and watch as various middle-aged Hollywood A-listers and their families pass by with their strollers.
When you see the bar there on the corner, from across the street at dusk on an autumn evening, the moody interior lighting, art deco interior, those big wide windows, and of course the vintage neon sign, you can’t help but feel like a Nighthawk. It’s all rather poetic.
The history of the bar is well documented — it was established in 1951 and despite a relatively recent change in ownership (it was taken on and lovingly revitalized in 2013 by Joel Tompkins and Toby Cecchini, who also incidentally invented the Cosmopolitan), it’s managed to grow old gracefully while still feeling absolutely current. What’s so special about this place is the very fact that it’s not trying to be special. It just is. And it’s perfect.
If you decide to come and experience this for yourself, here are a few tips:
First, when to get here. Mondays are out as it’s closed. It only opens at 5 p.m. on weekdays — expect a crowd all night. That means if you want a good spot at the bar (you definitely want a good spot at the bar) I recommend getting there nice and early. The weekends are easier as the bar opens in the afternoon. In fact, may I propose the following? Have a Sunday lunch with friends, then walk them over to The Long Island bar for cocktails. You will not have a better Sunday afternoon.
Second, where to sit. That’s easy. Sit inside, at the bar. Not in the booths, not on the street. At the bar. It’s where the action is.
Finally, what to order when you get here. You order cocktails. They have a few good beers, and I’m sure there’s wine too, although I’ve never bothered to try any of it. They make perfect cocktails, so that’s what you have when you come here. The Cosmopolitan, it goes without saying, and not just because the guy invented it, is actually a perfect cocktail — sweet but tart, strong but smooth. They also make excellent Martinis and perfect Manhattans. If you prefer to avoid the classics and go for a “special” cocktail with herbs and spices, yuzu and smoke, you can do that too, although I have no idea why you would bother — you can’t beat perfection (they don’t actually do smoke by the way, another reason why I love this place).
And while you’re sipping your cocktail, you must get an order of fried cheese curds. As a Brit, I’d never heard of them before I came here, so I have nothing to compare them against, but these hot, crunchy, salty, battered balls of cheese are the perfect pairing with an ice-cold martini.
I do leave you with one warning — take it easy. These are proper cocktails and you don’t need many before you’re holding a mumbling, pointless conversation with one of the incredibly professional bartenders. Luckily they have immense patience and are well-practiced in dealing with over-oiled customers — something I’ve unfortunately experienced first-hand.
Once you’re done, make sure you take a walk up Atlantic to Sahadi’s to restock your spice cupboard and if you’re still hungry after your Sunday lunch and those cheese curds, you might even pop into Yemen Cafe for some of the best Middle Eastern food you’ve ever eaten.
It’s thanks to the Long Island Bar that I now live just ten minutes up the road on foot. I’d be closer if I could afford it, but those Hollywood A-listers have priced me out.
Is it the best bar in Brooklyn? Most certainly.
The best bar in NYC? I think so.
In the world? I wouldn’t rule it out.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition.