I was in the grips of a full-on Sunday hangover, on a caffeine-addled regret-stroll through East Williamsburg, when I locked eyes with a bar I’d never seen before, The Topaz. I wondered if the name, bestowed on this cocktail and small plates establishment, might be a play on “tapas.” Perhaps. But it also betrays the spirit of the place: a glimmering but none-too-fancy oasis in an otherwise spartan stretch of the neighborhood.
I walked in and found a host of other people in my same sad boat, just languidly floating above water. Everyone seemed beat from the heat and whatever had happened the night before, but slumped over sweaty beers and ice cold cocktails, they all looked as if they’d found something resembling a light at the end of the tunnel.
The owner, Brandon Davey — mustachioed, smiling, and nursing a can of Budweiser himself — was friendly and eager to talk about his new establishment, which opened up not-so-quietly two weeks ago when over 700 people traipsed through the freshly painted bar. “We were just throwing out beers into the crowd,” Davey beamed, recalling the opening party. Apparently the Topaz’s pork buns met the same fate that night.
Davey attributed the lived-in feel of the place to that bang of an opening, but I think it has more to do with his approach to decorating. Topaz manages to balance hard, dead features (animal skulls, reclaimed but blemished wood, marble) with soft, living accents (lilies, off-whites, paintings) for a kind of desert vibe. Even the drink names have a vaguely Western aura (Mexican Standoff, The Safe Word, Bottle Blonde, Night School), but in the sense that the West is now a bunch of seedy, dusty strip malls.
Davey and his friends completely gutted a shuttered bicycle shop next to Post No Bills, but their new place has an old soul. There are real-life remnants of the past, like a doorway to nowhere, now trapped behind the booths and things plucked from behind, like incandescent bulbs and faded leather seats.
Despite all the decorating, The Topaz is far from trying to be overly sophisticated or throwback. The soundtrack was a laidback sampling of Drake, Motown, The Stooges and R&B.
The place is nice enough to warrant a “cocktail program” but is attractive to industry people and not just finance dweebs, maybe because Davey is an industry vet himself. He put in time at Elsa, a small cocktail bar in the East Village, before it closed last year, as well as at Ramona, its “highly Instagrammable” Greenpoint sister bar.
His first solo venture is a place for the nibbler-tippler. The two guys next to me admitted to Davey they’d “devoured” the steamed buns (they come in either pork or shiitake varieties, $9 for a pair). The small food menu (just five items including a charcuterie plate), which is due to expand and will rotate seasonally, has some very vegetable-centric snacks like shaved asparagus and sunchokes with pecorino, citrus vinaigrette, and a “45 minute sous-vide egg” with roasted chanterelles, seaweed, and bonito dashi served with a loaf of peasant bread.
Also on rotation with the Earth are the signature drinks. I sipped on a very summery cocktail that, oddly enough given the name, brought me right out of my hangover shuffle and back into the world of the living. The drink in question, The Dead Man’s Mask, by the way, has a rather interesting story behind it.
The ingredients may sound fussy: “black cardamom bourbon,” lemon, smoked honey, pineapple, and dead sea salt on the rim (and no, it’s not just kosher salt by any other name, it’s black and as sharp as it looks), served on the rocks with a thick wedge of pineapple that you can definitely crunch on without feeling embarrassed. But it’s actually a quietly refreshing drink that nods to the current tiki craze without all that syrupy sweetness.
Oh, but back to that curious name, The Dead Man’s Mask. A friend who’d come from Vegas to help Davey renovate and open The Topaz (you’ll find him behind the bar now) also works as an actor. According to Davey, he scored a big part in a theater production, a “Lion King-like play,” complete with elaborate masks and costumes. The gig was a last-minute kind of thing because the previous actor filling the role had managed to die.
Well, turns out he didn’t just pass away, he died on stage, while wearing one those aforementioned masks. Unfortunately for Davey’s friend, there was no time for the costume designer to fashion him a new mask, so while he filled in for the dead guy… you get the idea. The Dead Man’s Mask. Davey winced, “He could just, feel it, you know?”
Click the images below to see the full food and drink menus and visit The Topaz at 251 Bushwick Avenue, it’s open Monday through Friday from 5 pm to 4 am, Saturday and Sunday 3 pm to 4 am.