A cocktail shaker of talents
He’s been described in one customer review at amazon.com as a “standout barkeep, natural drinking companion, documentarian, craftsman, artist, and writer.”
But author/illustrator/bartender John Tebeau, BS ’86, sticks with the more humble “professional host,” who recently published his first book, Bars, Taverns, and Dives New Yorkers Love: Where to Go, What to Drink (Rizzoli International Publications, 2018).
Talk about a labor of love. Tebeau’s book showcases more than 70 venues spanning New York’s five boroughs. Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance is the spot where he can be found “hosting” three afternoons a week, and he knows of what he speaks. The book delivers expert commentary that any good pub crawler needs: When to go, where to sit, what to drink, house recipes, and how to get there. Each write-up in the book is accompanied by an “illustrated impression” by the author.
“I come from a cartooning background and I think buildings are fun to draw in a cartoony style,” Tebeau says. “A building lends itself to caricature. You can exaggerate its angles and definitely pull forth some of its personality and soul by drawing it.”
Bars, Taverns, and Dives… is an outgrowth of a self-motivated art project that began in 2013 and continues to evolve. Part guidebook, part love letter, and part art book (“Not fine art,” Tebeau is quick to clarify) the content comprises practical information, history, trivia, recipes, and more.
“I did it because I love these places,” Tebeau says. “Turns out a lot of other people do too.”
Tebeau sells limited-edition originals and digital prints from the book via his website, including images of his favorite joints in Ann Arbor. Many of those Ann Arbor spots remain close to his heart. They set the bar very high when he went searching for NYC substitutes that met his expectations.
The beer garden: Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden & Dominick’s
“I grew up in Muskegon (Mich.), so I love trees,” Tebeau says. “My parents would take us to the state park all the time for picnics and parties. They’d bring gin-and-tonics and beer, get the grill going. The park was like a giant beer garden for my parents and their friends. The best beer gardens have a cozy feeling of good cheer. All are welcome — young and old. The food is hearty, the beer is cold. It’s leafy and shady and loaded with enormous old trees. And any place you can have a beverage or food outside — I love it. That’s what I love about beer gardens, and especially Dominick’s.”
As a New Yorker, Tebeau finds the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden (in Astoria, Queens) fits the bill.
The conversation bar: The Old Town Bar & Arbor Brewing Company
“In short, this is a place where the music or the television does not set the tone. It’s all about talk. And I always felt that way at Arbor Brewing Company,” says Tebeau. “It’s a wonderful, easy, central place to meet up and have a drink, some eats, and a very good time, whether you’re hanging out with a big group or just a couple of friends.”
The Old Town, near Union Square in Manhattan, is one of Tebeau’s favorite “conversation bars” in NYC. The tavern owner is a fifth-generation Brooklynite who actually describes it that way. And while the Old Town does have a TV, it’s hardly ever on. “Even if it is, you rarely hear it because what you hear is voices,” Tebeau says. “The noise you hear is defined by many people in conversation.
“A lot of times, sitting in a place I love, I find it’s not so much about drinking, though I love a couple of drinks,” he continues. “I just enjoy being in a place known for cheer and good feeling.”
Tebeau also enjoys contributing to that cheer and good feeling. He created logos, six-pack cases, and tap handles in Arbor Brewing Company’s early days. The founders even sport tattoos he designed.
The burger joint: J.G. Melon & The Del Rio
As a Michigan student, Tebeau was a devotee of the Del Rio. Like J.G. Melon in Manhattan, the Del Rio (which sadly disappeared in 2003) was famous for its burgers. And what makes an awesome bar burger?
“Starch, fat, and salt,” Tebeau says. “If you’re drinking, you have to have all three.”
Plus, it needs to be prepared properly, he says. At J.G. Melon, Tebeau learned the ideal fat content in a good bar burger is about 18 percent, “because a burger isn’t good if it doesn’t have that much fat.” It also helps if the cook sears the meat on a thick, flame-heated, stainless-steel griddle as they do at J.G. Melon. And finally, says Tebeau, “it has to be served on a crappy bun. It’s got to be mushy, like a potato roll or a heated sesame-seed bun. Mushy, white, and crappy.”
When Tebeau returned to Ann Arbor as an alum (after stints in Chicago and San Francisco), he was delighted to find the Del Rio was still such a “wonderful, weird place to go; always rowdy and crowded.” He often stopped for pizza and a pitcher after racquetball with his friend, radio engineer/musician Bob Skon. And while Manhattan’s J.G. Melon attracts a rich and powerful clientele, it’s still a late-night burger joint at its core, Tebeau notes. “These kinds of places exist in their own time zone.”
The sports bar: Stan’s & Fraser’s Pub
“I’m not much of a sports-bar guy, but if I want to watch a game, I want to be somewhere that people appreciate it,” Tebeau says. “I think Fraser’s Pub [in Ann Arbor] is kind of perfect in that way.”
Even as a college student, Tebeau favored the places “where everybody went: grown-ups and townies and students and professors, old people and young people.”
Stan’s near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx is similar, he says. “The place gets just packed before every Yankees home game. It’s one of the loudest, rowdiest sports bars I’ve ever seen. Everyone goes here before, during, and after Yankee games. And if you have no ticket, you stay right there and listen to the crowd roaring down the street.”
The happy hour place: Brooklyn Inn & Ashley’s
Certain places simply shine at happy hour, says Tebeau. He describes these happy-hour havens — Ashley’s in Ann Arbor, for example — as “the quintessential third place.”
“There’s a certain feeling of people getting off work and having a couple of beers at 5:30 that is unlike the weekend feeling of watching a ballgame, or being out late on a Friday night when you just want to party. It’s that between-work-and-home feeling. It’s that quintessential third place.”
Happy hours often take on a ritualistic vibe, and the bar should be able to nurture that ritual, Tebeau says. He found that convivial sanctuary at Ashley’s when he was a student, and again as a returning, professional alum. Tebeau and his Michigan Radio colleagues consistently sat at a front table by the window so they could watch people on State Street between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
The chapel-like Brooklyn Inn serves up that same energy, he says. “It’s a beautiful, bare-bones place. No food. Just a jukebox. The staff is consistently welcoming, the price is right. It’s got an old mahogany bar from the 1880s, 20-foot ceilings, stained glass, and huge mirrors. The boss says the room itself is ‘sacrosanct.’”
Easy elegance and cozy hospitality: Neary’s & The Earle
A historical element can lend tremendous personality to a bar, Tebeau says. Manhattan’s Neary’s opened in 1967 and the artist describes it as “so warm and wonderful. It just feels cozy and well-tended. Kind of like the way I used to feel at the Earle.”
The Earle opened in Ann Arbor in 1977 and, much like Neary’s, it exudes understated elegance and cozy hospitality.
Neary’s founder, Jimmy Neary, can usually be seen chatting up the customers, who feel more like old friends than patrons. One of Tebeau’s fondest memories is meeting 96-year-old Mad magazine artist Al Jaffee there, and being escorted by Jimmy Neary to Jaffee’s regular booth. “That’s good hostmanship,” Tebeau says.
“It’s snug and lively and is a Manhattan stalwart that’s been there 50 years,” he says. “The Earle has been around almost as long. It’s always fun to go to a place that is one or two steps above all the other spots downtown.”
Cheers to that!