Twenty years ago, St. Marks was a totally different place, crawling with crusty punks and cheap dives. Nowadays, it’s not as grimy, but it is ripe with tourists, NYU lanyards, and restaurants. There remains one reminder from decades ago; a less observant person might just miss it walking down the street. It’s a basement bar with only a dusty red sign that says, “GRASSROOTS TAVERN,” in between Mamoun’s and yet another smoke shop.
Walking in, the first thing I often notice is the smell. On any given day, it’s a bit like piss. It’s dark and the ceilings are low, the people quiet and low-key, but on a weekend night, the bar is always packed.
It may be the darts–which I find myself playing for hours, beer in hand–or maybe it’s the jukebox–the music is never too loud to have a conversation, and the songs played are consistently classics, from Aretha, to the Stones, to Howlin’ Wolf.
Maybe it’s because I can order food directly to the bar, or maybe it’s the burnt popcorn bowls they sell for only a dollar. But it is also very possible that it is the unbelievably cheap drinks and no-nonsense mood that makes Grassroots so special.
At the measly price of about nine dollars I can get a pitcher of Budweiser, Bud Light, or Coors. That’s if I’m feeling thrifty. For the price of 12 dollars I can get Red Hook or Bass Ale and that’s usually what I do. I never drink a pitcher alone, so it’s often two or three dollars on the table per person. The beer is never stale, and, if I had wanted a different choice, they have an impressive variety of drafts.
But it’s not just the beer that’s cheap. When I went a few nights ago, my stomach was bothering me, so I decided to stick to whiskey. A glass of Maker’s Mark on the rocks is six dollars, and they don’t pour light. In fact, all of their drinks are strong. No great specials here, no fancy martinis and gimlets, but that’s not what I come to Grassroots for.
When it comes to cocktails, they only have a few, which are written on the bar mirror in purple marker. It changes seasonally; right now they have a blackberry bourbon lemonade, a spiked ice tea, and a sangria, which all go for just five dollars.
Let me put it this way: Grassroots is a dive bar. Depending on how busy it is, sometimes I’ll have a great conversation with the bartenders, but more often, they quickly pour my drink and move on to the next customer. These bartenders aren’t here to touch your shoulder and help you make a drink choice best for your vibe. They pour your drink, take your money, and don’t stick around when you leave your tip on the table. They just do good service.
There’s something I’ve been trying to get at in this review, and it’s not just the drinks or the lighting. It’s not the sticky tables or the local crowd who seem to be there every night, sitting right on the left side of the bar. In a sense, Grassroots feels like home. It’s comfortable, unintimidating, no bullshit. It is quite simply my go-to spot.
When I think of Manhattan bars, I think of cocktails with popsicles, cookie shots, and drinks that are chemical experiments. I think of the expensive stuff: 1 OAK, Booker and Dax, Spitzer’s. But when I’m looking for a pitcher, a game of darts, good bartenders, and a place where I can have a good conversation, Grassroots is a dimly lit haven in a world full of 10-dollar beers.