Sixteen years ago, New Zealand native Katipai Richardson-Wilson moved to New York City with her friend Amy Cole. They started working at top-notch bars and hospitality groups—Richardson-Wilson at the Breslin and Williamsburg’s Basik, and Cole with Standard Group hotels, among others.
But Richardson-Wilson needed a change as she approached a milestone birthday. “Finally I was like, I don’t want to be a 40-year-old bartender. So, ok, I’ll create my own space and work in the bar I own,” she said matter-of-factly, sitting beside the brass-top bar at brand-new Gowanus cocktail spot, Dirty Precious. “My 40th birthday was yesterday—apparently, I’m really good with deadlines.”
Indeed, Richardson-Wilson, along with Cole and designer friend Shana Sandberg, achieved the impossible: opening a bar, in the neighborhood of their dreams, in New York City, on time. Richardson-Wilson’s goal was to open the first day of spring. “Then I looked at the calendar and it was a Monday, so I said, let’s do a friends and family opening that Thursday.” And as we sat and sipped an incredible bottled rosé cider (Richardson calls it “summer water”) and delicious cocktails last Thursday, it was, indeed, Dirty Precious’s two-week anniversary.
And the space itself is gorgeous. At first, Richardson-Wilson happened upon the rental right next door. She thought it was perfect. It was on a corner, there was a basement, “tick, tick, tick,” she recounted of the hypothetical boxes it checked. But then she learned Dirty Precious’s eventual, actual space was for rent. “Oh, fuck me,” said Richardson Wilson. “It’s so big and beautiful—and it’s more money than I want to pay,” she lamented. “But I couldn’t walk away from it—it was like a terrible relationship, but we worked things out.”
On Third Avenue in Gowanus—a stretch of the neighborhood that is, on one hand, developing quickly, but on the other, still quiet with plenty of raw edges—Dirty Precious sits inconspicuously, like a diamond in the rough. “[Gowanus] is gritty and industrial, but then you can come in here and think, oh, wow, look at this thing of beauty that exists,” says Richardson-Wilson.
And that is what it feels like to walk into the quite large and lofty space, stepping, as you do, through a 1927-designed Art Deco brass door, now re-installed in a steel and textured-glass façade. “We had this beautiful raw space, and built everything in with beautiful little notes,” said Richardson Wilson. “Not to get all gendered but it’s interesting working with a woman,” she said of designer and co-partner Shana Sandberg, “there ended up being all this attention to detail.”
And yet, Dirty Precious is more than just another beautiful Brooklyn-made object. It is, after all, called Dirty Precious. “I wanted a bar that reminded me of home,” said Richardson-Wilson. So while the bar’s base has a familiar industrial-modern finish, ornate knickknacks from around the world are added throughout to create something more interesting and complex. In front, your eye is drawn to several lanterns made of zinc and muslin fabrics (by Sandberg herself); and further back, an opulent chandelier brought by Sandberg’s grandmother from Eastern Europe hangs above the bar’s far end. Pillows, made from Mud Cloths from Mali, sit atop front oak Banquettes. And in the back “sexy room”—not its official name, but it fits—a large canvas sheet, made of a reclaimed historic tarp—is suspended below the ceiling. Then there are fig trees, New Zealand ferns, and crystal and art from Richardson-Wilson’s family, sent from New Zealand.
But the most-fitting embodiment of the concept “Dirty Precious” is the creation story behind its cocktail menu. One night, Richardson-Wilson sat at home when a friend canceled dinner plans. She opened the fridge: no food. She’d already used Seamless for lunch. “I didn’t deserve a double Seamless day, and so I had mezcal for dinner and came up with the cocktail menu,” said Richardson-Wilson. “By the time I got to ‘One Night Stand,’ I was really cracking myself up too much,” she recalled, laughing. (You order this cocktail with the following menu prompts: “Look into your bartender’s eyes. Tell them your deepest desires. Fall in love with a thing in a glass. Think about it the next day. Or don’t. Life is short. Take big gulps.”)
Dirty Precious’s drink list is made of the things Richardson-Wilson loves. “It’s been very empowering,” she says, about putting it together. One of her favorites is a variation on the Pisco Sour; called the “Bette Davis Eyes,” made of pisco, mandarine napoleon, lemon, egg white, and finished with dried blue flower petals. There’s also the “Ti For Two,” a punch party with aged and dark rum, pineau, rooibos tea, hibiscus, and lemon. Richardson-Wilson says she is not a traditional fan of rum punches, but the recipe recalls a trip taken to Sri Lanka with a friend: women were not supposed to drink beer, but Sri Lanken men would sneak it to them in a tea pots, disguised, “so people wouldn’t be like, ‘ugh, those people!” Richardson-Wilson recounts, laughing.
Then of course there is her favorite thing in the world, that bottled rosé cider—yes, cider plus rosé in one bottle—the Wolffer Rosé Cider, aka “all your dreams come true,” as described on the menu; wine on tap; local beers on draft and in bottles; bubbly; and glasses and bottles of rosé, red, and white wines. And to balance all that out, Richardson-Wilson veers back to the Dirty end of the spectrum. “There are beer and shot specials with everything as well—I kind of live on Modelo and tequila.” Finally, there are a few small snacks, like cheese straws, an old recipe from her childhood. “Just enough to keep you sober.”
Richardson-Wilson was also careful to include low ABV drinks, and non-alcoholic “refreshers.” “As I get older, I know people aren’t drinking like they did when they were 22,” she says. “Except for me, I’m still drinking like I’m 22.” In New York, it can feel hard to go out if you’re not drinking, or just taking a little break from it, or, of course, if you’re expecting. Richardson-Wilson wanted to acknowledge that, and provide a solution. “It’s not healthy to only socialize when drinking.”
And a low-key outing is also something that she thinks is in-line with Gowanus. “I think what I love most about [the neighborhood] is that people are a little bit older,”—her friend has a name for that—“PLUs” or “People Like Us”—“and they’re doing work that makes them happy, and they’ve been doing it for a long time,” she said. “There is a sense of community, and it feels more real; it feels like they’re my neighbors, and we want to help each other out—you don’t find that many places like that in the city anymore.”
Which is part of the reason she says that, for example, she hasn’t added an extensive list of spirits to the back bar yet. “I want to know what people here like drinking—I don’t want to impose things on the bar program. I want to stay true to our personality.”
I said it sounded like she’d made a lot of progress: She started off with a complicated relationship with the building (obsession) and ended with one of reciprocity with her neighbors. It was nice how things had evolved, I thought. “Now it’s perfect,” she said, noting how, already, rims of customers’s cocktail glasses had added patina to her brass bar. “Great,” she said. “Perfect.”
317 3rd Avenue, Gowanus
photos by Jane Bruce