The Bar Owner Who Turned Down Andy Warhol, an Excerpt From the Amazing Wildsam Guide to Brooklyn

Wildsam Brooklyn

© Kate LeSueur

By M. Elizabeth Sheldon Posted June 01, 2015

Founded in 2012, Wildsam produces pocket-sized travel guides that delve deep into the culture of some of our favorite cities, including Nashville, New Orleans and, starting this week, Brooklyn. Not your average guide book, the volume is jam-packed with a quirky collection of essays, interviews, restaurant guides and historical tidbits. For example, the new edition ranges from a recipe for the borough's original egg cream (the key is Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup) to a 1917 article about an explosion at the Domino Sugar Refinery and an inside look at what makes Mast Brothers Chocolate so successful. What follows is a condensed excerpt from one of our favorite sections of the guide, an eccentric interview with with local luminary Antonio "Sunny" Balzano, owner of legendary Red Hook bar Sunny's. Wildsam Brooklyn Field Guide, $17.95; wildsam.com. 

Antonio "Sunny" Balzano
Bar Owner

I was born right next door—in 1934—and I still live there. In those days Sunny's was called John's Bar and Restaurant. My uncle owned it. But my father, my aunts and uncles, everybody was working there. Sunny's isn't mine, it's ours. Back then, if you looked out at the river—the ships there—it was like the Long Island Expressway. Ships on each side of each pier. So right across the street were fifteen or twenty thousand people working. Come lunchtime, they'd fill the place. 

One day, I found a Cezanne painting in the street with bullet holes in it. It was raining that day, and it began to peel away from its backing. I liked it, so I brought it in. I began to fill in the bullet holes with toilet paper. I had watercolors and I restored it. I still have it. It's upstairs. 

I remember Andy Warhol came to me once and he said, "Sunny, I would like you to be in one of my movies." I said, "Andy, I really appreciate the offer, but I wouldn't want my mother to see it."

People always want your attention. But if you're bartending, and someone's talking to you, you always have an excuse. Being behind the bar, you're visible yet invisible. There is something sweet about that. 

Red Hook could be at the end of Montauk. It's a little village. The morning of Sandy, I don't know where they all came from, but volunteers showed up with pumps to pump out the basement, men to refurbish the floor. They saved it. 

Sunny's Bar is located at 253 Conover St. in Red Hook. It's open every day but Monday. The Saturday bluegrass jam starts at 10 p.m

Related: 
Great Places to Eat in Brooklyn
F&W Photo Tour: Brooklyn
New York Pizza Tour

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