In 2010, I spent my 27th birthday at Elsa, the cocktail bar in the East Village named after the glamorous prohibition-era fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. It had been open just under two years that summer, and felt like an of-the-moment cocktail experience: Clean lines, a limited color palette (predominantly white, from its distinguishing and reclaimed wainscoting throughout), candle lighting, and a large, old sewing machine through which beer on tap was funneled. It managed to be vintage, modern, and timeless all at once, and therefore it felt perpetually fresh; the right place to remember the old and celebrate what was to come.
Then, in a New York City moment as classic as they come, Elsa’s landlord terminated their lease in 2014, hoping to replicate the bar’s success. It was the death of something still very much alive, and good at generating the exact kind of vital energy one hopes to find in New York City. Elsa’s closing, though, pointed to a shift already well underway: the departure of the young, creative, and entrepreneurial, en masse, to Brooklyn.
And so—as promised when it first closed—Elsa has found a new home in Brooklyn as well. Near the end of Atlantic Avenue that stretches toward the BQE and Brooklyn Bridge Park, it re-opened last month in the former dingy Last Exit bar. But now it has been fully gutted and rebuilt with striking new life from Home Studios, the design team that is also responsible for creating some of the city’s most beautiful spaces: Elsa’s sister-bar in Greenpoint, Ramona; the immaculate Sisters in Clinton Hill; and the sleek nordic beer haven, Tørst, on the opposite end of Greenpoint. In Cobble Hill, like the original Elsa, the new one reads loosely Art Deco; but its ultimate organizing principle feels like its own—one that cares mostly about the novel, inventive, and beautiful. But it also carries the essence of the East Village space. Home Studios re-incorporated sections of the original wainscoting and the same beer-dispensing sewing machine (plus some extra taps). And best of all, says co-owner Natalka Burian, a few other irreplaceable fixtures made the trip, too.
“The funny thing about the space is that the regulars from the East Village now live here,” she says. While Burian used to live around the corner from the original, she and her co-owner husband, Jay Schneider, now live three blocks from the Atlantic Avenue address, and their kids go to school in the neighborhood, too. It represents a more anchored home for Elsa than was possible in the East Village. Still, I wondered: How did they feel leaving Manhattan behind? “Great,” says Burian right away, with a convincing smile.
Home Studios founder and lead-designer behind the project, Oliver Haslegrave, said the effort to retain traces of the old was intentional. “With the new Elsa, we wanted the spirit and energy to remain the same,” he said. “Through the design process, we thought a lot about how we could translate that energy in an elevated way, into this new space and time.” For Haslegrave, that meant adding “more voluptuous architecture, more diverse and premium material combinations, and making every element a custom design (save for the soap dispensers).” In the old Elsa, friends had worked inventively to outfit the space in a way that looked more luxurious than, budget-wise, it really was—though still to fantastic effect.
When we arrived to the new space, the team was preparing for the night’s shift. Beverage director Scott Schneider, who has been with Elsa since its earliest days in the East Village, built the menu with some notably good-looking newcomers. Along with their signature and classic cocktails, we tasted two debut drinks, the Harpooned Heart and Queen of Swords: The first came in a pretty aqua tiki mug and was a mix of vodka, coconut, almond, vanilla, mint, lime, and peppercorn bitters; the second, in two separated sections, lemongrass and hibiscus-infused whiskey rested on top of house-made matcha horchata. Despite the fact that each reads sweet, neither tasted like it. It was as if we were drinking slightly alcoholic healthy juices—which was of course slightly dangerous and fantastic.
This spring, Elsa will unveil an outdoor space with climbing vines and plant life, and there you can nurse their up-and-coming frozen rosé with watermelon. If you get any hunger pangs as you sip, small plates of cheese, charcuterie, and olives are available to tide you over until it is time to meander to any one of the neighborhood’s almost-countless restaurants within a ten minute walk from Elsa’s front door.
But back briefly to the space itself: It bears repeating that ascribing just one aesthetic to it is to underplay how much of its own creature it is. When I mentioned that, as with the original, it had a prohibition-era energy, the Home Studios team countered, rightly, it really belongs more to right now. A careful selection of hand-made features are found everywhere and set the space apart from anything else you’ve seen: There are large, bulbous handblown light fixtures in a hue of blush pink, a raven black resin bar top, poured meticulously for this space, marble tabletops with subtle green accents, and dashes of pink piping that are pitted against maroon banquet and booth seating. Dramatic chandeliers hang above the bar and drip with crystals that were individually hand-screwed into their bases. And then, finally, there is the real pièce de résistance: the bathroom.
Inside, slats of mirrored glass, rather than wood (as appeared in the original), paired with marble counters, custom glass shelving, and strategically-placed lighting make the whole thing feel more like a trip to a time machine than a powder room (copious bathroom selfies have been posted online that demonstrate how glorious this is). It was the first time I had conducted part of an interview inside of a bathroom, but it felt right.
Open hour approached. We slurped down the rest of our drinks and said we’d get out of their hair to serve a brand new set of very excited neighbors, some of whom had poked their heads in while we talked to ask if, after waiting so long, Elsa had finally opened. Plus, I knew if I didn’t leave then, I’d be there all night drinking the rest of the menu.
As I walked out, having previously told Burian that I’d turned 27 at Elsa in the East Village, she suggested, “Have your next birthday here!” Seven years later, it seemed like as good of an idea as ever.
136 Atlantic Ave., Cobble Hill
All photos by Jane Bruce