“Don’t worry, we aren’t changing much,” Susan Surdacki says as she takes a break from remodeling. “Just some things that needed to be fixed, painted…we want to keep the essence of the shithole, you know?” She cackles and sets down her bottle of Lone Star. A bit of sawdust and the scent of polyurethane hovers in the air.
Williamsburg held its collective breath this past spring when The Levee unexpectedly drew down its shutters. “We had to close because of paperwork problems with our liquor license renewal,” Susan explains, “but honestly, maybe we needed the break. We’re open all the time (12-4am). Hell, we’re even open on Christmas.”
If you were worried about some kind of “Levee Ultra Lounge” remodel, your fears are groundless. The Levee (and its drink prices) will look more or less the same when it reopens later this month – possibly this weekend. [Update: It's happening tonight!] [Double update: a call confirms they're now pouring.] The biggest changes: a fresh coat of paint, elevated wooden booths in the back room, some decorative plaques where the big photo of the lighter used to be, and “the pinball machine is gone, too,” says Surdacki’s husband and co-owner, blaming issues with the distributor.
Howard and Susan, both from Houston, TX, met in Manhattan while working at The Ginger Man on 36th Street. They opened The Levee in 2005 and now everyone has at least one out-there story about the place – like mine, about the time my then-roommate got a hand job in the bathroom.
But success didn’t come immediately. “It took us about three years to get busy,” Susan estimates, adding that some days saw only a few customers. “I think our lowest sales for a day was $27 one Monday. We played a lot of pool to pass the time and to make it look like there were customers through the window for the people passing by.”
During the early days, the bar was decorated with leftover chandeliers and velvet couches from its predecessor, Antique Lounge. The décor didn’t exactly jibe with the couple’s vision for “a place where you didn’t have to get all dressed up to go in – a place with a little something for everyone – and even if you didn’t have a lot of money, you could still have a good time.”
But the truth is, they were too broke to redecorate. “We’d sell off a chandelier or one of the big velvet couches on Craigslist so we could buy different furniture,” Susan says. “Sometimes we’d just send a piece of furniture home with some tipsy customers just to spread goodwill.”
Of course, before Antique Lounge, there was Kokie’s, a notorious den of iniquity where, as Susan describes it, “you could buy cocaine at the bar, then go do it in the booths out back.”
Having moved to Williamsburg in 1999, she would know: “I went there a few times and drank tiny Coronas,” she admits. “If you’d have told the 21-year-old me that I’d have a bar there one day I wouldn’t have believed it – but I would’ve been really excited.”
Howard and Susan hope to receive the new license by Friday and open on either that night or Saturday, so prepare for cheeseballs, Frito pies, and plenty of Black Label. The grand re-opening party, on July 21, will be an all-day affair featuring drink specials and free beer.