Staten Island Bar Hopping (Again!)
If you don’t already live there, Staten Island bar hopping takes some doing, but it’s worth it. First you have to hop across New York’s harbor, which you can do by car via the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge (for a toll) or on the Staten Island Ferry (for free). But once you’re there, you’re in a different New York. More of a suburb than a city, actually more like a loosely connected constellation of grown-up villages than a suburb.
Staten Island’s Dutch settlement goes all the way back to 1613, the same year as Manhattan’s. After that, small villages began to take root, with names like Old Town (originally Oude Dorp), Richmond Town and Tottenville. These autonomous villages morphed into neighborhoods as the island consolidated and eventually merged with New York City in 1898. But Staten Island was never flattened out, gridded, or paved over like the rest of NYC. Getting from one neighborhood to another can still feel more like a winding, rolling ramble between small towns in Connecticut than going from one part of New York to another. A cab from Harlem to the West Village is a straight shot down 9th Ave. Getting from St. George to nearby West Brighton can be a hilly, twisting journey.
I’m exploring all five boroughs of New York for my upcoming book, Great Good Places of New York: 50 Favorite Joints of the Five Boroughs, to be published by Rizzoli in 2018. If you have favorite bars you’d like to nominate, especially from far-flung neighborhoods, let me know. Your local might end up in the book.
Staten Island Bar Hopping: It Begins
After soaring over the Verrazano–Narrows in our guide Tony’s sleek wheels, we landed at the Flagship Brewing Company in the Tompkinsville neighborhood, walked in, and were bombarded by drumming, in a military-march vein. Turns out the brewery was hosting the first annual Jim Toscano Drum Studio Drum Student Roundup. This little dude, maybe 8 years old, was whaling on the drum set, School of Rock style, and after the march bit he went into banging along with Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” And he NAILED it. But we wanted to chit-chat, so resolved to come back later, turned tail and headed to a classic.
Lee’s Tavern has been an anchor of the Dongan Hills neighborhood in northeast Staten Island for 70 years. I’d heard about it, people saying their signature pizza is like no other, even by New York standards. The People were right. Lee’s is a hopping, lively, family- AND drinker-friendly place which serves up some of the best pie I’ve had in my 10 years living in NYC, dutifully eating as much damn pizza as I can.
Lee’s crust was thin, but not flimsy. The sauce was tangy and balanced. But what really made it was the sausage. After ordering our drinks, we asked the big, no-nonsense bartender what he’d recommend on our pizza. Not a moment’s hesitation: “SAHSAGE, GAHLIC and fresh MOOTSARELL.” That is what I like to hear: a solid food rec. (Also, an authentic old New York accent.) I loved Lee’s already, but when the pizza showed up? Holy bejesus. The sausage: fennelly, Midwestern-style, not the lamentably lame slices (SLICES!) of bland stuff you usually get on New York pies. We polished that sucker off in no time, and a drink later continued our Staten Island bar hopping to….
Joyce’s Tavern, a sprawling neighborhood pub in convenient proximity to the Eltingville train station about halfway down Staten’s east coast. On a Saturday afternoon, the place was subdued, but not empty. When an elderly regular shuffled in the front door, the bartender asked someone to evacuate the man’s favorite bar stool, and had his beer perched in front by the time he eased into his spot. His spot. I love a bar that caters to its regulars. I’ve had to clear out of someone’s special seat before, at the Pierre Hotel bar, on Fifth Ave. near Central Park. At 6:30 every day, a well-heeled gent comes in, sits at the end and orders his dinner. I was in his seat, and had to scoot over a few, but it was cool. Regulars should enjoy the perks of membership.
Joyce’s features a large fireplace in the main barroom, two side dining rooms, a good jukebox, and a fine back patio with a deck and a resident cat, Katie. It’s a solid neighborhood pub that I’d be happy to call my local. The O’Toole family bought the bar in 2015 with the blessings of the original owner, the late Bob Joyce. After some renovation, the place remains a Staten Island favorite, winning SILive’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Award for “Best South Shore Bar.” And the cat, Katie? She was Bob Joyce’s cat, and the tavern is still her castle.
After Joyce’s we had dinner at a classic seafood place in a nearby marina on Great Kills Harbor, then headed to Liedy’s Shore Inn for my second visit there. Liedy’s becomes what it’s famous for on weekend evenings, when local bands blow the walls out with classic rock covers. It was like a 50+ college dance party. People were drinking — and I mean Drinking — dancing, whooping it up, spilling out onto the sidewalk with their beers and scotch an’ sodas. A scene. My scene? No, but a real, lively, good-time scene of people loving life and cutting loose. We stayed for a round, which took a while to get since the band took a break right when I hit the bar and a flood of dancers poured off the dance floor for refreshments. After a drink we headed back to Flagship, hoping the drumming kids had gone to bed.
They had, and we wandered into the tail end of Flagship’s Saturday night. Two young folk-rockers had the stage now with guitars, mics and no drums. We ordered a couple beer flights at the bar which were a damn delight. Flagship knows what they’re doing, both in the beer department and in creating a solid community hub. The juvenile drumfest, while ear-splitting (everyone had earplugs but us; our mistake), was sweet. Here’s a place — a drinking, brewing place — where parents can congregate, yuk it up, have a couple wholesome day beers, and watch their kids loudly follow their bliss. And at night, local musicians and their friends were enjoying it just as much, if more quietly. Though I must say, the girl in this duo had pipes as impressive as Alanis Morissette’s.
We finished our beers, dropped some bills in the tip bucket and returned to Brooklyn the way we came, over the bridge that Moses built. Staten Island, “the forgotten borough” will not be forgotten by me. Home to about half a million New Yorkers, SI is loaded with places the locals love. Thanks to this project (and some dedicated Staten Island bar hopping), I’ve found some I love, too.
Staten Island bar hopping (as well as hopping through Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan) is research for my upcoming book, which will feature original artwork of favorite neighborhood spots and stories about what makes them great. You can see some of the art I’ve done here, where you can purchase prints and original artwork of these great, good bars, dives and taverns of New York.
(Read more about Staten Island bar hopping here.)