Nic Ratner hates televisions in bars. So much so, in fact, he’s banned them from the three he runs along Second Avenue.
“If there was a television in here right now, even with the sound off, I could be talking with the most beautiful, intelligent, funny girl and a damn ShamWow commercial could come on and I’d be staring at it instead of her, no matter what,” proselytizes Ratner, standing in Shoolbred’s, the Scottish-themed bar where he’s an “honorary partner” (“hiring and firing powers, but I don’t make any money” ), with owner and business associate Robert Morgan. Together the two also own Ninth Ward, Kingston Hall (together with Steve Pyke and Geoff Popler) and a soon to be opened spot on Farringdon Road in London.
Given Ratner’s TV ire, it may seem a tad ironic to learn of his other, more established career as an acclaimed film music editor. Having spent the past two decades selecting songs for such gems as Silence of the Lambs, Team America: World Police, School of Rock and more recently Nightcrawler, Ratner credits his rather unorthodox entry into the bar game to a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan whiskey.
“It’s how Robert and I became friends,” says Ratner, referring to the Macallan he’d regularly order a wee dram from on his visits to the bar, prior to joining on as partner six years ago. “I was the only one who drank it, so Robert offered to buy me a bottle at cost and just leave it at the bar with my name on it. Yeah, I guess I was round here a lot.”
So, what inspired Morgan to turn one of his regulars into a partner? Well, apart from the “gregarious” Ratner’s fine taste in spirits, his credentials also extended to a decade of his youth spent working in various bars – a skill set he believed he “would never use again.” But, as with many things in Ratner’s life, it all just kind of happened. Not unlike that time, during a whisky-soaked poker game down in the basement of Shoolbred’s, he and Morgan decided to start Ninth Ward across the street.
“For five years, I had a house on Desire Street in the Ninth Ward,” explains Ratner. Taking the reigns together with Morgan on the bar’s design, he decked out the former Thai on Two restaurant space with reclaimed shutters, an angel statue over the mantle, and stained glass — all from New Orleans.
“I had people complaining about the name, asking why I didn’t just call it Chernobyl?” says Ratner, exhaling a cloud of smoke and gesturing with the lit cigarette toward the bar’s signage. “So, I responded on Yelp, which I know technically you’re not supposed to do: ‘This may be a good idea, or maybe the worst idea since Dallas BBQ because I can’t walk past that awning and not think of that terrible day in November, 1963.” (Meaning, of course, the date Kennedy was shot.) “It stopped after that. I’d have understood if I had called the place Katrina.”
At another time in Ratner’s life, he briefly resided in Jamaica, providing the motif for his third foray into bar-dom, Kingston Hall, which he opened in 2012. “It’s kind of Jamaica, 1962, after the British had left. But it’s all a bit vague with the theme. It’s not like you’re going to walk in to a greeting of ‘Hey mon…’ If you get it, you get it.” If anything, Ratner concedes, the bar tends a bit towards reggae, at least up to a certain point. “There’s only so much you can listen to essentially one song that sounds like it was written on the back of a horse.”
Ratner’s bar names mostly just nod to their namesakes’ cultures of drinking and general good times. In other words, he tries to build bars he’d want to drink in. Like his old favorite East Village dive, the International Bar on First Avenue. “Back then it was practically my living room, only festooned with nothing but Christmas lights and a broke-down jukebox.” (The jukebox was eventually replaced with a television, to Ratner’s eternal scorn.)
It was also at the International where Ratner received his first barfly honor — control of “slot 67” on the jukebox. “I had Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads in there for ages,” says Ratner, recalling how the bartender pleaded with him to switch it out on account of German tourists perpetually blasting the morose anthem “Death is Not the End” at 3 a.m. “Can you imagine a bunch of Germans singing ‘Da death iz not the end’ over and over. God, one can only pray it is.”
Nowadays, though, Ratner is no longer afforded such luxuries, begrudgingly deferring to the inevitable creep of technology.
“For the first few years it was all my playlists and was everything from Iggy Pop to Frank Sinatra, but as soon as Spotify came along, I just made a list of bands you’re not allowed to play in the bar.” And, what might constitute such a violation? “You know, the usual ones. Nickelback.”
As to the why Ratner has chosen such a life for himself, having already achieved success in his other business endeavors, he likes to share some of his typically acerbic proprietary philosophy. “With film, when it’s done it’s done. Owning bars, though, is more like live theater. Tonight, things go right, things go wrong, and the next night you just do another performance… I like to provide the social lubricant that helps people interact with one another, which is way better than any social media because that’s at a remove. Fuck Tinder, have another drink and talk to that person.”