Barfly: The Oak


Posted November 25, 2013 in Bar Reviews, Food and Drink

There’s a Christopher Hitchens quote somewhere about what a bar should be, or how it should receive you, or how its innate properties lend themselves to a limited but still consequentially different range of encounters. Once he died and was cleaned, gutted and mounted glass-eyed and bushy-tailed on Facebook, the boozer in question started using it as an ad for itself in various literary periodicals published out of Metropolis.

Prior to death and immediate canonisation, the old soak had become a reactionary pillock with prose as gouty as his extremities, but like all functioning alcoholics, he knew boozing intimately. He knew what made it tick. He was part of a rarified clique of the thirsties who were marked out not by a taste for the high life – anybody can have that – but the folding stuff to frequently afford it and the sensibilities to convincingly translate intoxicated highs to the sober page.

Anyway, it goes like this:

“My true bar should have an element of café-society to it; a place for newspapers and espressos as well as cocktails and basic food, and a place where you could bring your mother, if you had a mother, for a light lunch, as well as your mistress or male love, if you had a mistress or male lover, for a nightcap. I found this haven in New York some two decades ago, and it’s called* 

Sounds good, doesn’t it? On the search for a dispensary to replace the most local – which likely hadn’t changed too much, but had become a little too seedy and wet-brained for self esteem’s health after a sun-filled boozy summer – the reviewer dipped his figurative toe into the waters of The Oak, on the corner of Dame Street and Crane Lane. It was like digging up the treasure of the Spadas in the caves of Montecristo.

It just got bought and sold as a makeweight in the package deal for the Thomas Reads building, but it’s the jewel in the crown – not financially, but atmospherically. There’s a pleasing scale to the room: tall-ceilinged but relatively narrow for its depth, giving the right ratio of light-to-darkness that you want in a bar, and its corner siting gives it a double-prospect of two different scales and speeds, the traffic and bustle of Dame Street and the occasional pedestrian wanderer down Crane Lane.

It’s the interior rather than the situation that gives The Oak its name and seals the deal though: it’s lined with the fittings of an oak stateroom, salvaged from the old Cunard Line Mauretania, the sister ship of the tragically fated Lusitania. There’s a shop-worn sort of luxury to the place that comes from the richness of the early twentieth century joinery and a hundred years of use and polish. It’s heightened by the absence of more furniture than is needed; things are on the right side of spare.

There’s an elegance to The Oak that’s at odds with its doughty name – you sort of expect massive, thick furniture and banquettes – but it’s not an effete place. It’s a sort of long-limbed and ageless place, which is as complementary as the reviewer knows how to get.

*the Café Loup on 105 West 13th Street, NYC.

Words: Hugo Lamont / Photo: Adam Hartley

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