Brooklyn is filled with beautiful bars and restaurants—spaces like Llama Inn, Lilia, Sisters, and Donna, constructed out of white marble and tiles, concrete flooring, and light wood paneling. The effect is: Brooklyn, right now. It’s lovely.
But, sometimes, don’t you kind of miss less-than-beautiful bars? The kind filled with beer paraphernalia and nicknacks, covered in dark wood and awash in browns, maroon and taupe? The ones that don’t serve cocktails with six ingredients; they pour shots and old American beers on draft. They are lived in, and they feel that way. They are, in a word, comfortable.
Now, John Roberts—the man who brought the world the pickleback and Bushwick Country Club—and Tom Chadwick of Dram have brought this bar to Williamsburg. It is a place that really does feel like “the 50s crossed with 1974,” as Roberts describes it, where you can drink Michelob amber on draft, sit in dark vinyl banquette booths, and even order a delicious 16oz ribeye steak from a Michelin-recommended chef until 3am for a mere $24. Here, tan and cream vintage wall tiles and lamp shades with beer logos will make you feel you are revisiting your favorite bar from a 1970s young-adulthood you never had. And though it is just one month old, you can find all of this at The Starlight.
But why did Roberts and Chadwick, two successful proprietors, want to open another bar? Seems unlikely but, in a town of drinking establishments galore, Roberts and Chadwick saw a hole in the market, and it relates to that affordable steak.
“I just wanted like a steak and a baked potato that’s not $85,” said Roberts, sitting at the end of The Starlight’s long reclaimed bowling alley bar. He sipped a Michelob amber out of a 19 and 1/4 oz barrel mug, another throw-back and otherwise unavailable offering. “If I wanted to,” Roberts goes on about his hypothetical dream steak, “I could just pick it up like a Snickers bar and be like, ‘I’m eating a steak.’”
Roberts acquired Natasha Pogrebinsky, chef at Long Island City’s acclaimed Bear, to make this happen. Pogrebinsky knew Roberts as a patron at Bushwick Country Club. It turned out that getting her to sign on for the job was not a tough task.
“You know, they were looking for someone in the kitchen with this awesome 70s vibe, but not like a theme park, just one that feels like comfort food, and kind of nostalgic but not kitschy,” said Pogrebinsky, who had stepped out of the kitchen to present me and a friend with some incredible potato-filled and caramelized onion pierogies, Moroccan tinned sardines with lemon and rye toast, and high-end house-made jalepeño peppers stuffed with cream cheese and sharp cheddar, and wrapped in a spring roll wrappers and deep-fried. “And I’m like, that’s what I do!”
Pogrebinsky also gave Roberts the steak of his dreams at that outrageously-low price (“I don’t know if it’s going to be here forever at that price,” says Pogrebinsk, but Roberts just intends to sell more Michelob to make up for it), a French Onion soup, and two burgers named after each owner: The Tom, a flat-top lean 5oz American cheeseburger for just five bucks, and the John, a double stack Kobe-brisket blend at 8oz with sharp cheddar and wedge fries for $15. The burgers are, by far, the most popular order, says Pogrebinsky, who keeps the kitchen open until 1am on weekdays, and the absolutely all too rare hour of 3am on weekends.
Before heading back to make more classy comfort food, Pogrebinsky offers us her personal favorite. “I love the pickles we have with pickled beets and a pickled egg—nobody does pickled eggs anymore,” she says with a giddy smile. “You wanna try? I’ll send you one over.”
The bar is tended by a lot of cocktail experts from the best joints in town—Milk & Honey, Donna, Death & Co., Dutch Kills, The Shanty—who, says Selma, behind the bar that night, “just want to go back to [their] roots—kind of start doing shots and serve beers and just have fun again.” So while there are a few cocktails, they’re simple—just two or three ingredients, not seven. Tom Chadwick’s full drink list is written on a long panel-chalkboard above the bar and it doesn’t get much more complicated than draft beers between $5 and $8, cans between $4 and $7, and two red and white wines at $9 bucks. (But, the man does come from Dram, so he also slipped in a lineup of Amoros and rums, if you you’re unable to leave your spirits behind.)
And if you are not too busy ingesting moderately priced items and being quite comfortable, head all the way to the back of the bar—past the vinyl booths, past the kitchen and bathrooms. Just before you reach the back door, you’ll find Skee-Ball, complete with paper tickets, won with every 20,000 points (not difficult) that will get you actually desirable toy-rewards, like a little slinky, or a whoopee cushion.
Ultimately, Roberts and Chadwick have done with The Starlight that which they have set out to do: make a space that (riffing off of four loved and lived-in bars from Philly and Jersey) gives you indulgent helpings of nostalgia from pre-Internet America, cheap alcohol, and delicious food, served late—and all in a space that will make you forget that Brooklyn 2016 is just beyond the bounds of a sequins-covered sign that reads “The Starlight,” like a blazing beacon, on Grand Avenue.
And, the name? That is derived from another commodity we have precious little of in the city: “I was flying back from California visiting a friend, and—I love window seats—I was looking out the window and the sun was setting,” says Roberts. “And all of the sudden, stars! Over the desert. And I was like, Starlight!”
So, lovers of beer and steak: head over to The Starlight. Chadwick and Roberts have proved they are great at noticing exactly what you are missing, and providing it for you.
The Starlight; 596 Grand St., Williamsburg
All photos by Jane Bruce