In New York City, you can drink on a boat that never moves, in a bar the size of a tollbooth with virtually no exit, behind a freezer door in a deli, on rooftops overlooking the Hudson River, and makeshift rooftop bars gazing over the concrete that makes up the town. You can drink in back-alley speakeasies, monastery-themed venues, and even in a vintage passenger vessel-looking drinking den.
But not until this month were New Yorkers able to indulge in delectably concocted cocktails inside the city’s only subway bar.
Merchants’ Gate is the latest addition to the Turnstyle Underground Market, the subterranean market spanning a full city block that features 39 food stalls and shops, all directly connected to the 59th St-Columbus Circle subway station.
“Why drink in a subway station?” Dieter Seelig, one of the bar’s owners, asks rhetorically. “Well, here is the reason: you’re surrounded by great food, you’re close to transportation, it gets you out of the weather if it’s bad.”
In true New York style, the owners settled on a name that would pay homage to the location right below Central Park. The 1862 Board of Commissioners of Central Park decided to name the gates of entry to easily reference them, eventually landing on the idea of honoring “the vocations and groups who made New York City the great metropolis that it had become.” There are 20 original gates, from Inventors’ Gate on East 72nd Street to Naturalists’ Gate on West 77th Street and, of course, Merchants’ Gate at the traffic circle on Eighth Avenue.
The project—also owned by Joshua Friedman and Brian Stapleton (who partners with Seelig on a variety of other bars in Manhattan and Brooklyn)—has been a year in the making, time spent setting up the space and establishing appropriate drink and food menus.
In terms of cocktails, commuters can expect revamped versions of traditional drinks—think the Cadillac Manhattan (rye, sherry, Combier, Angostura, orange bitters) and the Merchants’ Spritz (Aperol, seedlip, orange blossom water, Prosecco)—to share space with draft beers and wines as well as mocktails and low-ABV drinks, which, according to Seelig, are the new frontier of drinking. “Nowadays, people aren’t getting these boozy, boozy cocktails,” he notes while sitting at the bar.
If it is food—and traditional New York food at that—that you’re after, you’re in luck: the destination offers a very limited, albeit very thought-out menu of pub grub intended to elevate common street food that most folks indulge in just upstairs by the park. “So, it’s not a dirty-water dog or a huge pretzel that’s been sitting out there drying for a week that you’re getting,” says Seelig. “It’s more about really great pretzels that are warm in your hands, they’re crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.” A short rib chili served with cheese and sour cream rounds out the menu, but visitors are encouraged to purchase food from the myriad of kiosks adjacent to the space, including Hey Hey Canteen, Los Viajeros, and Bolivian Llama Party, and consume them while nursing a drink at the bar—the only market destination open until 2 a.m. every night.
When prompted about the biggest challenge faced, Seelig mentions the stigma associated with being in a subway station. “I have plenty of friends who always [hang out] here in Hell’s Kitchen and just north of that,” he says. “And they used to talk about how this corridor used to be this absolute rat-infested scary tunnel and then people that haven’t been here in five years come down and they can’t believe that it’s bustling with commerce.”
Speaking of rats: does preparing food underground come with a side of rodent problems? “We’ve been working on this for almost a year and I don’t think we saw a single vermin, mouse, roach, nothing,” says the owner. “Honestly I would say [the location] is in better condition that most buildings we do bars in, I would say this is in better shape than 90% of them.”
Specific laws regulate their subterranean work, though: the staff can’t use deep fryers given the lack of a proper ventilation system (so no wings and no French fries here), all surfaces are treated with anti-inflammable spray, everything is made of steel or aluminum pipe, and the owners have to deal with the MTA instead of the usual Department of Buildings—a fact that, surprisingly, doesn’t elicit complaints by Seelig. “Things are specifically engineered towards protecting the subway station,” he explains.
Abiding by a different set of codes also affects the space’s look, feel, and decor: harking back to a time of saloons and traditional cocktails, Merchants’ Gate is all wood, tiles, and interesting vaulted ceilings, a properly set-up bar with bottles on display behind coiffed bartenders. The essence of the venue is captured by the mosaic that reads Merchants’ Gate behind the bar, a piece of decor that the owners really focused on: “One of the inspectors came and said, ‘You know this place kind of looks like a subway?’,” recalls Seelig. “And we’re like, yeah, dude. Obviously! We got that custom-made specifically!”
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