Inside Duff’s Bar, Home to Brooklyn’s Metalheads and A Piece of New York’s Music History

Duff's 1990 Cadillac outside of his namesake bar.  Courtesy of J. Duff.
Duff’s 1990 Cadillac outside of his namesake bar.
Courtesy of J. Duff.

Duff’s Brooklyn is not the sort of place you’re likely to forget. Located just off the BQE on Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg’s Southside, the bar is reminiscent of New York’s bygone eras. The dim red glow of the bar’s interior is literally covered floor to ceiling in metal and horror memorabilia and music from the likes of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Judas Priest and Alekhine’s Gun blasts from the jukebox that sits adjacent to the front door. To top it all off Duff’s offers one of the best happy hours in the city, serving $1 PBRs from 6 to 9 PM, seven days a week.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a square inch of untouched canvas inside the place. The walls are plastered with framed show flyers, laminated backstage passes, signed drumheads and that’s just the start of it. There are goat skulls, crucifixes, framed guitars and a prize wheel called “The Wheel of Misfortune” where contestants stand to win a variety of prizes which include, but are not limited to, free top shelf drinks, a dog biscuit that must be consumed and a “Coney Island Whitefish”–a shot of Baileys served in a condom.

Jimmy Duff, the bar’s owner and namesake, is a character unto himself. He cuts an imposing figure, standing at 6 feet 4 inches, 280 pounds with a long graying beard. He is friendly with just about every legendary metal musician you can think of. He’s been drawn into comic strips, shared a bottle of whiskey with Dimebag Darrell (the bottle is on display in the bar) and drives a 1990 Cadillac hearse, which has won him the Coney Island Mermaid Parade car show on three separate occasions.

“Nowadays young people have a lot of options in terms of where they can go hear, like, extreme music or hard rock, heavy metal, that type of thing,” Jimmy explains to me. “But back in ‘99, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, especially in Manhattan… Me and my friends, we’d go to shows and just kind of bounce around, but we didn’t really have a home, so to speak.”

Duff and the late Dimebag Darrell in 2004.  Courtesy of J. Duff.
Duff and the late Dimebag Darrell in 2004.
Courtesy of J. Duff.

At that time Jimmy was working in bars and nightclubs around the city, so when the opportunity came along to start his own bar in Hell’s Kitchen, he picked up a partner and dove in headfirst. They named the place Bellevue Bar and Jimmy began building the world that would consume the next 16 years of his life.

The bar would move several times over the years, spending a brief period in North Williamsburg before settling down at its current location on Marcy Avenue in 2008. After a falling out with his former partner, Jimmy decided to go solo with the venture and renamed the bar “Duff’s”–a title that nobody could ever take away from him.

Duff's three cars at the time --a 1988 Cadillac Hearse, 1968 Cadillac Fleetwood, and 1978 Cadillac Hearse--outside the bar's second location, at 28 North 3rd Street (open from 2004 to 2008). Photo courtesy of J. Duff.
Duff’s three cars at the time –a 1988 Cadillac Hearse, 1968 Cadillac Fleetwood, and 1978 Cadillac Hearse–outside the bar’s second location, at 28 North 3rd Street (open from 2004 to 2008).
Courtesy of J. Duff.
Jimmy Duff's 1984 Cadillac Hearse outside the bar in its first location, in 2001. Photo courtesy of J. Duff.
Jimmy Duff’s 1984 Cadillac Hearse outside the bar in its first location, in 2001.
Courtesy of J. Duff.

Unsurprisingly, the bar has become a stopping point for bands on tour over the years, many of the photographs and pieces of memorabilia signed by musicians who have come through to drink at the bar. Kerry King, Peter Steele, Lemmy Kilmister and Jimmy Fallon are just a few of the names that have been known to frequent the spot.

To Jimmy, Duff’s is just an extension of his personal interests, a documentation of his life’s experiences and the people he’s met along the way. Nearly everything in the bar was constructed by Jimmy himself, from the laminated tabletops to benches made from coffins. He estimates that he’s put about 7,000 hours into building out and decorating the place. “It’s all been accumulated over the last 16 years,” he explains of the bar’s elaborate decor. “Some of it has been donated, but mostly collected by me, made by me… It’s kind of my hobby I guess, it keeps me busy, it keeps me out of trouble.” In that way the bar is an entity unto itself. It lives, breathes and evolves over time as Jimmy puts ever more of his time and himself into it.

The interior of Duff's.  Courtesy of J. Duff.
The interior of Duff’s.
Courtesy of J. Duff.

Jimmy is the kind of bar-owner who likes to get to know his customers. On a typical night you can find him at a table in the back chatting it up with some of the regulars or introducing himself to a couple of guys he’s never met before. It’s those sorts of interactions that have kept him in the bar business for more than 15 years. “The people…especially the people that come here, I enjoy hanging around them, drinking,” he explains. “You know, we have a lot of similar interests… with music, lifestyle, and everything else. I drink with everybody; we have a good time.

“People come here from all over the country, from Europe or South America, wherever… they’ll be here walking around all wide-eyed and they tell me, ‘I feel like I’m home here. You know what I mean? It feels like home’… And really that’s the ultimate compliment and so, to me, those are very gratifying words.”

Duff and staff at the bar's anniversary party in 2015.  Courtesy of J. Duff.
Duff and staff at the bar’s anniversary party in 2015.
Courtesy of J. Duff.

Admittedly a lot has changed since the Bellevue days. Hell’s Kitchen was like the Wild West and the gentrification of Williamsburg was only just beginning. “Heavy metal and hard rock was a blue collar thing,” Jimmy recalls. “I mean, back in the day, you went to a show, there were auto mechanics and house painters, people who worked with their hands. And those types of people certainly don’t live in Manhattan anymore.” Back then, he says, “there were a million ways to get into trouble in New York… to have fun and do fringe things, underground things.”

The bar is his way of hanging on to all that, of preserving a piece of the world that he came from. “It’s really one of the things that I have left, you know, I’m trying to keep a slice of that, of my perception of the old school in New York. So for the younger people, they kind of get to experience that… hopefully a little bit, you know?

“People love to complain about the city and this, and that. And I was guilty of it too. But today, right now, this is as good as it’s going to get. Because it’s just going to be more gentrified, cost more money, get more expensive. And people love to bash on the hipsters and everything else. But it’s like, be careful what you wish for because once they’re gone, then what replaces them?”

Duff’s Brooklyn; 168 Marcy Avenue, Williamsburg

Previously: Why Sunny’s May Be Brooklyn’s Most Culturally Significant Bar


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