When Odessa shuttered its doors early Sunday morning, New York City bid farewell to one of its finest dive bars. For many years Odessa had defied the ritzification of the neighborhood, continuing to offer up cheap drinks, so-so service, and an empty retreat on a weekend night. Seriously, a few months ago my friend and I found ourselves the only customers at midnight on a Saturday. Given all that, no one was surprised when the curtain came down. But the East Village will feel different without it.
Though I’d grown up in New York City, I hadn’t ventured much downtown until our crew’s music guru discovered a string of used CD stores on St. Mark’s Place. In the 1990s the East Village felt mesmerizing and exotic. The first time I set foot in Odessa, I wasn’t even asked for my fake ID. I sat down with some older friends in the corner booth, and haven’t worried about where to have a drink since.
The scene at Odessa was the opposite of Hemingway’s clean, well-lighted place- a dingy mix of diner booths, Christmas lights and alt-rock. The bartenders often looked distant and hungover, probably because they used to be patrons there. To strike up a conversation with one, you needed only mention Ziggy, the iconic bartender who held court there for many years.
A kiwi and diehard Knicks fan, Zig brought an infectious energy to Odessa, along with a generosity of spirits that infuriated management and sometimes cost him his job. Everyone knew Ziggy, and when people asked how we knew each other, we’d explain that our fathers were traveling salesmen together in the British empire. Together we concocted the Odessa Slammer – equal parts Jim Beam, gin and Southern Comfort – a drink so awful that we’d often forget the recipe out of self-preservation.
Despite its near-perfect location on Avenue A between 7th and 8th streets, Odessa never caught on with the roving masses. The mood was always mellow, with chill playlists at just the right volume to both enjoy the music and talk to your friends. Not only were drinks cheap, but so was the food from the next door diner, which is staying open. Some folks love those pierogis, but my favorite snack was a hearty helping of cheese fries from Ray’s two doors now, which you could bring in no worries.
They didn’t care about much at Odessa. It was a regular destination for the guy who sells the light-up toys. Random dance parties would break out in the narrow corridor between the front door and the bar. Little groups would pop in, look disappointed and leave, while we told stories relaxing on the corner booth cushions, under a bullfighter painting. A TV was installed a few years ago, but no one ever watched it. Half-hearted drink specials adorned the chalkboard outside, but no one went there for gimmicks. It was just a dark place to throw down with good people.
I spent some time on my community board’s committee for reviewing liquor license applications, and fear that commercial rent spikes will lead to the demise of all dive bars in non-gentrified neighborhoods, save perhaps the occasional building owner who owns his own watering hole. Each new applicant spoke of the upscale cocktails and fancy menus. Perhaps they were just appeasing the older community board crowds, but maybe there is no business model for selling $4 beers after happy hour, especially if college kids are willing to pay more. In the summer of 2012, new management bought the building that housed Odessa, and from there it was just a matter of time. There was no way a space like Odessa would be able to survive a lease renewal, so everyone just carried on as they were, enjoying the ride.
At least the East Village, for all of its turbulence, still has some amazing spots like Manitoba’s, Grassroots Tavern and Otto’s Shrunken Head. A bar will fill the physical void at 119 Avenue A. Odessa’s diner will remain. Ziggy still bounces around the hood. Let’s not make mountains out of molehills here. But farewell to that red shag carpet sloping across Odessa’s ceiling, we will always miss you.