At least a few times a month, I find myself wandering around Park Slope, scanning a mental list of neighborhood spots to grab a beer. And every single time this happens, I hear myself muttering the same words: “Man, too bad Great Lakes shut down.”
It’s not that Great Lakes was that amazing of a bar — it was notoriously trip-over-chairs-dark and cavernous, with a smattering of beat up boardgames, threadbare loveseats and a less-than-thrilling beverage selection. But I was in college, and with its dirt cheap happy hour, Big Buck Hunter and generally unwashed clientele, it was as close to a college bar as you could get in… whatever version of Brooklyn existed right before this current one. What exactly made Great Lakes so great? It housed the all-time, hands-down best jukebox I have ever seen.
Night after night, my friends and I sauntered over to this corner dive for the music, first and foremost–a gleaming display of handwritten CD-Rs listing everything from The Ronettes to Pavement, from the Buzzcocks and Bauhaus to the Replacements, Lemonheads, Prince, Sleater-Kinney and Bonnie Raitt. And when our quarters ran dry, the bartenders threw on their own masterful playlists that mixed dreamy Yo La Tengo with the downhome twang of Drive By Truckers and the poppy sweetness of Rilo Kiley. Every drop of foamy PBR, every shot of warm well whiskey, tasted that much sweeter with each new track.
In today’s world of flashy internet jukeboxes and streaming radio, it’s tough to find a bar with truly stellar music. And as a professional beer writer and now-grown up drinker, I’ve found that it’s especially difficult to track down a beer bar whose playlists live up to the quality of their refined tap lists. Sure, there are joints with decent-to-fine Pandora stations, an old school jukebox stocked with classics or live music jammed into a corner, but in these places, music is never the draw. These guys are here to showcase their obscure kegs, detailed tasting notes and rare bottle pours with a myopic sense of duty that often eclipses atmospheric niceties like a well curated soundscape. To me and every other washed up, High Fidelity-worshipping beer geek, this misgiving is a crying shame.
In true New York fashion, however, the exception to this playlist-taplist disparity lies only a few blocks from Great Lakes’ former 5th Avenue home. Mission Dolores, one of four Brooklyn beer dens owned by brothers Ben, Seth and Mike Wiley, manages to please both the tastebuds and the eardrums on a nightly basis. My favorite Mission mixmaster is Dave Bombay, a bartender’s bartender who can shake a mean cocktail, wax poetic on a Saison’s spicy finish and put together a toe-tapping, head-bopping playlist that somehow sounds both familiar and exciting. It’s no surprise that Dave moonlights — er, daylights — as a radio DJ, hosting the Friday morning jam fest Knuckle Sandwich on well loved indie station WMFU.
When asked about his experience seeking out a bar whose music lives up to its drafts, Dave gives it to me straight. “I often find bars with great music but crap beer, or great tap lists where I have to suffer through the music,” he laments. But at Mission Dolores, as well as sister bars Glorietta Baldy, Bar Great Harry and The Owl Farm, the sound system never takes a backseat to the draft system, thanks in equal parts to the management and the staff. “At the risk of sounding biased,” he continues. “I think the Wiley bars are the only ones that have consistent tap lists and playlists that keep me asking ‘What the heck is that… because its awesome!’”
That aspect of surprise, that audible engagement, is an important one when selecting crowd pleasing tunes for a night behind the bar. “My favorite thing about being in control of the music is when a patron says, ‘Who is this? It’s great!’” Dave explains. If the quality and arrangement of a playlist is given half as much attention as the beer list, it’ll please curious customers all night, expanding their musical palates by introducing them to new artists while skillfully slipping in mainstays to keep them grooving — the ‘Gansetts and West Coast IPAs of music, if you will.
“Most of us drink to have a good time and relax, and I think the right music is a large part of that equation,” says Dave. “Your bartender needs to have an ear on the music and have some part of their mind attuned to the mood of the bar. I have known bartenders that will play whole albums of very interesting or cool music, but it’s totally alienating to 90% of their customers. Subsequently, I watch a lot of their customers leave after one drink.”
So how does Dave keep his barflies in such good spirits? “I think you need to give people time to have conversation, enjoy their beer, and make a new friend. I like to float through genres as long as the tempo and energy are correct — bars that always have their super busy loud music cranked to eleven from 4PM to 4AM are exhausting. I like it when you can watch a person visibly become more comfortable, start a conversation, ask a question, have a laugh.”
The right music also depends on a host of external elements. “I take each day for what it is. If it’s a slower, more dreary day, perhaps some Jimmy Smith or Ahmad Jamal-inspired jazz will set the mood for my four patrons, “ he says. “Once we get a couple more folks in, or a group or two, we might switch it up to something more driving but still mellow. Summer afternoon? Maybe some upbeat electric Texas blues. Obviously, if the bar is slamming, the tunes should be jamming. Stupid turn of phrase, but totally true.”
As a DJ, Dave always stays several records ahead. “Radio is always on my mind. I am constantly jotting artist and song notes and drawing arrows all over the page on what I think would work in a set,” he says. “I use the bar as a proving ground for some of my sets, to see how they flow and how I enjoy them while casually listening. The change in scenery can usually shake up my brain and reveal some awesome gems buried deep below the surface.”
Dave’s taste is quite eclectic, and if those electric Texas blues ain’t your bag, you can count on him to survey the scene and switch gears — except if it’s nearing last call. “The last thing I want to do is kill the mood or play a really polarizing song which will make people lose faith in my playlist,” he says. “Though, I do keep the really weird shit for 3-4AM.”
If you love your beer with side of good music, I wholeheartedly suggest a weeknight trip to Mission Dolores or Bed-Stuy’s Glorietta Baldy. And if you’re too busy bemoaning the loss of Great Lakes (and your youth) to make it out to hear Dave on the proverbial ones and twos, the good barkeep was kind enough to provide some sample playlists to give you a sense of the master at work.
The Scene: Busy Summer Friday, 9pm, 76F
The Ramones – Havana Affair
The Hamburglars – Robblitter
The Von Bondies – Been Swank
Art Brut – 18,000 Lira
The Clash – Police & Thieves
The Forms – We Didn’t Start the Fire
Tribe Called Quest – Can I Kick It
Mos Def – Brooklyn
Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Shimmy Shimmy Ya
Jah Connery – Honestly
Nas – Life’s a Bitch
Big Walt – Get Lifted
Notorious BIG – Everyday Struggle
The Scene: Mellow Winter Sunday, 5PM, 40F
Beach House – Lover of Mine
Toro y Moi – New Beat
Tame Impala – It is Not Meant to Be
Wilco – Sunken Treasure
Spoon – Don’t Make Me a Target
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Ingrid Bergman
Cults – You Know What I Mean
Pavement – Shady Lane
The National – Little Faith