The idea of a Tim Burton theme bar opening in the East Village is so weird on so many levels that I started to drive myself bonkers unpacking the implications of this so-called Beetle House. Would this be an ironic ode to Tumblr culture and fan fiction? A comment on how themed consumer culture has reached bizarre peaks? As it turns out, Beetle House is actually just a completely earnest theme bar and restaurant dedicated to the beloved, oh-so-spooky-creepy films of Tim Burton. Which hasn’t stopped it from getting smacked with a cease-and-desist from the director’s minders.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t we open a bar?'” co-owner Zach Neil recalls telling Brian Link, his business partner and BFF who was suffering from “massive depression” last year. “Bars are fun, it’s like having a birthday party every night. People come in, they hang out, you drink, hang out, everything’s good.”
Sounded simple enough.
“We scouted probably about 40 bars around the city, and what we found is that they’re all the same,” Neil said. “There are the standouts, but for the most part it’s McGillicuddy’s Irish Pub, Dave’s Irish Tavern– it’s the same shit. Everything is either too cheap, so you know something’s wrong, or it’s too expensive and you’re not going to pay for it. The atmospheres are drab and everyone’s trying to be way too fancy. It’s like, this is New York City. It’s the home of CBGBs. This is the punk rock area of the Lower East Side– why is everything so fuckin’ swanky?”
As a former partner at Tobacco Road, a “grimy bikini bar” in Midtown that’s won a number of “best dive bar” distinctions, Neil knows a thing or two about gritty bars. But lately, he’s shown himself to be pretty good at this theme-bar thing, too– Neil and Link happen to be the same guys behind Stay Classy New York, the Lower East Side’s very own Will Ferrel-themed bar that opened last October. Despite the odds, that venture’s still going strong. “We figured people are probably going to shit on this, it’s the Lower East Side and everybody’s too cool for school and they don’t want our commercialized bullshit,” Neil recalled. “And that’s how it was initially received, and then a lot of the locals who hated it came in and said, ‘Wait, actually this is really fun.’”
The partners figured– why not keep it going? “We were like, what else do we both like? Oh, we both like Tim Burton,” Neil explained. “I don’t want to do the movie-theme thing forever, but if we’re going to do another one, let’s do Tim Burton.”
In their search for a space, the duo met the owner of Confessional, a struggling “Latin fusion restaurant,” who was trying to sell the place. According to Neil, he and Link offered to go into business with her and revamp the restaurant according to their ideas while she maintained part-ownership. (A Facebook post from March says that Confessional actually plans to reopen, just in a new location).
Beetle House only started taking dinner reservations this week for their soft-opening, which started on Wednesday, but Neil said they’re already booked solid. “We’re sold out on reservations for many, many weeks,” he explained to me outside the restaurant last night while on a quick break from his kitchen duties. He wore a black chef’s jacket and puffed furiously at a cigarette. The place was packed. “We’ve taken 5,600 reservations so far,” he smiled.
Don’t be too intimidated by the Beetle House’s immediate popularity, though– it’s not exactly an exclusive joint. Walk-ins for the bar are still welcome, and to be honest that’s where all the fun was to be had last night anyway. However you’re planning to get through the door at Beetle House, we suggest you do it quickly. Before Neil and I could speak about the bar, he was Facetiming with his daughters back home in Pennsylvania. “Daddy’s getting sued by Warner Bros.,” he told them. The Hollywood film studio owns the rights to Beetlejuice, and according to Neil, he received a cease-and-desist letter from their reps this week. “I’m not going to stop doing anything,” he confided. “It’s all artistic adaptation anyway. It’s like decorating your high school bedroom, you know? It’s my place, I can hang whatever I want on the walls.” (However, Neil added that they’ll probably remove the Beetlejuice photo from their website and make some adjustments to the particularly egregious menu items.)
I’m no intellectual property lawyer, but Neil could be right (and anyway, he said they have a “really good lawyer”). Beetle House is filled with a very distinct type of fan art, one that’s particular to Tim Burton fans– portraits of sad, stringy-haired girls with droopy little shoulders and massive, watery eyes bulging out from their oversized heads atop diminutive bodies; and a print depicting a Winona-Ryder lookalike alongside some guy dressed up as Beetlejuice (the host, perhaps?)– they’re posed to look like Grant Wood’s American Gothic. About half of the restaurant’s decorative pieces are actually original artwork that Neil and Link commissioned from 16 different local artists. “We got in touch with, like, every local artist on the Lower East Side when we did Stay Classy because we wanted comedic Will Ferrel stuff,” Neil explained.
The other half are props that were sourced either directly from Tim Burton movies, or look like they could be– these include antique medical instruments, vintage-looking books, and some ’80s surrealist art pieces that look convincingly like the decor found in Lydia Deetzes’s wacky home. There’s more on the way, too. “There are sculptures being made– this guy did a devil-creature thing with scissors for hands, like an adaptation Edward Scissorhands,” Neil said. “We have a straightjacket– I don’t know what film that one’s from– we have a petticoat and a top hat from Sleepy Hollow.”
Of course, you can’t have Beetle House without Beetlejuice. After feeling my way down the black walls in hopes of finding a seat, the host– who introduced himself simply as “Juice”– greeted me with a hoarse roar. “Whaddya want?” he bellowed in my face, before leaning in politely and escorting me to my seat. Juice had a habit of compressing a fart horn near his crotch and screaming across the bar at patrons. People were eating it up. “I auditioned for the part,” explained Juice, an actor named Jimmy Dalton.
Above all, Beetle House is seriously dedicated to reminding people of the Tim Burton theme at every opportunity. There’s the requisite portrait of Jack Skellington, recessed black lights, and vaguely spooky accoutrements including a stuffed raven perched atop a large mirror flanked by black tulle. But things overflow into the too-much category with the music, which was actually just a film score played straight through. Not exactly party-inspiring stuff. Nevertheless, people were knocking back shots, talking loudly about friends they hate, and sipping on plenty of cocktails.
“We’re averaging three or four drinks per person a night,” Neil said. “So yeah, things have been good.” Together, all these things make Beetle House feel something like the haunted Applebee’s at a counterfeit theme park, where cosplayers and Renaissance fair fanatics go to unwind after a long day of speaking in vaguely-British accents and sweating under petticoats.
The Beetle House menu promises the food is “to die for.” Neil described the fare as “American comfort food and European fusion– so it’s everything from mac-and-cheese to filet mignon, to a shrimp and lobster dish, or a hamburger.” Snacks and entrees are priced between $10 and $30. “There’s something for everybody,” Neil said. That includes vegetarians and, in the very near future, vegans. While the food might seem like somewhat standard bar bites, the menu’s language is anything but– there’s the Butcher’s Stew (described as “NYC firehouse chili” served with guac, cheese, and sour cream over rice with garlic toast), Cheshire Mac, and, my personal favorite, Edward Burger Hands (a bison patty with bacon, pepper jack cheese, bacon, quail egg, Sriracha cream, avocado, and tomato on a honey garlic bun).
The selection of 18 house cocktails ($12-$16) are a little pricier, and a little more involved, but equally as Burton-themed. Choose from drinks like This is Halloween! (pumpkin liqueur, cinnamon liqueur, apple liqueur, apple cider, ginger beer) and It’s Showtime (Bulleit rye whiskey, two shots of espresso, simple syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, lemon peel garnish).
To my surprise, the place was populated by what seemed like sincere Tim Burton fans, not people like me who think that taking a bunch of Ambien and going to Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar would be the same kind of fun. When I arrived, a pair of girls sitting at the bar were caught up in a debate. “They really need to have more eccentric female characters here, not just Beetlejuice,” said the one with long black hair and a septum piercing. She shot a disgusted look at Juice, the host who later complimented her on her large, all-black tattoo– a skeletal outline of her arm bones extending from her shoulder to her wrist. Her friend, a quieter boyish type with a scene-kid pixie cut, pointed out that, actually, she couldn’t think of even one strong/weird female character in Tim Burton’s movies.
“They should have more references on this drink menu,” septum piercing decided. “They really need a drink related to Zero with dry ice or something.”
One of the servers hinted that a drink like that could be dangerous. “Did you hear about the bartender who served some girl a shot with dry ice in it?” she asked. “It burned her insides!”
Some of the staff seemed less Tim-Burton obsessed or Tim Burton-esque. “Oh god,” one waiter moaned, glaring at Juice who was busy posing for photos with guests and relishing in the fact that he was the best-dressed. Meanwhile the server looked like a cross between a dude from a barber shop quartette and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, in other words, not such a dedicated fan. “I asked him what his costume was when we first came in,” septum piercing told me. The server looked up, incredulous. “He told me that he was a townsperson from Sleepy Hollow,” she laughed, clearly not convinced.
For these reasons and more, Beetle House has the slightly-off quality of the drawings that any diehard Burton fan spent hours perfecting as an awkward kid. It’s not official-looking at all, but it’s better (and more hilarious) that way anyway. While Neil seems like a casual Tim Burton fan (he didn’t know up until “last week” that Tim Burton directed Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) he sure knows how to attract the serious ones. I wondered if he and his partner had contacted Tim Burton about the bar. “No, but his publicist reached out to us,” Neil said. “He has this huge movie coming out in the fall, and they were talking about maybe doing some promotional stuff with us, but then Warner Bros. contacted us with this cease-and-desist so I don’t know what’s going on.”
Neil adjusted his tone a little bit, as if Tim Burton could hear him. “I don’t know Tim Burton,” he said. “Maybe he’ll like it, maybe he’ll hate it. But we’re gonna do it either way.”
Beetle House is located at 308 East 6th Street in East Village and is currently accepting reservations for dinner. Cash only, for now. Walk-ins accepted for the bar. Check out the food menu here and drink list here. Grand opening Saturday April 30, 6 pm till late.