In the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg, away from the bustle and crowd of Bedford Avenue, there’s an unassuming new bar that boasts small bites, strong cocktails and a leave-be attitude. For people with good taste who crave a relaxed atmosphere, Exley is about to be a new neighborhood favorite.
Named for the famous New York writer and drinker Frederick Exley, the bar is the product of friends Brandon Chamberlain and Matthew Ricke, who wanted to create a “third space” for friends to gather between work and home to converse and share a solid drink. With the combined forces of Chamberlain’s extensive restaurant background and Ricke’s eye for design after years of working for publisher TASCHEN, the bar is poised to become a staple of the neighborhood, funded in part through community crowdsourcing on the platform Smallknot. They’ve set the stage in an abandoned auto body repair shop that Ricke found advertised in an all-caps, misspelled post on Craigslist. When they arrived to check out the space, says Chamberlain, “the roof was just falling in. It was nothing.” The duo, however, found the crumbling space to be an opportunity awaiting seizure, and Ricke quickly got to work designing Exley.
From the ceiling (constructed from the wood floors of a Catholic school in Virginia) to the trio of massive windows, formerly garage doors, facing the street (which feature what Ricke calls “a natural moving installation” in the ever-moving BQE beyond) to the enormous Brendan Smith painting that anchors the bar and gives a quiet glow to the bartenders’ silhouettes before it, each asset of the bar has been utilized to maximum effect. Even the custom wooden taps on the beer draught come from the same wood as the bar top itself. What emerges is a space that feels both cool and comfortable, and altogether unpretentious.
The menu reflects the same attitude, inspired by classics and lifted by creative twists. For example, the rotating draught list is comprised of American craft brews like Speakeasy White Lightning and Stone Smoked Porter, and in the sparse but thoughtful cocktail list, the Vodka Presbyterian (Exley’s favorite libation) gets a bit of lovage to spruce it up. The De La Louisiane, a play on the classic Manhattan, gets a splash of absinthe (which I enjoyed, being both a New Yorker and an adopted Parisienne). When I visited and chatted up the guys, Chamberlain offered me a sneak peek at a new cold-weather cocktail he had been working on. Served in a warm tumbler, it involves hibiscus tea, rum, ginger, honey and lemon. They hadn’t yet dreamed up a name for it, but in my fond memory of this winter warmer I’m calling it Jenna’s Cold Medicine, as it is far more delicious (and probably better at healing whatever ails you) than anything else you could drink in the chilly months of a New York winter.
In the tiny kitchen off to the side of the bar, the guys make small bites that are just enough to allay an alcohol-induced case of the munchies, featuring a ham and cheese sandwich that’s boosted by gruyere and gin pickles, and a PB&J that’s composed of Nutella, peanut butter, and a strawberry-jalepeÃ±o jam that Ricke created just for fun.
On Election Night they pulled the projector screen down behind the bar, broadcast the returns and served up drinks like the Mitt Rumney and the Balanced Budget. As the bar settles into the neighborhood, Exley plans to feature releases for local authors, movie nights and other events to draw imbibers into their cozy nooks. They should have no trouble with that: in a city teeming with overwrought nightlife concepts and exerted attempts at what should be simple — comfort — Exley, like their menu and ambience, gives an experience that feels familiar on the slant of the new.