For a long time– well, starting four years ago, which feels like it was a different era in Bushwick years– Alaska was the after-midnight bar that guaranteed a good time and cheap drinks on the night ship to crazyville, and when it closed just a few weeks ago, it seemed almost certain that some frou-frou cocktail place would replace it. The bar’s Facebook goodbye only seemed to confirm this suspicion: “Alaska, at least in its present form, is closing, forever,” it read. So what’ll it be this time? A lesson on cocktail “shrub” cultivation, perhaps? Bushwick’s first X-Files-themed alien bar? Or maybe I was walking into a trap set by the Tim Burton bar guy?
When I arrived at the future site of Wayward Social, aka the coffin holding Alaska’s ghosts, yesterday evening, I squinted around trying to rearrange the place in my mind, and put it back together as Alaska the Living. I had a hard time remembering how it should look, and not just because a bar never looks the same in the daylight– here, the only natural light cutting across the blackened space was beaming down from a mysterious peephole opposite the entrance, anyway, so even in broad day light outside there’s nothing to see inside.
I was there to speak with Mike Rabasco– co-owner of Wayward Social along with two more industry vets, Fernanda Berria and Franco Barrio (owner of Bespoke Kitchen in the West Village)– and right after I sat down, he asked me if I’d ever been to Alaska. Only then could I clearly recall being here– it was a drunk and stormy night for sure. “That’s how it was for everyone, which is cool,” Mike confirmed. “It was a really cool bar, I used to hang out here too.”
The basic premise of Wayward Social, instead of giving Alaska the makeover of a lifetime and unveiling her new look in front of an eight-sided mirror and huge cameras for adoring television audiences everywhere, was simply not to mess with a good idea. “A dive bar doesn’t have to mean a dirty dive bar,” he said. “They didn’t have a porter, so they didn’t have someone who came in after every night to clean the bar, and it just piled up over time. So we physically cleaned the place up, and put our own little touch on things.”
Just imagine Alaska, but like post-grad school Alaska, and then you’ve got Wayward Social. There are fresh coats of paint on the walls and Mike and co. did the old switcheroo on some of the booths, freeing up more space, but kept the old bar and repurposed some of the wood paneling to keep the old bones. There’s no food, no cocktail list, nothing fancy at all. “Just a bar with a late-night vibe– it tends to be dark,” Mike confirmed. The place still has the only window it ever had, only now it can be cranked open to let in some air and the moonlight if the weather’s right.
Even though things haven’t changed much here, it’s a welcome switch-up from the pace of transformation going on outside. As the neighborhood acquired luxury housing and suit-wearing young residents, the Morgan stop became ever tonier around it (which brought in more of the former, of course), and Alaska’s new neighbors have continued to arrive with ever more eccentric themes, or sometimes just lots of lame murals, or in the case of El Cortez, their fellow watering hole next-door, a totem pole. Mike doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the neighbors or anything like that, and he said the last thing he wants to do is alienate any customers (even tourists are welcome!– which made me realize all the sarcastic poo-poohing I was doing would make me the worst proprietor ever). His only consideration is that this world, and Bushwick especially, have enough theme bars to get us from here to the moon (if rocket ships ran on tiki drinks and single-batch amaros). What we don’t have enough of, in Mike’s view, are dive bars with more class than trash (I mean actual trash).
So the concept of Wayward Social is no concept at all. “When you attach a concept or a theme to your bar, that concept has to remain cool or hip to keep your business going,” Mike reasoned. “Over time, in New York especially, certainly things change, but when you create a space that is cozy, comfortable to drink in, with good bartenders and affordable prices, that never goes out of style.”
Fair prices means $4 draft beers at happy hour (4 pm to 8 pm daily) and “maybe call stuff,” Mike said, and hopefully a $5 beer and shot deal. “But if it goes to $6, I hope no one kills me,” he said. Solid drinks include eight draft beers (TBD), but nothing crazy, and in terms of wine, he’s planning to stock a quality white and a stellar red, plus something sparkling. “Because there’s nothing that sucks more than shitty wine,” he explained. Agreed. As for the liquor selection it will be respectable but, again, nothing over-the-top, only what it takes to make classic cocktails and old reliables– you know, the stuff that “professional drinkers” rely on to get their kicks.
“A lot of the bars in this city, including ones I’ve worked at that have been here for over 20 years, there’s no gimmicks,” said Mike, a longtime bartender himself. “That’s kind of the idea, a no bullshit kind of thing.” It makes sense, seeing that Mike’s in it for the long haul and seems to be dedicated to the neighborhood as an actual resident himself. Actually, he lives just a block away, and pointed to some bars around here he frequents that have a similar ethos, including Three Diamond Door, Cobra Club, and Pearl’s.
Although it’s newly decorated, the Wayward is decidedly bare. Mike explained that he’d rather accumulate art pieces and “eclectic” items as time goes on. “It’s fun to add,” he said. “I think it gives it a much better vibe too, rather than sourcing everything specifically for the opening.”
For now, the place has an almost pious look, what with church pews serving as benches along the wall and flickering light sources emanating from those red candle holders you find at old-school Italian restaurants. But the saintly look is misleading– Mike assured us there’s not gonna be much priest-like behavior going on here. “It’ll be a late night den of iniquity,” he promised.
The more I thought about it, I realized that the Wayward looks a lot like the establishment that Detective Colin Farrell frequents in True Detective: Season 2, with the same sickly, greenish glow when the lights are up, and a blood-red hue that takes over around midnight. I could totally picture this being a safe womb where depressed, vaguely hipster detectives with a murderous streak hang out. But, thankfully, it’s not deadly serious here as all that– Wayward has a weirdness to it, something that makes it feel like it could equally be a location for Jarmusch’s next vampire flick as Detective Colin Farrell’s haunt.
The gothic, red and black hues were inspired by Bizarre, the Myrtle Broadway bar that Mike managed for a while. However he says he has no immediate plans for a Bizarre-esque events calendar filled with wild cabaret and drag shows. Instead, the entertainment will be provided by an old-timey CD jukebox with 100 albums– “some old school country, punk rock, rock n’ roll” such as Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, Pavement, Pixies– “everything from ‘50s country to mid-’90s grunge stuff.” Expect DJs doing “rock n’ roll vinyl” nights in the near future.
And just like WXOU Radio Bar in the West Village, another long-running old man establishment he bartended (“But don’t call it a dive bar,” Mike advised), the place is cash only– which should help when you need coins for the jukebox. However, unlike WXOU, which doesn’t have any social media to speak of– “because they’ve been there for so long”– Wayward does have an Instagram account. It might be a while before Wayward Social can graduate to such honorable ranks and exist only in the IRL shadows, but it helps to start out like the ones who’ve made it.
Wayward Social is set to open sometime next week at 35 Ingraham Street, stay tuned to the Facebook page for grand opening details.